On Mulberry Street in Nolita, a sign in the window of a narrow boutique proclaimed goods from Quimper.
Up swam the image of the road sign on the outskirts of my home city: “Welcome to Limerick, Twinned with Quimper, France.” A name pronounced with a Breton bang, not a whimper: Kam-pare.
Looking at the striped shirts in the window, I realized that it was 25 years since I’d spent a summer as a jeune fille au pair in Quimper. The two strawberry-blonde girls I’d looked after, Amelie and Sophie, were now matrons of 30 and 32, the same ages their mother and father were then. It was possible they were singing “Gentil Coquelicot” to children of their own. It was possible they would hire Limerick teenagers to babysit this summer.
That July was the bicentenary of the French Revolution. I don’t remember much of the commemoration, beyond a few fireworks and trying to follow Gerard Depardieu in the Danton repeats on Canal Plus. Mine are the pre-internet memories of a lonely 17-year-old, keeping watch for the postman who brought letters from the boyfriend back home, and sneaking slabs of chocolate up to my room to eat at night in torn baguettes. Chocolate sandwiches; more evidence of French genius. Those were a better salve for my misery than then the vinegar that was supposed to repel mosquitos. I splashed it on my skin and placed saucers of it around my bed to trip over, but the Quimper mosquitos took it as a condiment, and were as ravenous as drunks outside a chipper.
The family had a Minitel terminal in the living room, and Jacques, the dad, showed me how it worked. I have hazy grayscale memories of television program listings, and some of way of paying local council bills. I didn’t see a future of Spotify and eBay. It seemed a bit like having the Motor Tax Bureau in your house—handy, but hardly desirable.
I spent the days watching the French Smurfs, who, it turned out, were Belgian, vaguely racist, and called Les Schtroumpfs. The nuns in the convent three doors down gave me cherry brandy, and I decided that they fancied the refined Irish Jesuit who had arranged my stay. In the evenings I slouched in the town square with a book and my Walkman, turning over the Van Morrison cassette my boyfriend had given me for my birthday. I wished I had someone to invite me to the creperies and bars.
The loneliness was worth it. I ate new things, wrote letters and learned French. And then I went home, and the Berlin Wall fell, and Ireland qualified for the World Cup, and I forgot all about Quimper, beyond a private nod every few years at that sign on the way into Limerick.
I was the only visitor in that Mulberry Street store on that rainy Thursday afternoon a few weeks back. I wasn’t a customer—I didn’t want to buy a striped fisherman’s shirt for $125. (I have a suspicion that they’re so 2012, but I live in Seattle, so I can’t be sure.) I just wanted to say, “Quimper?”
An open-faced Swede was minding the store. He looked famous, and though I couldn’t put a name to his famous twin, I seemed to have pre-warmed feelings to transfer. My Quimper-Swede had grown up on a farm four hours north of Stockholm, himself and a brother, out in all weathers and running free in hard-wearing clothes. He showed me the nubby woolen undershirts and long johns that are Swedish army issue, and told me how well they retain heat when they’re soaked. It was May. I didn’t want woolen long johns either. I wheeled around and patted some hemp t-shirts to keep him chatting about the clothes of northern Europe, and their superpowers.
I recognized the Stutterheim raincoats that appeared in one of Seattle’s hipster boutiques this winter, tagged with an elaborate story about the power of Melancholy and Creativity—yes, capitalized—in the Swedish artistic tradition, within which these raincoats have situated themselves. They are based on the traditional raincoats that were worn by “generations of Swedish fishermen,” as well as various Swedish geniuses. Bergman was mentioned. The taped seams “quoted” the original coats, according to the tags and brochures—much as Tarantino might, you assume. The hood had a special shape that made it easy to look to sideways crossing the street, should you still care about life over death. The racing green version was a tribute to the designer’s grandfather’s 60’s Jaguar, but also to the forests of the Island Arholma. Each coat was signed by the seamstress who had sewn it.
These auteurist raincoats had made me laugh in Seattle in February, and in itself that was worth a good half-minute’s consideration about buying a four-hundred dollar cycling poncho. I resisted.
Those Quimper shirts that were the stars of the window display had their own biography, too. They were designed by a Breton fisherman and adopted by the French Navy, who between them seem to draw more glamorous following than their Swedish counterparts. These are the very shirts we’ve seen on Chanel and Picasso, on Seberg and Bardot, on lovable Jean-Paul Gaultier, on Alexa Chung and Cara Delevigne. They are still made on the same knitting machines in the factory that produced the originals in 1938, woven tightly enough to make the shirts slightly stiff and boxy. Now there’s an organic, fair trade cotton version, and children’s sizes, and yellow stripes as well as blue. Do not think the stripes are frivolous: they are intended to make men overboard visible on the waves, and the 21 stripes, it is said, represent each of Napoleon’s victories.
Write a story on that copybook shirt, and charge five bucks a line. Lend me a Swedish grandad to go with the long johns and a French granny for the sheepskin slippers. Tear up an H&M halter top, and replace it with an instant heirloom. Trace me a heritage, weave me a lineage, and tell me, oh please tell me, who I am.
My affable Swede knew exactly what ministry he was in.
He had trained as a physicist, and once worked at a particle collider lab in Switzerland. Not that one: a smaller collider, bigger particles. He discovered that he liked what textiles can do. There’s a fabric now, he says, that uses carbon nanotubes to bounce bullets. It’s not stiff like Kevlar, which tries to spread the force. It’s as soft as waxed cotton, but when hit, it rebounds ballistic force. We agreed that it can only be a matter of time before the Swedish Army and the French Navy place their orders. I looked at him and saw the same globe-bouncing resilience. Who wouldn’t want to be a Scandinavian Millennial?
People are tired of disposable, he says. They want craft, they want stuff that works and lasts. It’s a good business to wake up the old heritage brands—or make them up—and make people feel interesting for discovering them. That’s what he and his partners do, though he didn’t put it in those words. The Americans are at it too, re-making Filson and Pendleton, inventing Shinola. You learn that this is the last raincoat you will ever need, assuming that your need for a raincoat is based on repelling raindrops. When the rain soaks your ankles, you have the only long johns you’ll ever need, assuming that you bought them to conserve your latent heat and not your latent identity.
These are northern clothes for hard work in dank weather, but the real graft goes into the myths, not the seams. It’s done by the artisans, laboring over concepts deep into the night. The curators, crossing the seas to select, reject and juxtapose. The founders, forging origin myths and riveting features onto canvas. They are tireless and bright-eyed, and they will always find more for you to need.
Miles and years have collapsed. Everything has joined us in the endless cycling present, and I can’t tell any more if that’s middle age talking or internet age, but I am streaming Nouvelle Vague’s deadpan Frenchy cover of Road to Nowhere as I write this, and it’s so soothing that they were three verses in before I heard David Byrne’s warnings.
Amelie and Sophie, those little Breton girls who once stayed put in 1989, appear in seconds when I search for a name and a place. They are both still in Quimper, but they’re also on a screen in Seattle. There’s Amelie, grown now but still round-faced and strawberry blonde and—bizarrely—cuddling a huge white rabbit. The French version of LinkedIn says she does logistics for a maritime import-export company, which could mean that she sends striped shirts to New York City to be sold to the likes of me. And Sophie, it seems, is in a similar line, with sadder results. She is serving a suspended sentence for helping a coke dealer to rent cars and move money.
I wish I had left her safely back in 1989 watching the Belgian Smurfs, but Google itches like a Quimper mosquito bite, and I’m compelled know more than is wise.