Letters from L.A

Bret Easton Ellis’ personal ode to the effortlessly chic Brioni suit

Tailors at work in Brioni’s Rome atelier, c. 1960s. Courtesy of Brioni

I bought my first Brioni suit when I moved back to Los Angeles after living in New York for twenty years, to begin production on a number of Hollywood projects that I had written and was going to produce. The connection between Brioni and its lustrous link to a cinematic past wasn’t exactly on my mind when a salesperson at Barney’s on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills suggested Brioni after I described what kind of suit I was looking for now as a recently transplanted denizen of the West Coast: One of my first concerns was that the suit would be light enough to wear comfortably in this altitude that was so different from the one I had experienced for two decades on the East Coast. I was at a time in my life where I thought I was finally settled – there was a big new film, there was a brand-new relationship. I was in my early forties and I wanted to look my age – or, at most, good for my age. I didn’t want anything trendy, something I might not have minded or would have even preferred in my twenties and thirties, but not any longer. In the 1980s and ’90s, when I came of age, I lived in a society that expected its young men to be interested in fashion – and to a degree I was, but only in a glancing way – and I wore my fair share of suits in a world where there was a youthful formality that doesn’t really exist today except during awards season and the increasingly rare black-tie affair.

Brioni models on the catwalk at the Sala Bianca in the Palazzo Pitti, late 1960s. Courtesy of Brioni

The suit the salesperson brought out was surprisingly very simple: two-button, navy blue. I tried it on, not expecting the suit to make much of an impression, since it seemed so basic, and yet after I put the suit on, I looked at myself in the mirror and realized it embodied exactly the kind of style that I responded to: You knew it was chic, but it was invisible, it didn’t loudly announce itself. The Brioni suit came the closest of any suit I ever wore that had this particular mix of classicism and comfort, of being both fashionable and timeless. It accentuated my build – it fit me, it was tapered – and yet it felt loose and flowing. The suit was, I thought, the most beautiful and comfortable I’d ever worn: So simple, so streamlined, it felt like it was hanging off me, my movements were never constricted, and the suit didn’t swallow me up as some of the boxier suits that were fashionable in the early 1990s did – it was effortlessly flattering. What made it so versatile was that it was light enough to wear in an increasingly casual Los Angeles, and dressy enough to wear to an event in New York if you added the right shirt and tie and shoes. But it wasn’t necessarily a formal suit, and in L.A. I liked wearing the suit with a powder blue button-up V-neck cashmere sweater, black loafers, and tortoiseshell sunglasses, if the event was outside in the pre-dusk of an early evening during the summer months. Many L.A. gatherings take place outdoors when the sun is setting and yet the light is still hard.

Brioni: Tailoring Legends, published by Assouline

Two years later I distinctly remember a cocktail party on the patio of the Polo Lounge in The Beverly Hills Hotel during the years when I wore the suit, and the compliments I usually received. L.A. had started out with so much promise when I had bought the suit, but the usual disappointments had announced themselves. And what was going on in my life was somehow connected to my feelings about the suit: That night I realized the movie was falling apart, and the affair had broken up, and though both of these things left me unmoored, I also began to feel as if I was free from the pose that every man thinks is required of him, until they realize it isn’t required at all. Something happens in a man’s life at a certain point, where the rules of society he has always bought into unquestioningly seem fake and stop making sense to him; it’s a charade, you realize, and you start moving past disappointment and regret, heading to a new kind of freedom – because you’ve simply, unapologetically, become your real self. There was something about the Brioni suit that emphasized this freedom I was experiencing, embodied it. It was a signifier, and that’s why it always made me feel better – it aided in the newfound confidence I was experiencing despite life’s setbacks, setbacks that were easier to deal with because of age. This moment in my life will always be defined partly by that suit, because this was the point where I didn’t want to wear anything else when I went out. In fact, as Los Angeles shifted into an even more casual mode, I kept the Brioni suit – one of the only ones I have from that period. And on certain days, in certain moments, it’s ultimately a reminder of not what went wrong during that period, but what went effortlessly and ineffably right. I became the man I never knew I ultimately wanted to be.

This text was taken from Brioni: Tailoring Legends, published by Assouline, February 2022

The 100: Burgundy

In an excerpt from Assouline’s new book, Asia’s first master of wine Jeannie Cho Lee details how to start a cellar 

Having a private wine cellar is the ultimate luxury, but one that is also practical and economical. When I am asked about smart wine buying, I always suggest buying young and buying early. Thus, investing in wine storage or a cellar, even if it is initially simply a 100-bottle wine fridge, can save you money in the long run. If you bought Domaine Fourrier’s Clos Saint-Jacques 2010 when it was released in 2012, you would have paid no more than US$400 per bottle. If you want to enjoy this wine now, the average retail price is above US$700 in 2019. Even for Village-level wines like Chambolle-Musigny from Christophe Roumier, on release you might have paid around US$100, but in 2019 it retails for over US$300. Buying young and early especially makes sense for Burgundy, because quantities of top wines are so scarce that sourcing and obtaining allocations is much more difficult than for wines from other regions. Buying ahead may be the only chance to find the desired wines, when they are just released from the domaine, at the best price. Besides, what can be better than having a cellar of wines to be enjoyed for different occasions and moods?

In the early 1990s, when I began buying cases for my own current and future pleasure, I wish someone had told me to be more methodical, because my selection was random rather than strategic. I would advise anyone who wants to start a cellar to first set a clear budget and to be realistic about how much of Burgundy wines it will buy. To acquire all 100 wines in this book would require a budget of around US$200,000, calculated at the end of 2018. This “dream cellar” of the very best wines chosen for special occasions does not reflect the large variety of Burgundy wines available for everyday drinking.

Photography Jillian Edelstein

First, determine how much you want to enjoy in the short term and the amount you want to lay away for the future. My own cellar consists of the entire range of Burgundies from Bourgognes to Grands Crus. I enjoy young, vibrant Bourgogne from many producers in this book, including Bourgogne Blanc from Arnaud Ente, d’Auvenay, and Roulot, and Bourgogne Rouge from Maison Leroy, Denis Mortet, and Claude Dugat. I find myself buying about one-third to drink in the coming one to five years, and the majority for the future.

I like to follow wines as they age, and I love to open a wine to understand its evolving personality. A Village Burgundy red from a good 32 producer I might open around five years old, and check on it every few years to see how it is changing; for a Premier Cru I would wait eight years, and Grand Cru ten to twelve years. White Village wines I start sampling at three to four years old, depending on the grower and the vineyard reputation; Premiers Crus I like to check at five years old, and Grands Crus at eight years old. The goal is to see whether the wines are opening up, knowing that the wines are probably still too young, but following the wine’s evolution is part of the fun in understanding each wine’s personality.

Once budget and clear objectives are set, the next step is identifying the best suppliers. For most people, it will be local wine retailers and merchants. It is worth asking for the specialist wine buyer for Burgundy, to discuss what styles you enjoy and are interested in exploring. Often retailers hold wine tastings that are complimentary, discounted, or the price deducted if wines are purchased. When buying Burgundy, I prefer to try a bottle before committing to a full or half case. To find out if the retailer is a Burgundy specialist, ask for their full list, inquire how many wines are direct domaine allocations, note the number of top growers and producers they work with, and always ask for the Burgundy specialist to discuss your purchase.

Photography Michel Baudoin

For those able to travel and bring back wines, it is worth spending time in villages in Burgundy that have retail caves filled with wines from small growers. Venture beyond Beaune and opt instead for the smaller village shops, such as those in Chassagne-Montrachet and GevreyChambertin. Spend time with the manager and tell them what styles and producers you currently enjoy, and ask them to suggest a few smaller domaines to try—then either taste the wine by the glass if possible or buy one bottle to see if it is indeed a style you enjoy.

Auction houses may sometimes be the only way to acquire rare Burgundies that are on strict allocation around the world. Buying at auction— besides being expensive, if you include the buyer’s premium—entails risks, since standards vary by auction house, and strict provenance checks can be lacking. Rudy Kurniawan’s fraud case tainted the reputation of some auction houses in the United States, but since then more stringent checks have been put in place and money-back guarantees continue to entice buyers. Another important consideration is to find out the details of the sale consignor and request the provenance of the wines. If this is not forthcoming, then buy at your own risk! The safest lots at auction are those consigned directly from the château or domaine. This is becoming more and more common, as producers realise the high margins they can make by offering wines to the end buyer without middlemen.

Currently the global auction market is dominated by “the big five”—Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Acker Merrall, Zachy’s, and Hart Davis Hart—plus a handful of smaller companies such as Bonhams, Heritage, and Spectrum. Buying at auction should be approached carefully, taking time to review the lots, setting a budget, and creating a checklist:

1. Know the reputation of the consignor.

2. Read buying terms carefully and remember to include the buyer’s premium in the total price.

3. Check the minimum price of each lot and understand its market value before determining how much you are willing to pay 

4. Attending the auction is often not necessary, and sometimes distracting, because frenzied bidding can mean spending more than you wanted, so fax your bids or appoint an auction house representative with your budget limit.

5. If the lots are rare or very expensive, ask for a viewing of the bottles to assess the levels and condition, and to ask questions.

Photography Jillian Edelstein

Another option to consider when buying rare Burgundies is to work with a broker, often a lone consultant or a small company, which specialises in sourcing fine wines for private customers. This is a growing sector, and every major city has a dozen or more fine wine brokers, many of whom used to work for auction houses. This channel has its risks, and trust is key. Do a thorough background check to find out the reputation of the broker, and request a full provenance report on all wines.

This quote from Allen Meadows aptly summarises buying fine Burgundy: “You may not get what you pay for, but you will almost certainly never get what you don’t pay for.”

The 100: Burgundy, Exceptional Wines To Build A Dream Cellar will be published by Assouline in August 2019

Jean-Michel Frank

In an excerpt from Assouline’s new book, Jean-Michel Frank by Laure VerchèreJared Goss reflects on the life and work of the French interior designer

French Art Deco flourished between the first and second world wars (the very period of Frank’s career). It was a movement as much backward-looking as forward, blending historicism, exoticism, and modernism, with a wide range of expressions. Three characteristics place Frank squarely in its mainstream: He was an ensemblier; he drew inspiration from the past as a way to be modern; and he was a connoisseur.

The ensemblier was an interior decorator of the most complete kind, able to design and produce in-house virtually every aspect of an interior, from the architectural framework to the smallest detail (while not a furniture maker himself, Frank’s partnership with Adolphe Chanaux provided essential workshops). The profession had roots in French history (among the most famous ensembliers were Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, architectdecorators to Napoléon I), and enjoyed a renaissance during the interwar years. Rooms by French Art Deco ensembliers (including Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Süe et Mare, among others) achieved an unequaled degree of unity and harmony, a completeness of vision, since everything was of a piece. Frank’s were no exception.

For centuries Paris had been considered the world’s leader in the luxury trades and the arts de vivre of couture, perfumes, wines, cuisine, furniture, and such. Beginning in the early 1900s, many in the French design community encouraged the establishment of links with the past—rather than, say, iconoclasm—as a means to reinforce and reinvigorate this traditional (and profitable) reputation. To this end, many ensembliers looked specifically to the golden age of the eighteenth-century ancien régime for inspiration, Frank included. But like that of his best contemporaries, Frank’s completely original work never fell into pastiche or historicism. It is undeniably of the twentieth century, albeit tempered by the simplification and abstraction favored in the modern era.

Although connoisseurship is not much in fashion today, it must be recognised as the foundation of Frank’s work, since he thoroughly understood every aspect of his métier (the term “connoisseur” derives from the French verb connaître, meaning “to know” and “to understand”). From old objects he learned the principles of good design: graceful lines, correct proportions, sound construction, and suitable materials, all combined in the service of utility. He knew how to never sacrifice any one of these qualities for the others, but rather to incorporate them all in balance. And like other ensembliers, Frank worked for clients who were connoisseurs themselves. They not only understood and appreciated what he created for them, but also demanded the exceptional and the distinctive. Frank met their imperative to invent, rather than copy or imitate, and his success resulted from the obvious depth of his knowledge.

That said, Frank’s career existed outside the conventional parameters for French designers of his time. He was not formally trained in his field. He always worked independently, never joining any of the established French professional organisations, such as the Société des Artistes Décorateurs or the Union des Artistes Modernes, that showed their members’ work at annual exhibitions. He advertised rarely: Aggressive self-promotion clearly was not his thing; personal relationships and word-of-mouth seem to have been his preferred methods of attracting a clientele. Even so, his patrons included some of the most fashionable people in Paris and around the world, many of whom he counted as friends. During his lifetime his work was recognised widely enough to be published internationally in books and fashionable magazines. And a number of his designs came to be used by—and some even reproduced by—fellow decorators, particularly in the United States and England (Elsie de Wolfe, Frances Elkins, and Syrie Maugham come to mind).

Frank is often labeled a minimalist, but in my mind reductivist may be more accurate. While there is rarely anything superfluous in a Frank room, everything essential is present (as with his furniture, where no detail is overlooked, even if the ultimate effect is one of simplicity). Frank never sacrificed convenience or practicality: There are enough tables, chairs, and lamps to meet needs; his bookshelves are always filled with books; cigarette boxes and ashtrays inevitably are at hand. And what kind of minimalist veneers furniture with gleaming straw marquetry, laboriously hand-glued in place strand by strand? Or conceives a table lamp hewn from a rough chunk of internally lit rock crystal, or shaded with a delicate cage of overlapping sheets of ivory—neither an effective source of illumination but both atmospheric, glowing light sculptures? Or devises painterly trompe-l’oeil wall paneling from irregularly cut strips of multi-colored silk grosgrain ribbon tacked on a yellow velvet ground? Contrary to his image as the master of monochrome minimalism, Frank in fact delighted in introducing to his rooms bursts of vivid color and pattern, particularly in collaborations with Christian Bérard; extravagant Napoléon III–style tassels, tufts, and braids, placing him at the forefront of the avant-garde Victorian revival of the 1920s; and exquisite antiques of all eras and nationalities. Reality is always more nuanced than myth, and here reveals the catholicism of Frank’s erudite eye.

It is these things that made Frank’s work relevant in his own era, and continue to give it relevance today. Now as then, his work presents an eloquent and convincing argument for embracing the lessons of history, showing how the past offers direction for the future, and how tradition can—with knowledge and creativity—evolve into something entirely new and original, something genuinely timeless and unique. Frank was perhaps the first French designer of his generation to be rediscovered in postwar years, in an article by Josette Devin published in L’Oeil magazine in 1963. Since then, interest in him has only grown. The images in this book—which must stand in for Frank’s objects themselves—illustrate just exactly why that is. We can all learn from it. 


Jean-Michel Frank, Text by Laure Verchère with an introduction by Jared Goss is available from Assouline ($250.00)