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The French Feel Right at Home on the Range

July 12, 1991|PAT McCOLL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PARIS — Americans aren't the only ones reclaiming their fashion roots these days, with flag-decorated jackets, jewelry and jeans and all manner of Santa Fe and Pacific Northwest wear. Paris is getting in on the act.

Two new French shops, Au Vieux Continent and Charles Chevignon's Trading Post, are flashbacks to the United States.

Jacques Ventilo, one of the owners of Au Vieux Continent, which means Old Continent but in this case the name implies America's Wild West, laughingly describes his store as "a 15-year-old French boy's dream of America." And the unwary shopper who walks into the Trading Post might think he had been whisked off to the American Southwest.

The stores are a phenomenon on the retailing scene here, with most of the merchandise either made in the United States or of American inspiration.

Behind Au Vieux Continent are the Ventilo brothers, Jacques and Armand, who also own a women's boutique a few doors away. The store has its share of novelty items, including a canary-yellow 1950s Nash coupe, a Chris-Craft launch, dinnerware, like sauce boats from the Harvard Club of New York, which sold out immediately, and a wide selection of cowboy boots. But jeans are the stars.

There are more than 1,500 pairs in stock by Levi's, Wrangler, Lee Cooper, Chipie, Katharine Hamnett, Carhartt. Ventilo calls them "authentic American work clothes." Also available are Japanese-made Edwins, line-for-line copies of 1950s Levi's. Antique denims are the ultimate here. Some of the most unusual--including a $5,000 jacket--are showcased in mahogany vitrines. Connoisseurs can easily spot vintage denims because the turned-back cuffs reveal a darker-blue inside seam.

On the boutique's lower level, used jeans are displayed in a weather-beaten lifeboat that the Ventilos dredged up from a pond in Maine.

Charles Chevignon's Trading Post is the latest of Guy Azoulay's three shops, all of which sell Americana merchandise.

Before there were stores for Azoulay, there was denim. He started in the manufacturing business 12 years ago, using his best friend's name, Charles Chevignon, on the labels--and now on the new store--because it sounds more French than his own.

The Trading Post is a mini department store, selling Taos furniture, Pendleton blankets, hand-painted chests and armoires by Santa Fe artisans along with sportswear by Chevignon.

Christine Celle, who helped create the store, said it is based on Ralph Lauren's "lifestyle" approach to retailing. The biggest surprise was French enthusiasm for the New Mexico furniture, particularly the whimsically painted pieces by Elise Covlin of Santa Fe. Two of her one-of-a-kind items, each priced at more than $1,000, sold within five minutes of the boutique's opening.

"This isn't 'Paris' furniture," Celle said, adding that most French customers buy it for their vacation houses in St-Tropez and elsewhere. "If they keep it in Paris, it's for the children's room."

American quilts and blankets line the walls. Rough-textured pottery is set out on tables and there is a bed covered with Pendleton blankets and Indian-patterned quilts.

Upstairs, clothing displays feature Chevignon label denims as well as vintage madras trousers, like grandpa used to wear on the links, "genuine" American football jackets and even banana cream pies.

The store walls are decorated with autographed photos of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Dolly Parton. There is even a plaster bust of Babe Ruth. The basement level contains a library jammed with books about the United States, in English.

Asked what happens to the Trading Post if Southwestern style goes out of fashion, Celle quickly answers: "We'll find another style. America is a big country."

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