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The Tribute

What French Men Can Teach You About Style

From Mr Jean-Paul Belmondo to Mr Yves Saint Laurent – sartorial lessons from our pals across the Channel

  • Mr Yves Saint Laurent at his home, El Hanch, in Marrakech, Morocco, March 1972. Photograph by Mr Reginald Gray/Shutterstock

When it comes to French style, you can’t move for books telling you about how French women do it: how they stay thin, how they wear black, how they slap their children and so on. Pause for a second, though, and you will realise that French men have been just as dominant, too.

Our cousins across the Channel have always known the importance of mode of dress. They’ve invested a lot of power in it. When King Louis XIV centred his court in Versailles, he developed long, convoluted codes about which nobles could wear what, safe in the knowledge that making them fuss over their wigs would distract them from other tasks, such as, say, challenging him. The Sun King’s panache lived on, and what panache he had, even after his descendant got the chop. Fast forward and the current French president, Mr Emmanuel Macron, always looks well turned out, in a way that certain other modern presidents do not.

The French “look” certainly varies, although if there’s one thing that binds the nation’s style together, it is the undone quality and the omnipresence of a single, strong accessory, most often a cigarette. But mystery remains the salient point. In other words, if you ever see a book titled Why French Men Look Great And Rule Everything, don’t think, just buy it.

Mr Jacques de Bascher

  • Mr Jacques de Bascher in Paris, 1979. Photograph by Mr Guy Marineau

It’s not that the French don’t know how to do excess, it’s just that they seem to wear it so lightly. That’s the story of Mr Jacques de Bascher, at least at first. Mr de Bascher was your archetypal social butterfly, a fixture of cult Parisian nightclub Le Palace throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and Mr Karl Lagerfeld’s companion for nearly 20 years. Indeed, his chief achievement is that he always went toe-to-toe with the Kaiser, style-wise. “He didn’t dress like anyone, he was ahead of everyone,” said Mr Lagerfeld.

Mr de Bascher’s look was, for the time, already retro – all plumed hats, cravats and his signature exaggeratedly large bow ties – but it suited his slight physique and luxuriant moustache. The style was that of a dandy, but it was never twee, probably because of his obvious mischievousness. Mr de Bascher’s stints in the workplace never worked out: he was sent home from the navy after nine months for “misbehaving”. His parties and orgies were notorious, and though he lived with Mr Lagerfeld, he also managed a fling with Mr Yves Saint Laurent. Sadly, he died of Aids in 1989, aged 38. “He was also impossible and despicable,” said Mr Lagerfeld, who named a perfume, Jako, after him, adding: “He was perfect.”

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Mr Hedi Slimane

  • Mr Hedi Slimane at the end of the Celine SS19 show in Paris, September 2018. Photograph by Ms Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Getty Images

Fashion may rely on hype, but it really is hard to undersell the impact of Mr Hedi Slimane. Few aesthetics have been as influential, or as persistent, as the one pushed by the designer and photographer. From a quick first stint at Yves Saint Laurent menswear, to Dior Homme, back to SAINT LAURENT (his first rebrand), and now at a very “Slimaned” Celine, he has spent more than two decades pushing a strict silhouette offset by louche stylings. While music journalists ponder whether rock ’n’ roll is dead, Mr Slimane turns up every season and reminds them that it absolutely is not. The famous skinny look he promulgated – skinny tie, skinny jeans, skinny everything, more often than not in black – was the defining look of the 2000s and continues to be influential.

The man himself follows it to the letter. Take a look at his own wardrobe and you’ll see he sticks rigorously to the basics. His knack for the severe is summed up in the way he notoriously knocked the accent off “old” Céline, as though it were an indulgence too far. Then again, he knows how to ramp it up when necessary, as his recent shows for the fashion house attest. In other words, resistance is futile; Mr Slimane is always ahead of the curve. He lived in Berlin before it became a stag-do staple, he moved to Los Angeles when everyone thought it was just Hollywood and he still defines Parisian style, no matter how many times he ups and leaves the city.

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Mr Jean-Paul Belmondo

  • Mr Jean-Paul Belmondo, Paris, June 1960. Photograph by Mr Luc Fournol/Photo12

So many great French actors could make this list, but there’s something so distinctive and endearing about Mr Jean-Paul Belmondo, or, as the French call him, “Bébel”. He remains preserved in aspic as the star of the New Wave classic Breathless (A Bout de Souffle), romancing Ms Jean Seberg in a strong selection of roomy suits, perfectly perched hats and cigarettes. If you survey his career, you’ll notice that he has always held his own alongside the most beautiful women in the world, from Ms Jeanne Moreau and Ms Sophia Loren to Ms Claudia Cardinale and, in real life, Ms Ursula Andress, his partner for seven years.

Aside from all the cigarettes, Mr Belmondo has always had three things working in his favour: his nose, his tan and his grin. He’s at his best looking as leathery as a Louis Vuitton monogram weekend bag, a gold chain glinting on his chest, beaming at something in the middle distance. Probably une femme.

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Mr Yves Saint Laurent

  • Mr Yves Saint Laurent at his home, El Hanch, in Marrakech, Morocco, March 1972. Photograph by Mr Reginald Gray/Shutterstock

It’s hard to know where to start with Mr Yves Saint Laurent, a man whose personal style rivalled his groundbreaking designs. A titan of French fashion for more than 50 years, Mr Saint Laurent lived most of his life in public, and although he often struggled with this privately – he was painfully shy – he always took care to put his best foot forward, often in tandem with his life and business partner, Mr Pierre Bergé.

Mr Saint Laurent’s style is particularly associated with his large, thick-rimmed glasses. They’re almost goggles, which probably helped him deal with the glare of publicity. Most images show him in a suit with a thick collar and a smart tie, but he often slipped his slim frame into a simple T-shirt and flared jeans, or wore a delicate djellaba, a legacy of his long love affair with Morocco. Mr Saint Laurent worked his way through the style landmine that was the 1970s and came out of it unscathed – enhanced, even.

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Mr Eddy de Pretto

  • Mr Eddy de Pretto outside the FW19 AMI show in Paris, January 2019. Photograph by Cover Images

At 26, Mr Eddy de Pretto represents a new wave of Gallic sound and style. The son of a truck driver from one of Paris’ banlieues, he’s also a reminder that French chic allows for rough edges. Last year the singer-songwriter’s debut album, Cure, which showcases a very French mix of rap and chanson, went to number one. The fashion industry loves him, too: he’s already been seen at Chanel and Gucci shows, and wearing Prada’s cult Flames bowling shirt.

Mr de Pretto’s style has plenty of global appeal thanks to snazzy jackets, chunky sneakerstracksuits and beanies. But his choices still feel very French: a judicious selection, a refusal to get too lost in any weird, trend-based looks, and a sober use of colour – a cherry-red hat is as far as he will go. Any boldness he lacks in his clothing is more than present in his music; Mr de Pretto is gay, and his songs tackle the clash between what people like to think he might be, and who he actually is. Got to love a man with layers.

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