A MOVEABLE FEAST (from Ribbentrop's Chair)
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” (Ernest Hemingway, 1950)
On the 25th of January 1932 the Archives Commercial de la France read:
“Marcus Avadis, demeurant a Paris, 45 rue Damremont de commerce de Haute Couture & Modeles (Robes et Manteaus) qu’elle exploitait a Paris, 340 rue St Honore.”
There had been many revolutionary residents of the Rue St. Honore, the old Roman road in Paris’s 1st Arrondissement. Only four doors away in his lodgings at No. 348, Robespierre had plotted the French Revolution, and in the early 20th century a cultural revolution took place: 1922 saw the opening, at No. 28, of Louis Moyses’ cabaret club “Boeuf on the Roof”; a magnet for political activists, artistic iconclasts Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Andre Breton, and the ubiquitous Coco Chanel - largely thanks to whom the “Faubourg” quickly rose to become Paris’s premiere fashion street.
In 1928 Marcus and family were summoned to join the rest of the clan in Paris.
Whether it was a hunch based on falling orders from America or simply restlessness, Elias and Sarah had decided to emigrate to Brazil. They’d heard that Sao Paolo was fast becoming the new marketplace for French couture.
Marcus had been earning his bread and butter in London for over a decade, hawking Avadis designs around the department stores and creating his own pret a porter outfits, but when Jacques asked him to take over the family firm he grasped the opportunity without hesitation – or consultation with his wife. This was his birthright, after all: he’d moved to England to escape his brothers and strike out on his own, but now the time had come to take up his rightful place at the helm of their business.
Sarah and Sadie had met only once before in Paris – briefly, in 1914, after Sadie and Marcus’s wedding. In the intervening years Marcus had been travelling over from London by himself – for business – and undoubtedly for pleasure.
The two women hadn’t taken to each other the first time around and when they met again after 15 years the air crackled as they circled one another exchanging niceties - each noticing with satisfaction how much the other had aged. Time had taken its toll on Sadie, who was now 41 and heavier than she had been, but all Sarah had to show for 10 years of marriage to Elias and the raising of their three children were a slight down-turning of her pretty mouth and a wrinkle above her left eyebrow which was permanently cocked in disbelief.
Jacques’ wife Raymonde had cautioned Sadie about Sarah: “I wouldn’t trust her if I were you. She can be charming when she chooses, but she’s never nicer than she has to be. She is so duplicitous, you never really know which one of her you are talking to. ”
Sarah broke the ice. She strode across the room, smiled at her handsome brother in law and grasped Sadie’s cold hands. “Come on, let’s leave the boys to it and go look at some dresses. She was a head taller than Sadie, stylish in her short, sleeveless green shift, arms confidently bared. Sadie’s heart sank. As the wife of a designer she was burdened with the task of looking smart, but the current style for tubular knee-length dresses, oversized “wrap” coats and tiny head-hugging hats, all of which were designed to liberate women, couldn’t have been calculated to look worse on short-legged, big-busted Sadie. The pencil-slim fashions of the 1920s were wasted on her – she had no straight lines. Sadie felt adrift without her corsets and pined for her dark, inconspicuous clothes and sturdy shoes. She was out of her element in Paris and missed the comfort of her little flat, her quarrelsome sisters and the endless drizzle in Oxford Street. She’d settled comfortably into middle age. France was for holidays – she’d never asked to live here.
Sadie didn’t argue – her French wasn’t up to it. But she wasn’t about to allow her sister in law to feed off her discomfort, so she would avoid trying on dresses and look for a new handbag. Her grip tightened over her purse as she slowly followed Sarah out into the sun, eyes fixed firmly on the pavement.
Elias walked over to where Marcus had opened his portfolio out on a table heaped with swatches of fabric, coffee-stained, fray-edged sketchbooks and chewed pencil stubs. A cheap cigar smouldered in a saucer among the remains of many others. The daylight struggled in through a grimy window no one had thought to clean. Copies of Vogue and Gazette Du Bon Ton were piled up on the floor.
The two brothers were very alike – tall, with striking blue eyes – Elias blond, Marcus auburn, both with receding hairlines. In their twenties these two had strolled together arm in arm down the Boulevard St. Michel stirring ripples of pleasure in the crowd, lazed in the cafes of St. Germain until nightfall, hunted in Pigalle and staggered home at sunrise. And the brothers delighted in stealing things from one another – cuff links, girlfriends, ideas.
Elias’s sleeves were rolled up, his shirt collar open. One of his braces was twisted. Marcus, trying too hard to impress, was dressed like an English gentleman in a three-piece suit. Beads of sweat were breaking out on his brow. He slung his bowler over the tailor’s dummy by the window, parked his cane in the corner, threw his jacket over a chair and unknotted his tie. He was desperate for Elias to like his work.
He started enthusiastically: “Do you remember the Molyneux dresses we saw at Arts Decoratifs when I came over two years ago?”
Elias, who was terrified to find out how good his brother had become, interrupted with a chuckle: “Two YEARS ago?!”
“ … and those coats by Philippe et Gaston? Yes? Well these were the designs I sold to Derry & Toms last season. What do you think?” There were pages of delicate watercolour sketches: a matching dress and coat in dark green with gold chevrons down the front, a wide-sleeved Ottoman cord Bois de Rose coat, the collar and cuffs lavishly embroidered with silk flowers, and another in black Cotele, its straight lines emphasised with ciree ribbon, the collar and cuffs trimmed in gold tinsel braid.
Elias flipped through the pages quickly. “Oh yes”, he smiled. “I see exactly what you mean. Very good, very good! Although if it were me, I wouldn’t have bothered with the tinsel, but that’s just my taste.”
“That one was a best seller. The English love tinsel.”
“I think London’s always been a few years behind Paris … “
It took months for Elias to relinquish his hold and hand over the company over to Marcus, and the transition period was painful. Paris wasn’t big enough for the two of them. Marcus, the eternal optimist, had taken on more than he had bargained for. Within two years the American stockmarket had collapsed and the Great Depression had spread around the world like a plague infecting every national economy and every industry including fashion. Elias and Sarah lost their personal fortune, sold the Rolls, gave up their house in Neuilly, pulled the children out of school and sailed off to Brazil to start all over again.
The couture houses lost their wealthy clients and resorted to cheaper fabrics and affordable styles. Chanel introduced the “little black dress” and both she and Elsa Schiaparelli pioneered 2-piece suits for women in economical Jersey fabric. Under Marcus and Jacques’ management the House of Avadis shed personnel and shrank to two floors, but survived due to the brothers’ s hard work and sound grounding in tailoring, and they managed to keep the boat afloat and their families fed until the outbreak of WW2.
The fashion entrepreneurs worked hard and played hard. They conducted business in the street cafes during the day and at night in the smoke-filled bars and casinos – or in private, at each other’s homes .
During their time in the Rue St. Honore the Avadises were expected to take their turn holding dinner parties for their fellow designers including once, while Elias and Sarah were still in town, the Queen of Fashion herself. The siblings enjoyed entertaining. Esther and Ari were known for their warm hospitality and Esther’s homemade gateaux, and friends and associates vied for invitations to their parties. However when Chanel, in a rare moment of altruism or amnesia agreed to grace the family with her presence, Sarah decided the venue would be her and Elias’s large house in the leafy suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, as she considered the others’ apartments in Monmartre far too small, dark and pokey.
Sarah was no cook and always hired a chef so that she could join her guests and orchestrate the conversation, and on this occasion she suggested that Sadie, with her superior culinary skills but less than superior French, might like to dream up a beautiful menu and keep an eye on the chef and kitchen staff while charming Marcus, with his repertoire of tall stories and filthy jokes, could be what he was best at: the life and soul of the party.
The evening passed without incident and was considered a great success – the svelte, figure-conscious Chanel stayed long enough to get through the Ors d’hoevres and half a bottle of Chateau Margaux. She said very little, but, careful not to compliment her hosts on anything significant, looked closely at her napkin ring and said “I like these. Where did you buy them?” Fellow guest Nina Ricci, a neighbour of the Avadises (whom Chanel considered common and detested for her street-savvy commercialism) did her best to entertain Madame with bitchery about the miserly wages, squalid conditions and 14-hour days at the House of Raffin; Marcus told her the one about *the playwright and the duchess and made her laugh out loud - and Sadie, forced to spend most of her time in the kitchen, conjured up a fine banquet which was a matter of personal pride, as was the impressive restraint with which she conquered her almost overwhelming desire to skewer Chanel with one of her own hat pins.
After the Great Depression of the 1930s public mood changed again. There was a political swing to the right and a cultural backlash, and the traditional view of woman returned: skirts grew longer and waists and busts came back. Colours were bleached: white represented purity and clean living – a reaction to the “decadent” ‘20s. And as turmoil swept once more across Europe another short, glorious period of optimisim and freedom came to an end.
After their well-timed move to Sao Paolo Elias kept his promise to Sarah and their boutique next to Vogue House on Marconi Street (according to Gabriella Pascaloto, the first shop to stock Ferragamo shoes in Brazil) was indeed named after Sarah, as were their outlets in Rue Richer, Aix-Les-Bains and London after the 2nd WW. So “Avadis Freres” became in due course “S. Avadis” and for them, at least, a new era had began.
* George Bernard Shaw was at a smart party once, talking to a beautiful duchess. He told her that everyone would agree to do anything for money if the price was high enough. “Surely not” she said. “Oh yes” he replied. “Well I wouldn’t!” “For instance”, he said, “Would you sleep with me for a million pounds?” “Well, um – well maybe for a million pounds I would, yes.” “And would you do it for ten shillings?” “Certainly not! What do you take me for? A prostitute?!” “We’ve established that already” said Shaw, “Now we’re just trying to fix your price.”