This interview with the Arpenteur lads first appeared in a Pica~Post zine a few years ago, but seeing as we've just got some new bits from the French work-wear masters, now seemed like an alright time to give it another look;
If you’re reading this, there’s a 59% chance that you’ve already heard of Arpenteur.
But for that remaining 41%, here’s a few interesting facts...
- Arpenteur is a clothing company.
- The name is French for ‘surveyor’.
- It was founded in 2011 by two cousins.
- All their stuff is made in France.
- They like cotton smocks.
It’s basically the sort of stuff you’d wear if you were wandering a desolate beach in search of wave-worn pebbles that reminded you of a long lost lover, or perhaps you were sat slowly supping a glass of red wine on the cobbled streets of a distant Alpine village... if any of that makes sense?
We interviewed them a few years ago, back when we first started stocking their wares, but when we heard that main-men Marc (on the left in that picture above) and Laurent (on the right) were in Manchester for an afternoon, it seemed only right to charge up the Dictaphone batteries and have a good ol’ pow-wow...
Sam: I did an interview with you lot a few years back over e-mail. How have things changed since then? Have things changed?
Marc: When was the last interview?
Sam: I’m not sure. Maybe two years ago?
Marc: It hasn’t changed much actually. We prefer to go at a very slow pace. We are very focussed on our clothes, trying to evolve and improve step by step.
Sam: Yeah, I suppose the people who wear it and buy it will notice that something has moved or changes slightly.
Marc: For instance, we make a knitted jacket called the Roscoff. It’s the fourth version, and although it may appear to be the same jacket, it evolved significantly since the first version.
Laurent: It’s like in some newspapers there are little comics with two of the same pictures with seven differences. It’s the same with some of our designs. From one version to the other, only maybe the zip or the lining will be different.
Sam: Do you think a lot of people change too fast? A lot of stuff isn’t given time to develop before the next load of stuff comes out.
Marc: We won’t scrap a design. Very often we try to keep an idea and change it until it gets better. But once you add a new step, you want to add another new step. It’s endless.
Sam: How did this start? Have you always worked with clothes?
Marc: Actually, we come from totally different jobs.
Laurent: I was in the movie business. I studied cinematography and was a production manager.
Sam: Do you take much inspiration from films? I know that a lot of designers will take things from obscure films or something subtle hardly anyone noticed.
Laurent: It could be someone on the street or maybe a photograph.
Marc: I think it’s got to come from somewhere. Sometimes I’m inspired by clothing that I think I’ve seen before, but then I’m not sure if it’s just something that I imagined.
Sam: Yeah, sometimes you can get inspiration from something you remember, then when you see it you’ll realise it was nowhere near as good as you thought it was.
Marc: Sometimes it’s better not to see any existing original item beforehand. I’d picture something in my head first and then try to find similar reference garments to use as technical guides.
Sam: Like reading a book and filling in the blanks?
Marc: Yeah, but when we get to the technical aspect of the clothing, we need references. We often look at vintage, but not necessarily very old items. We’ll look at stuff from as old as the 50s, but also things from the 80s and 90s. We try to cook from different eras and to leave space to our imagination.
Sam: I remember you saying before that you got a lot of inspiration from what you described as ‘tacky clothing’.
Laurent: Sometime you can get clever details from stuff like that. It’s all a matter of context. You can take something from a cheesy context, and make it a bit more beautiful, and why not? We don’t believe a beautiful design has to come from a beautiful source.
Sam: Not many people do what you lot are doing. I suppose it’s workwear, but it’s not the usual Americana stuff you see everywhere.
Marc: Although we like work wear and it will always be an inspiration, for us it goes beyond that. We try to make clothing we’d like to wear; with a homespun, casual vibe that we like to believe is our own. Laurent: It’s just having a different point of view on French culture.
Marc: It sometimes starts in the factories. We’ll look at what they’ve made before. Sometimes there’ll be archive garments or fabric scraps left. That’s the specialty of making in France — it’s getting to see what’s possible locally and adding in our own influences.
Sam: How important is the French thing. Do you ever see things like maybe an old American jacket, and think, “We’d love to make something like that, but it wouldn’t fit.”
Marc: In Europe we have a history of interpreting American culture in clothing, for better or worse. We sometimes find products from old French jeans companies who tried to mimic American style in a slightly awkward and cheesy way, and for us that’s very interesting.
"You can take something from a cheesy context, and make it a bit more beautiful, and why not? We don’t believe a beautiful design has to come from a beautiful source."
The result is an honest interpretation made with what was to hand locally. So if we were to draw inspiration from Americana, maybe we’d ask ourselves, “How could we make something slightly off, but in a local way?”
Sam: Do you have to avoid stuff looking ‘too old’ sometimes. Is it a conscious decision to avoid it becoming like fancy dress?
Laurent: I think it is conscious, and it’s important to us that we don’t look like a vintage brand. We’re doing garments for today. Our garments couldn’t have been made in the olden days. Our eyes are from now.
Marc: We need to be true to ourselves. We grew up in the 90s. We grew up with the Internet. The clothes are an extension of who we are.
Sam: What clothes did you wear growing up?
Marc: In my case it was skateboard clothing, because that was part of my education in style and music. That’s very common to many teenagers to see how people dress in skate videos or how the locals dress, and go to skate shops. This is a nice introduction to clothing for young people in my opinion.
Sam: Yeah, you’re not necessarily thinking about clothes, but you want to buy the clothes that other people wear. It’s quite an honest thing. It’s functional. What were you into Laurent?
Laurent: I wasn’t that into skateboarding as a teenager. I think this might sound a bit funny, but I was more into a mix of sportswear clothing and remnants of bourgeois style... Lacoste polos, simple sweaters and tracksuits.
Sam: I suppose that’s the age you start to make your own decisions a bit. Changing the subject slightly, how do comics come into all this? You’ve used very French looking comics and illustration in your labels and stuff since you first started.
Laurent: We’re really into it. We love the aesthetics, and it’s been with Arpenteur from the very beginning. We use the comics to suggest an atmosphere around it. It’s kind of an extension of the clothing.
Marc: This style of drawing is a big part of French pop culture, so for us it’s natural to reference it, as it’s what we grew up with. We chose to illustrate Arpenteur this way because we think it is timeless.
Laurent: Usually, fashion is associated with photography and film, but for us comics were just another way to see things. It’s like associating it with an abstract painting or a piece of music. It gives it a different atmosphere. It’s something that gives you specific emotions.
Marc: With Régric the illustrator, we try and translate what is in our head when we are working on a new collection. I think it’s the most expressive part of our brand. It sets the tone.
Sam: It sums it up very nicely.
Marc: And because it's an abstract style it leaves space to imagination.
Sam: You obviously put a fair bit of thought into your clothes. This is maybe a bit of a heady question, but why do you think people can have such attachments to something as simple as an item of clothing?
Marc: I’m not sure. But here is one of the reasons why we produce in France. It’s because of the value we attach to a product that is not material. It’s like when you go to some place as a tourist, and you want to buy a souvenir — you want to buy the souvenir that was made in that place. You don’t want to buy something that’s been imported.
Or maybe it’s like the difference between a real painting and a very well made reproduction? It’s about authenticity. This is why you always attach value to the jumper you owned as a little boy — it’s not just a sweater, it has emotional value.
Sam: Do you think people can often overlook European culture? Or French culture in your case?
Marc: Not so much culture, as major French fashion culture is very well respected, but I feel that clothing that isn’t high fashion had been overlooked until the internet made it better.
Sam: Things like old work jackets and more normal, everyday clothes?
Marc: Yes, for me that’s the starting point of what we do. Trying to take normal clothing to a blurred frontier where you’re not sure if it’s some homespun piece or a modern creation.
Laurent: For instance, here you see Barbour jackets all over the place. But in France you won’t see a local French outerwear company worn in the same way. It doesn’t exist anymore.
Sam: What about French cinema? Are there still good films coming out of France?
Laurent: French cinema isn’t what it used to be. Globally, I think movies are less interesting today than they used to be. It comes from money. Producers need to take risks on new things. I believe TV shows are more interesting than the movies now. It’s a different way to tell a story.
Sam: I suppose with you being into films Laurent, and Marc being into comics, how do the clothes come into this. Do you think there’s ‘cinematic qualities’ to what you make, if that makes sense? Are these the sort of things you’d imagine characters wearing?
Marc: If I did comics, the characters wouldn’t wear Arpenteur.
Sam: Haha, what would they wear? Weirder stuff?
Marc: Spacesuits maybe.
Laurent: I think I would use Arpenteur clothing in a film. Arpenteur is a reflection of today and so it would leave a little trace. I think it’s important for future people to see how some of us dressed at a certain point.
Sam: Definitely. Okay, we’ve talked for a fair while now. Last question... Arpenteur is very much its own thing. Was that your intention — to create something new?
Laurent: Yeah, we started the brand to do our own thing. If we copied the best brands of today, it would just be a copy.
Marc: It’s about not compromising. For instance, we never did five pockets jeans because there’s so many people that can do them better than we can. Maybe, as we said before, we could find a way to make them ‘off’, and then they’d be right for us. Until then, we’re not going to make a weaker version of something that already exists.