The police knocked at around six in the morning. Luckily, Brigitte Lupesco has always been an early riser—even back then in 1974. Already out of bed and able to think on her feet, she opened the apartment door. Not completely sure as to why two of Brussels' finest were staring her in the face, she began with a tentative, "Qu’est-ce qu’il se passe?"
One of the officers said, “We’re here to see Pierre Lupesco.”
Brigitte’s face fell. She suddenly looked as though she would cry. When she spoke, her voice trembled. “If you find him,” she begged the cops, “please tell me. That guy left with what little money I had. So please—you tell me.”
Now it was the cops’ expressions that changed. Visibly shaken by the outrageous conduct of this Pierre scoundrel, they apologized profusely to poor Brigitte and departed, never to bother her again.
Two days later, Pierre called from New York. He said, “You have to come here."
Brigitte, happily married as ever, told her loving husband, “Well, you can’t come back here, anyway. The police came by to arrest you.”
When my friends at Shockoe Denim changed their business name to Shockoe Atelier earlier this year, I cringed. Granted, at the time I had no idea what atelier meant. But to my uncultured, public-school-barbarian ears, the word sounded pretentious—distinctly high fashion.
Atelier brought to mind a series of gruesome images: 6'4" male models in unbuttoned shirts, sucking in their cheeks; barely legal women scuttling across catwalks, their rickety young bodies lavished with ostrich feathers and furs; store clerks in upscale shops raising the avoidance of eye contact to an art form; wristwatch reps at Liberty Fairs NYC, peering down mercilessly upon me with supreme contempt, as only wristwatch reps at Liberty Fairs NYC can.
In short, the new name of the Shockoe business sounded absolutely nothing like the people who ran that business.
A few weeks before making the call to Brigitte, Pierre stood outside his friend’s Manhattan apartment. He lowered his two suitcases onto the sidewalk and raised an arm. A yellow cab pulled to the curb. Opening the back door, Pierre took a shot in the dark.
The Haitian driver smiled.
It was a phenomenal stroke of luck. Pierre had expected to hail several taxis before finding a driver who spoke either French, Italian, or Romanian—but as usual, the young clothing designer had good fortune on his side. Settling into the back seat, Pierre said, “Take me to the street with the nicest men’s clothing.” Arriving at Madison Avenue, he gathered his suitcases and bid adieu to the cabbie. Up and down the street, Pierre made his way through streams of tourists with their shopping bags, holding tight to his luggage.
At every men’s shop that looked halfway promising, he stopped in long enough to ask:
No, no, no—shop after shop—until finally Pierre met Raolf, who hailed from Tunisia and spoke French. This discovery of a shared language was somewhat ironic. When Pierre opened his suitcases, words were no longer necessary.
Nobody at Shockoe struck me as being the least bit atelier.
Brigitte and Pierre have been in the fashion industry for 40-plus years, designing and selling their own clothing line in New York, operating their own shops in Brussels and D.C., and on at least one occasion eating home-cooked pasta with Enrico Isaia—all without ever taking themselves too seriously. Today they pepper their conversation with jokes, mostly at their own expense. When Brigitte describes first meeting Pierre, she says, “I was going to school, and he was being a dirty old man.” Without missing a beat, Pierre responds, “That was in the evening. During the day I was pretending to be a journalist.”
Their son, Anthony, dropped out of college at age 19 to open his first shop. Six years later, he dove head-first into the saturated jeans market, launching Shockoe Denim with Pierre in 2012. And now, having defied the odds by establishing Shockoe Denim as a standout jeans brand, Anthony is taking another risk, one that necessitated the name change—and that has inspired a chorus of naysayers to warm up their singing voices.
Among the extended Shockoe family, Matt Rho has a rare generosity of presence. When you stop him on a crowded trade-show floor, he stays with you throughout the entire conversation, never once scanning over your shoulder for someone more important to talk to. A shop owner in Chicago recently told me, “Matt is too nice. He stays so calm, no matter what happens. I was hoping some of it would rub off on me.”
Robert Nolley arrives to work every day accompanied by the love of his life, a female pit-bull mix named Billie. While Billie sleeps at his feet, Robert plies his craft with scissors and knives at the Shockoe cutting table. (Robert also has the most delightfully off-putting Mark McNairy meet-and-greet photograph you’re likely to ever see.)
Directly behind Robert, a team of seamstresses led by Brigitte joke and tease each other, their laughter drowning out the constant chug of sewing machines. At the industrial press in the corner, Ian Jennings adds hardware to each pair of jeans, riveting pockets and lining flies with rows of buttons. (If you were at Shockoe's recent "Rites of Spring" party, you might have seen Ian in the flesh, standing shirtless over a vanquished wrestling opponent on the shop floor, blond hair hanging past his shoulders, muscles flexed, open mouth letting out a primal roar.)
These people are the salt of the earth. To me, atelier sounded like the cream inside an éclair.
While visiting with Raolf, Pierre had no way of knowing that in 40 years he would sit in a workshop—excuse me: atelier—in Richmond, Virginia, and pose this rhetorical question: “How do you define soul in a suit? I don't even know if the words have been invented yet. The fact is that you can see it. You feel it.”
In 1974, Raolf both saw it and felt it.
Pierre opened his suitcases and started handing Raolf garments: a suit jacket, then the matching trousers, then a shirt, and then another jacket. Raolf held each item up at arm’s length, admiring the cut of the pattern, the hand of the fabric, the ticking on the lapels, the stitching details along the seams—all the small decisions that Pierre had made in pursuit of that rarest of things: soul. With the entire collection spread out in front of him, Raolf nodded and said “Oui, bien sûr.” Yes, of course; he would be happy to place an order, becoming the first American shop to carry Linea Pitti, the clothing line designed by Pierre himself.
(Translating to English as “The Pitti Line,” the name borrowed—and rather generously so—from the growing reputation of a certain small, invitation-only menswear show in Italy.)
When the two men finished with business, Pierre asked Raolf, “Do you know anybody in town where I can go to show my merchandise?” Raolf shook his head. “Here in New York,” he explained to Pierre, “they don’t understand this kind of advanced fashion and high price points.” Boston, though, was a different story. As opposed to New Yorkers, it was generally accepted that the people of Boston had an innate appreciation for haute couture.
“I have a good friend there called Louis,” Raolf told Pierre. “If you want to go there, I can arrange an appointment.”
During its first two years, Shockoe only made jeans. But when I visited Richmond, Virginia last December, I found Anthony working on a full menswear collection.
It was clear that the company name would have to change. With a complete line of shirts, vests, blazers, and outerwear on the way, the name “Shockoe Denim” would no longer suffice. For several weeks I wondered how they would handle the transition from a branding point of view. Then one day my Instagram feed introduced me to Shockoe Atelier. By now, you’re aware of my initial reaction.
Nobody else, to my knowledge, cares about the name. I only do because I’m preoccupied with words. However, everyone in that aforementioned chorus of naysayers places great importance on the new menswear collection, as we'll see. But here’s the thing: I don't really care about the name change, and the naysayers don't really care about the clothing.
What we really care about is the apparent contradiction that the new name and the new collection represent. Ever since Shockoe launched, we’ve known the company for its American-made jeans. We wore those jeans, sold those jeans, sang the praises of those jeans from on high.
Then came the name change and menswear collection, which together marked a radical departure from Shockoe’s previous jeans-centric approach.
Depending on whom you listen to, Shockoe has pivoted, or transitioned, or undergone a line expansion, or made an about-face, or executed a 180-degree turn—but everyone agrees that something has happened here.
I propose that it goes deeper than names and clothing.
I mean, it must go deeper than that. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had an allergic reaction to atelier. Two different shop managers in Chicago wouldn’t have responded to me asking, “What do you think of the new Shockoe collection?” in the same way—by cocking their heads like curious dogs and saying, “I … don’t … know … man” in the halting sing-song of someone trying to talk a friend out of a bad idea. A certain online retailer wouldn’t have previewed the collection last January in New York and—so I’m told—blurted out, “What the fuck are you guys thinking?”
Two baby-alpaca coats, at $1850 and $2150? A pair of pea coats, one made with indigo-dyed herringbone and the other New Zealand wool? A vest with double-faced fabric? Fifteen shirts with cutaway collars? Atelier? What happened to Shockoe Denim? We liked Shockoe Denim. We understood it. But now? This?
What the fuck are you guys thinking?
I think I know what the fuck these guys are thinking.
I think they're thinking it’s still New York, 1974. And I think they still have the taste of blood in their mouths.
Anthony Lupesco walks us through Shockoe Atelier's debut menswear collection.
Pierre assumed that Boston was a suburb of New York. When he discovered the need for a plane ticket, he took it in stride, having learned long ago to follow his life’s adventure as it unfolded. At age 16, as a member of Romania’s junior-champion basketball team, he awoke one morning in Vienna to find that his coaches and secret-service detail had gone missing, along with all of the players’ money and identification.
Once in Boston, Pierre discovered that Louis, despite his promising first name, did not in fact speak French. Thankfully, the two men could converse in Italian. Louis placed his order and—downplaying Raolf’s assessment of Boston as a fashion mecca—insisted that Pierre leave for San Francisco without a moment to lose. As luck would have it, Louis just happened to know a shopkeeper there.
In San Francisco, Pierre’s enthusiastic host placed an order and quickly scheduled a meeting with Guy Greengard, who owned the Mr. Guy boutique in Beverly Hills. Greengard bought the collection and immediately sent Pierre back across the country to the Ultimo shop in Chicago. With purchase order in hand, the Ultimo owner rushed Pierre out the door to New Orleans, and from there the designer once again headed west, this time to Seattle.
In all, Pierre zig-zagged across America for three weeks, selling his collection to the nation’s top 12 men’s specialty stores, without speaking a word of English or knowing anyone.
At each stop along the way, Pierre called Brigitte. She didn’t like the sound of Raolf. (Sure enough, Raolf is 41 years late paying his bill.) Otherwise, she shared Pierre’s obvious excitement. His voice came through crystal clear on the cross-Atlantic wires, without a trace of the frustration or pestering doubt that sometimes crept into their conversations back in Europe.
At some point, I bothered to find out what atelier actually, you know, means. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, atelier designates “a workshop or studio, especially one used by an artist or designer.”
Ah-ha. Well, OK then. Now we were getting somewhere.
When I talk to people about Shockoe, I don’t mention fabric, fit, or anything else about the product—at least not initially.
Instead, I talk about the room where the product is made. I describe stepping into the Shockoe retail space on 15th Street in Richmond, Virginia: You make your way past the brick walls painted white, past the antique pushcart that serves as a coffee table, past the settee that has been re-upholstered with raw selvedge denim, past the displays of jeans and the dressing areas—all the way to the wall of windows that stretches from one side of the room to the other.
Looking through floor-to-ceiling glass, you see into the workshop. Robert unspools bolts of denim; Brigitte and her team sew waistbands and inseams; Pierre leans over patterns like an architect examining blueprints; Matt types emails at his desk or takes calls on his cell phone; Ian dials in the laser sight at the press; and Anthony reviews fabric swatches and sketches for the upcoming collection.
Every so often, someone grabs a few pairs of freshly made jeans and walks them up the stairs, through the glass door, and into the shop. Dropping the jeans on a shelf, the person turns around and heads back to the atelier.
The whole thing was over parking tickets. In Brussels, Pierre and Brigitte lived on a street with a courthouse, which entailed certain restrictions on automobiles access. These restrictions failed to impress Pierre. He ignored them for three years, at the rate of two tickets per day, until he finally went to court. Speaking to the magistrate, he said, “I am not going to pay anything. I am parking in front of my house. This is where I live. I am legally in this country. This is my car. This is my spot. This is where I park. If you don't like it, kiss my ass.”
So then the police came.
Very good: The workshop, and the people inside it, make up the core of the Shockoe brand. So, it makes perfect sense for Shockoe to incorporate the workshop in its new name.
Still, though—atelier? Couldn’t they have just gone with “Shockoe Workshop”?
Wasn’t the English word preferable to the French? Shockoe was, after all, a heritage Americana brand. That much was self-evident. When Shockoe Denim popped up in 2012, we heard “handmade in Virginia” and “Cone Mills selvedge denim” and filled in the rest. Shockoe, we told ourselves, was heritage Americana, fueled by pure, unbridled love of the U-S-of-A. Each stitch was part of an indigo tapestry that captured the spirit of the American worker, from gold prospectors and coal miners to modern-day mechanics and artisans. Something-something honesty, something-something integrity. If you listened closely when buttoning the fly of your Shockoe jeans, you could make out the distant hum of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Yes, by God, Shockoe Workshop: There was a name that would put hair on your chest. But Shockoe Atelier? That name didn’t taste like campfire-brewed coffee. It didn't singe our nose hairs like July 4th sulphur. It didn’t feel like the well-worn leather of a saddle, softly cushioning our collective backside as we trotted a horse out into the Laramie sunset.
Like maison or couture, surely atelier was a word best left to the French.
While I split hairs over the words, Shockoe’s naysayers would pick apart the new collection, saying that high-end blazers and baby-alpaca outerwear fall well outside Shockoe’s established wheelhouse of raw-denim workwear.
There’s only one problem with all that: We got it completely wrong. Shockoe was never a heritage or workwear brand.
I was flabbergasted to hear this during my December visit, when Matt Rho told me, “Our denim is different than other brands because we're not Americana. We're not heritage. We're modern luxury.” I voiced my surprise and Matt said, “I make that point so adamantly because that's the box people put us in—'Oh yeah, you're like Rogue Territory or Imogene and Willie’—and we are similar to those guys because they're also all about the quality, but our influences are really different.”
Therein lies the fundamental disconnect: I had thought of Shockoe as heritage Americana, in which context the menswear collection and new “Shockoe Atelier” name make no sense. However, Shockoe has always considered itself modern luxury, which changes everything.
And as for atelier being best left to the French, Brigitte is indeed French: born in Algeria and raised in Paris. For his part, Pierre grew up speaking French in a Francophile household in Romania, as part of the displaced cultural elite.
Only Pierre knew the truth. He had been lucky, once again.
Each of the American shop owners wanted exclusivity. Raolf didn’t want anyone else in New York to carry Pierre’s collection. Guy Greengard wanted Mr. Guy to be the only stockist in Beverly Hills. That’s why all the shop owners had been so helpful introducing Pierre to other boutiques, all of which were conveniently out of state. As Pierre would later remember, “As soon as they bought the collection, they had to do everything to get me the hell out of town.”
But no one in Europe knew it had been luck.
When Pierre’s old bosses and co-workers caught wind of his American conquest, they began to reconsider their impression of him. He suddenly appeared less enfant terrible and more master salesman. While working under Otto Hertz—the man who founded Scabal, created the fabric-swatch book, and as Pierre says, "basically invented ready-to-wear”—Pierre had threatened to quit every few weeks, as a sort of personal quirk. Yet it was Pierre, and Pierre alone, whom Hertz invited to share his customary afternoon coffee. During these meetings, the two men talked about art—including the Dali and Modigliani that hung on Hertz’s wall—as well as politics, and of course business. Hertz generously shared his industry knowledge with Pierre, who later described the coffee breaks as his personal “textile university.”
Pierre’s old colleagues went through his resume in their heads: Hadn’t he been a writer before Hertz found him? Wasn’t he a Sorbonne dropout who turned to journalism, begging editors to let him go to Vietnam because he idolized Hemingway and needed his own war? Yes, but then he had stayed in Europe, writing a column for a Dusseldorf magazine. (Pierre didn't speak German; he submitted copy in French and his editors translated.)
After they met in a German pool hall, Pierre and Brigitte moved to Brussels, where Pierre worked as a freelancer for an outfit called Media Press. While on assignment, he met another Brigitte, one who—you could argue—was even lovelier than his own. Traveling to the south of France to interview the world-famous actress, Pierre fell completely dumbstruck when Ms. Bardot opened the door. Throughout the entire visit, he sat in a chair unable to speak, forcing the photographer to ask all the questions.
Then one day, Media Press sent him to interview a textiles magnate named Otto Hertz, whom Pierre had never heard of. After the interview, Hertz offered Pierre a job on the spot, as his personal assistant. Taken aback, Pierre considered for a moment. He eventually answered, “Why not?”—but he cautioned Hertz that he knew absolutely nothing about fashion.
“That’s exactly why I want you,” Hertz said. “I need somebody I can form my way.”
“In this case,” Pierre said, “I am the perfect candidate because I don't know anybody who knows less than me.”
Pierre proved a quick study, and became one of Hertz’s most trusted employees. He traveled to fabric mills and factories in England and Italy, doing business on the boss’ behalf. He didn't know English or Italian, but a lack of language never stood in his way. When Pierre finally made good on his frequent threats and actually left Hertz, an incredulous colleague asked him, “What's wrong with you? You are number two in the organization. What more can you possibly want?”
The answer was simple: “Number one.”
And now, across the Atlantic in the United States, this Pierre Lupesco fellow had apparently achieved just that.
To recap: modern luxury; not heritage Americana. OK, I got it. Oh, wait—no I don’t.
How can these guys not be heritage Americana? They source denim from Cone Mills, the same place as all the other heritage brands. And just like all the other heritage brands, Shockoe manufactures in America—and from inside their own atelier, at that. If that’s not enough, the Lupescos are also vocally patriotic. Consider this exchange from last December (and don’t judge Anthony for his apparent ambivalence towards manufacturing in our Great Republic; proof of his red-blooded Americanness will come later):
Someone Else Why is made-in-America so important to you guys? Specifically, why is it important to have your factory in the same building as the retail space?
I think for us, made-in-America is great, but it wasn't the driving factor into why we wanted our own factory. The real reason why we want our own factory (and this goes for whatever other product we make in the future, which we may contract out, but eventually I'd like to have all of the production) is so that we can control it, and if something goes wrong, it's nobody else's fault but ours.
I think it's also the way we raised him. He has a Romanian father; he has a French mother, but we always told him, “You are an American.” You know how you have this, with the older generation, “Oh, I’m Italian.” No, you're not. You’re born here. You are not Italian; you are not Irish. You are American. Your background might be, but we never told him you're French, you're Romanian. We said, “You are an American, and we are here because we love this country.” We feel so American and we want to give back to the country.
I think there's that, but at the end of the day—for me anyway—to make the best pair of jeans, if I have to go to Mexico, then that's where I’m going. It just happens that we live here and in order for us to control the production, it has to be here.
For me it is different. I was raised by a grandmother that was running to the balcony all the time when a plane came by, saying, “The Americans are coming to save us!” For me, coming here, becoming American, is something that was put in my brain when I was six years old.
"Les Americains vont venir pour nous sauver!"
Pierre’s grandmother stood outside on the balcony. With the doors left open behind her, cool air drifted in towards little Pierre as he listened to the whoosh of aircraft overhead in the Romanian sky. Even at age six, he knew better than to believe it was really the Americans. His grandmother went through this routine every time a plane flew by: the same mad dash to the balcony, the same proclamations of arriving saviors, the same wishful thinking.
Still, though, it was tempting to believe. After all, Radio Free Europe had been telling them for years to find like-minded neighbors and get organized. “Don’t be afraid to stand up,” the radio had said. “The Americans are coming to help you.” Plus, hadn’t the Americans liberated Paris just a decade or so before? Well, then, why not here? It wasn't an impossible dream: an endless procession of American tanks and Jeeps rolling through Pierre’s town, each vehicle crowded with smiling GI’s—helmets pushed back on their heads, cigarettes between their lips, fingers flashing V for victory.
“The Americans are coming to save us!” his grandmother cried again from the balcony, but in French, of course—only ever French inside the house, never Romanian: "Les Americains vont venir pour nous sauver!"
If by whatever incredible chance she was right, the Americans would topple the communists. They would wrestle back control of the Lupesco family business (a crystal mine) from the communist government and return it Pierre's grandmother. The Lupescos would be restored to their rightful place in Romanian society, no longer enemy of the people, but envy of the people. The Americans would indeed save them.
But Pierre’s grandmother was mistaken. It wasn’t the Americans. It would never be the Americans.
At age six, Pierre had another 10 years of witnessing these premature celebrations, another decade of listening to stories of life before the communists: tales of wealth and prestige, descriptions of what true pride felt like. Eventually, Pierre would decide that if the Americans weren’t coming to Romania to give back what was rightfully his, he would go to the United States and take it.
There’s an irony in the name Shockoe Atelier: The introduction of the menswear collection prompted Shockoe Denim to change its name to Shockoe Atelier, but none of the pieces in the menswear collection will actually be made in the Shockoe atelier.
Instead, all manufacturing will be done in Italian factories, at least for now.
As Matt told me, “Because of their history and their connections, (the Lupescos) are able to get into these fabric mills and these cut-and-sew factories that no one else is able to get into. We're working at factories that don't take new business. They basically make collections for designers that they've been working with for years, and they don't really have capacity. But Pierre went there and said, ‘You may not remember me, but I used to work with your father,’ and the guy who is my age, who now runs the factory, says, ‘I totally remember you, Mister Lupesco; of course I'll work with you.’ That's an amazing validation for Pierre of his life's work, and it's an amazing gift to give to his son. No other designer in this country would be able to work with these factories, but we can because 35 years ago, Pierre did business—and did business well—with this guy's dad.”
Given his stance on quality control, one would imagine that Anthony wants to ultimately move all production to the States, but it won’t be easy. Last December in the atelier, Pierre discussed Italian tailoring, saying, “All the handmade (Neapolitan) suits have a little defect either on the pocket or somewhere. Now I ask you, those guys are sewing since they are 14, 15.”
“And now they're in their 60s,” Anthony said.
“Do you really know that those guys make mistakes?” Pierre asked. “They put it there to show that it's handmade."
“That's why they do this,” Anthony said, pointing to the shoulder of his shirt, where the fabric bunched in subtle pleats. “This is a shirt made in Napoli, and they do this just to show you, ‘You can't do this with a machine. You can only do this by hand.’ This is to show you, ‘My dick's bigger than yours.’”
Finding someone in the States who can sew with comparable, figurative endowment will take some doing. In the meantime, Anthony will keep bouncing between Richmond and Italy, squeezing his fullback’s frame into airplane seating. During all the factory visits and nighttime walks around Italian towns, he'll keep his head up. It was while growing up in Italy, after all, that he learned to never apologize for being Americano.
“This is a terrible thing to say,” he told me over breakfast one morning in Richmond, “but when I go to Europe, and you hear (Americans) say, ‘Oh I pretend I’m Canadian,’ I’m like, fuck that. I love being American. Have you seen the roads in Italy?”
The models wanted both Pierre and Brigitte to join them for a curtain call. Unfortunately, it was impossible. Even after four years of living in America, Pierre wasn’t confident in his English. (At the start of the evening, a friend had addressed the crowd at Pierre’s request, welcoming everyone and introducing the new collection.)
The crowd out there—all the menswear reporters and industry people—they would expect Pierre to say at least something: Thank you for coming; I’m proud of the collection that you’ve just seen; I’m excited for the future of Linea Pitti; and I sincerely hope that you’ll all be a part of it; goodnight.
Even that was too much. So, no, he would not go. Brigitte could greet the crowd without him. Pierre would stay here, backstage. As Brigitte walked off arm-in-arm with the models, Pierre worked out the calculations.
The night had cost $29,000 (and this was 1978 money): the buffet and booze, the modeling fees, the rental space at the Regency Hotel. The real cost of the evening, however, went back to that crazy three-week adventure when he first stepped onto U.S. soil and went off in chase of the American dream, only to realize that in order to capture the American dream, he would first have to navigate the American nightmare of immigration bureaucracy. From the very start, Pierre did everything that the system asked. He learned how to start a business without being a citizen; how to write a job description that no one besides himself could ever possibly qualify for; and how to receive work certification for the job that he had created for himself. From there, he applied for the labor certification he needed to pay taxes, the Social Security number and driver’s license, the bank accounts with all the government stipulations.
He did it all, step by step, playing by the rules. At the same time, he kept designing for Linea Pitti, working with the mills and factories from his days with Hertz. And all of this says nothing of managing day-to-day life in New York City as a non-English speaker.
Twenty-nine grand? That had been the least of it.
But tonight, it all paid off. The buyers had come out. And the reporters, too, including Clara Hancox, the preeminent industry influencer who would write about Linea Pitti for her column in the weekly menswear bible, DNR.
Pierre had arrived here four years ago, running around the United States like a mad dog fetching a stick wherever they threw it. But tonight, they all had come to him. He would forever remember this night as the point at which Linea Pitti launched in earnest. Decades from now, he would think back to this moment, when he sat backstage after the first Linea Pitti show, and—attendre, Pierre, écouter!
Brigitte and the models had passed through the curtain and were now stepping out onto the runway.
Pierre sat back and listened to the applause.
Matt Rho talks about the similarities he and Anthony share as sons of immigrants, including their familiarity with rage.
My dad, Leo Jarvis, longed for an America that never existed. He owned the entire Zane Grey library, which he read and re-read. For a year or so, every Saturday afternoon we watched a John Wayne movie. The heroes in the movies were all virtuous, doing the right thing no matter the cost. Their clothes stayed fresh every day on the dusty trail. Their six-shooters fired infinite rounds at godless Indians. When the camera went wide on panoramic shots of canyons or forests, Dad would lean forward abruptly—the footrest of his La-Z-Boy banging shut. Almost gasping, he would say, “Would you look at that country.”
Movies like Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” would have disgusted Dad. There was nothing picturesque about mud streets rutted out by wagon wheels. There was nothing noble in forced alleyway fellatio. Dad would have said, as he always did when moving pictures offended his sensibilities, “I don’t think they should be allowed to show that kind of thing on television.” His America didn’t have room for historical probabilities.
While Dad read “Riders of the Purple Sage” and on Saturdays we watched Technicolor suns fade behind desert canyons, Pierre rode inside taxis through the canyons of Manhattan. My dad and I looked West to a desert mirage, but in the New York melting pot, Pierre’s distinctly American story bubbled up, going at turns unnoticed and, in the case of Shockoe Atelier, grossly misunderstood.
An evangelist visited our church one night in the early 1980s with an “America, Repent!” sermon. He rebuked our nation for turning its back on God. The sour fruits of our transgression hung all around us in a bramble of iniquity: AIDS, abortion, poverty, Satanic cults, the growing influence of the Soviet Union on the world stage. To recapture our faded glory, we needed some self-reproach of the sackcloth-and-ash variety.
After his sermon, the evangelist sold copies of a glossy coffee-table book that he had written. The book set forth his recommended course of atonement. It had the Statue of Liberty on the cover. Dad bought a copy and placed it alongside his Zane Greys.
Years later, Dad asked our pastor, Reverend E. Glen James, for his thoughts ahead of the 1988 presidential election. Brother James said that if Dukakis won, God would return swiftly to save his people from America’s final descent into Sodom Redux. However, if George Bush won the election, God would postpone his Return and temporarily leave us teetering on the brink. Basically, the Big Guy would take a step back and be like, “I want to see where George is going with this.”
Bush won and God remained in Heaven. But Bush’s victory was never entirely his own. He might have shone like a thousand points of light, but it was always under the halo of Ronald Reagan, the beatified Republican adored by Dad and millions of others, including Pierre Lupesco. Like John Wayne, Reagan was a Hollywood actor whom we could trust to do the right thing, no matter the cost.
Pierre trusted Reagan enough to send him a personal gift, along with a letter. I imagine that in the letter, Pierre said more or less what he told me last December when describing his decision to leave Hertz: “I didn't leave Romania and all that to be second to anybody. I have a hard time to respect my own rules, much less somebody else’s. I wanted to get my own staff. I have my own vision of what fashion should be and the business should be.”
During Reagan’s presidency (whether coincidentally or not), Pierre was able to realize that vision in The Land of Opportunity. The letter expressed his gratitude.
In response, Pierre received a personal letter from the First Lady, which today still hangs in its frame. For his part, the President did his wife one better, with a response that transcended paper, picture frames, or any other kind of holding-onto. During one of his inaugurations, Reagan placed one hand on the Bible, raised the other, and cleared his throat to take sacred vows. His neck was ensconced in the supple fabric of a Linea Pitti necktie, which an immigrant had sent him as a gift.
“Ehi, Anthony! Born in the USA!”
The older Italian kids were being cruel. Anthony understood that much. They wanted to hurt his feelings, but they failed. Their weak taunts harmlessly bounced off his thick, six-year-old skin like bullets off Superman’s chest. For one thing, they were shouting the title of an album that had been released nine years before, three years before Anthony was even born. Besides, how was being American even a bad thing in the first place?
After all, it was the Italian kids who went to school wearing Canadian tuxedos couresty of America’s foremost jeansmakers, with everyone in their Levi’s denim jackets and 501s. It was also the Italian kids who wrote the names of American bands on their clear plastic pen bags. (Metallica was the runaway favorite, with the kids attempting to letter the Metallica logo just as it appeared on album covers.) And when an older kid started bullying Anthony, the little Lupesco would simply say, “I’m an American” and the aggressor would leave off.
So, while they taunted Anthony for being American, they made a point to wear American jeans and idolized American bands, and when push came to shove, they left the American alone precisely because he was American.
Or maybe it was because his mother was a witch.
That was the rap on Brigitte, who worked hard helping Pierre with Linea Pitti six days a week, and kept Anthony home from church on Sunday to have some time with her boy. When Anthony’s classmates would walk by his house—slowly, glancing out the corners of their eyes—Brigitte would burst through the door, smiling wide, holding a broom high overhead. The children would scramble away, fearful that la strega would mount her magic vehicle and fly off in pursuit.
The Lupescos didn’t stay for long in the beautiful Italian village of Biella. Four years earlier, the communists had, at long last, gotten theirs. When the Wall fell, European design houses rushed to expand their operations across the continent, and such expansion called for someone with deep industry expertise. Pierre happily accepted their offers, traveling around Europe setting up factories. He even went back to Romania—but only after sending Brigitte and Anthony away to stay in France. “Romania,” Anthony told me at breakfast, “was still Romania.”
Pierre worked in Europe for seven years, opening factories and starting his own project with Gianni Santagati. (Gianni has worked as pattern-maker for Dolce and Gabanna, Versace, and others. He created the original patterns for Shockoe's jeans.) But Europe couldn’t hold them. When Anthony was 13, Pierre and Brigitte decided to cross the Atlantic once again, this time for good. They were Americans, after all, and it was time to go home. Pierre continued to work on Linea Pitti until his last collection in 1999. Afterwards he and Brigitte opened a shop in D.C. called Else. When Anthony settled in Richmond, they followed him, but had no intention to get back into the business.
“I was ready to retire from fashion,” Pierre told me. “Most people in the fashion business can tell the same story: I tried three to four times to get away from it. I came here and I was happy to return to my dreams from the time I was a young man. I wanted to write a book and finish it, and then (Anthony) came and said, ‘Let's make a jean factory.’”
A few years ago, I visited New York City. Walking around Manhattan, I passed countless advertisements, including some billboards for TAG Heuer watches. Tiger Woods and Leonardo DiCaprio posed ridiculously, with timepieces draped over their fists like brass knuckles. Taking the train to Jackson Heights, Queens, I made my way onto Roosevelt Avenue.
Under the elevated tracks, a guy hosed down the sidewalk outside a nightclub. On that same block I passed several drinking establishments where, as my friend had explained, “There are girls who work there and you can dance with them. They aren’t working girls or anything, but, there are massage places upstairs.” Across the street, a travel agency had not only survived the Expedia age, but was apparently thriving, its showroom bright and inviting with fresh neon signage. Speaking English got me nowhere at a bakery on the corner, so I pointed to pastries inside a glass case, held up three fingers, and exchanged nods with the baker.
Back outside, I stopped and looked up at lightly falling snow. On the rust-colored tracks above, a train rumbled by, on its way to the city. Turning around, I saw above me a second-story billboard, which advertised TAG Heuer watches. But the model in this particular ad was not Tiger or Leo. In fact, I had no clue who he was. Maybe a Bollywood actor or famous cricket player?
While I stood there puzzling, I realized that this guy was as recognizable to people in Jackson Heights as Tiger Woods was to folks in Times Square. When that thought fully settled in, I swallowed hard. The corners of my eyes stung. For the first time since I could remember, I was proud to be an American.