Up until recently, I didn’t know that much about Arpenteur. I knew they were French, I knew that they made fancy smocks and I knew that they had a penchant for tough cotton twill, but beyond that, things were fairly cloudy.
In the same way that listening to a song gives you an idea of the person who wrote it, if you look at clothes hard enough you can often conjure up a picture of the people behind it.
But was my vague idea of the people at Arpenteur right? Were they really wine-swilling Frenchmen who worked in a humble wooden hut on a shingle beach, or were they just cool cats who knew how to make really, really good clothes? And where did that big dog on the labels come from?
I mithered Marc Asseily, one of the founding fathers (that’s him on the right of that photo above with his cousin Laurent), to find out the answers.
Portrait by Frédéric Marion, clothes-shots by Adam Hindmarch.
Maybe a bit of a dull way to start an interview, but how’s it going? What have you been up to today?
We went shopping for comics and records, had Alsace sandwiches for lunch, reviewed some samples and wrote a lot of e-mails.
We’ve sold Arpenteur for a few years now, but I’m going to admit that I don’t know too much about you lot. When did you start Arpenteur? And why did you start it?
We started in 2011. We’ve been obsessed with clothing for as long as we can remember and we thought that something local but fresh was missing. We enjoy our local culture and decided to let that translate naturally, along with non-local inspirations, into the clothes we make and everything we produce around them.
What’s your background? How did you get into making clothes?
Arpenteur is our first venture into making clothing. We’ve driven thousands of miles across the country to meet people from the garment industry.
Along the way we met a former factory owner from Bordeaux whose family business had been making beautiful work and hunting wear for many years under their own name first and then for the Japanese fashion house Zucca later in the 90’s and 2000’s. He shared a lot of his experience and helped us a lot to turn our idea into reality.
For those too lazy to find out for themselves, what does Arpenteur mean?
Arpenteur is the former French word for surveyor. It remains in the common language as the action of exploring, wandering around. It is also the nickname of a comic character created by Moebius for the Sci-Fi series Arzach.
My research suggests you’re based in Lyon. I’ve never been there before. What’s it like?
It’s laid-back and easy to navigate. It has a nice average size of one million inhabitants with nice infrastructure which means that you can enjoy simple things such as good food, cycling, going out for beers and gigs without being harassed or spending too much.
All of your stuff is made in France. Who makes it?
A handful of factories, most of them at driving distance from Lyon, some others in Brittany, Marseille, and the Toulouse area. It goes from little companies of four people to larger factories of about 12 to 30 people. Each of them specializes in one or a certain number of garment types. All of them miraculously survived. Most people in these factories have experience of 20 years and more.
How important is it to you that your clothes are made in France? Is it important to you?
There is a certain identity that we learnt to love about the clothing made by French factories. It is about the style, the gimmicks, the fabrics, the construction, the graphics and the mentality behind the product. It’s a complex mixture of things. It’s hard to sum up precisely but we get a clearer picture of it as we study more about vintage clothing and spend time chatting with the people at the factories.
We want Arpenteur to be a modern expression of that local garment culture so that it continues to exist.
Do you feel there’s a right way and a wrong way to make clothes?
Quality is important of course but it also must come from your heart. If you are not trying to create something new that you would really like to wear, it’s probably not worth it.
A bit of cultural background is also important. It’s nice when clothing makers let who they are and where they are from reflect in their work.
Where do your designs come from? Is a lot of it based on vintage stuff?
It’s an instinctive process that borrows from honest clothing from different places and times. It can be workwear with a certain toughness or cheap humble sportswear, as long as it is made for a purpose and has something that we can take and blend seamlessly with our own personal ideas.
I think people would be surprised if they saw some of our inspirations. We’ve sometimes picked up from pretty tacky looking clothing.
Haha, have you got any examples of this ‘tacky looking clothing’?
I don’t have any particular examples in mind, but the tacky stuff we sometimes look at is mostly 1980’s and 1990’s mall shirts and jeans with unwittingly clever detailing.
I suppose this is coming from an outsider’s perspective, but Arpenteur seems to come from a sort of romantic idea of France. Fishermen… Tin Tin… thick cotton… is this intentional? Or am I thinking too hard?
The French-Belgian comic vibe has been a major part of our education as kids. The taste for adventure and action in these books is a big inspiration indeed. We met the comic artist Régric to have our first illustrations done even before we had our very first clothing samples on hand.
Where does that curious looking dog on the logo come from?
We wanted to give our label an expressive character, a mascot, like the Lacoste crocodile. It is based on an old advert for a workwear company that had a rooster drawn in that particular, quirky industrial style. We kept the style but changed the animal. I hand drew what we wanted to be a bear but it actually ended up looking more like a dog.
That’s brilliant. Bears are pretty hard to draw. What do you get up to outside of Arpenteur? What’s your favourite film? Have you listened to any good albums lately? Read any good books?
I run a lot and collect 70’s and 80’s European comics. Laurent is a huge film buff. Lately we have been listening to Pat Metheny Group and other ECM jazz records, as well as mid 70s King Crimson and 90s rap EPs by Shadez of Brooklyn.
I recommend reading Modern Art by Joost Swarte because I think it is a perfect example of ‘clear line’ drawing style and a great collection of comics.
One last question. Comics have come up quite a few times in this interview. Which ones would you recommend to someone who wants to branch out beyond Tin Tin and Asterix?
If you are into the very classic, funny comics we recommend reading books by Jijé and the authors from the Spirou magazine team like Franquin, Morris and Peyo.
If you like underground sci-fi comics from the 70s and 80s we would recommend reading the early issues of Métal Hurlant and (A SUIVRE) magazines and look for artists that you like. The big problem is very few of these comics have been translated into English.
Here is a short list of books that have been translated; Modern Art by Joost Swarte, The Incal by Jodorowsky and Moebius, The 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane by Philippe Druillet, Marshall Blueberry: The Lost Dutchman’s Mine by Charlier and Giraud and Exterminator 17 by Bilal and Dionnet.
Comics are a medium of graphic expression. We like a good scenario, but the most important things for us when buying a comic book is the graphic and print quality.
So there you have it. See the new Arpenteur stuff here.