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The Claude Frères collection: timeless samples of creativity


On opening a volume in the Claude Frères sample collection kept in Casa Zegna, you immediately feel immersed in an extraordinary historical… fabric. Though they “only” contain swatches of material and very few words, these volumes tell old and interesting stories.

The 169 Claude Frères sample books in the Zegna archives cover the period from 1859 to 1938. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the first one is co-signed by Angelo Zegna, father of Ermenegildo. Anyway, the date on that volume (documenting autumn fabrics) means that it is one of the oldest in circulation.

Leafing through the pages and feeling fabrics that remind us from so far back in time of a know-how not only French but European, you can see how the sample books still haven’t been really “understood”. True, the fabrics hold no secrets for those in the trade and the taste they reflect is now part of the history of costume and fashion. It’s the production and commercial system, the relational network of manufacturers, wholesalers, tailors, garment makers and customers that still need to be fully understood. There’s a whole world in those pages and in those swatches of fabric, waiting to be discovered.

Even the definition of “sample” has yet to be… defined. The first definitions speak of “standard measurement” or “small quantity of material giving an idea of the whole”, or again a “small piece of cloth cut for this purpose from the bolt”. In more general terms, a sample collection may be understood to mean a “technical record or commercial example of a product”.

Claude Frères – so “mute” yet so communicative – is in this sense a highly significant element, albeit a bit mysterious, at least for the moment.

Not much is known of the history of this firm in fact, and its sample books too are a big challenge not only to the archivist but also in wider cultural terms.

Certain French researchers believe that the company was founded in 1834. Jean Claude, a draughtsman from the Vosges who emigrated to Paris in 1825, was the first of a family of innovative business people who, from the banks of the Seine, gave European textile draughtsmen and designers of garments and furnishing fabrics not only a new tool but also, above all, a new medium of knowledge, stylistic contamination and inspiration.

And even though the acclaimed Claude Frères no longer exists, their virtuous system is still in use after nearly two centuries. Zegna’s designers still consult it in fact.

Drawing inspiration from old fabrics is perfectly normal, as in the world of good wine, where a vintage bottle is often worth more than the best new wine and has to be properly kept, in the right cellar, to do justice to its age and characteristics.

The Zegna collection, whose historical worth goes beyond its corporate dimension (impressive though this is), documents the evolution of the Claude brothers’ enterprise. Camille took over from his father Jean and then (in the second half of the 1890s) entered a partnership with Monsieur Balliman. Claude Frères & Co. forged its way into the 20th century on the strength of their formidable experience, constantly honed by competition with similarly powerful players, including Bilbille, Hoffman & Herzog, the Gerlioz heirs (better known as Homo et, Société des Nouveautés Textiles and many others.

The house of Claude, from its headquarters at 10 rue d’Uzès, continued to do what it did best: the mailing of trend collections to subscribers. This was the founder’s original insight, the idea his successors never stopped exploiting. The parallels with what happened in Trivero are obvious.

The Zegna collection bears testimony to that exceptional and unceasing labor of travels, purchasing, selections, cuttings, re-compositions and classifications by season, type of fabric, geographical area, period of selection. Claude Frères must have had extraordinary expertise and their clientele was broad-based to say the least. For every client there was a sample collection worth buying. That’s why books specializing not only in woolen fabrics but also cotton, silk, and so on, were sent out from Paris. The sample collection in the Zegna Archives, in fact, conserves the traces of another archive, that of Claude Frères, which was obviously scrupulously codified and organized, otherwise it would have been impossible to manage. Such codification and organization is still not wholly understood though: acronyms not entirely explained, references not explicit enough, abbreviations impossible to decode.

The mills that were “ransacked” by the agents sent out from the French capital gained in terms of creative and productive opportunities by receiving the fruits of other “ransackings”. A few of my secrets for a few of yours. It was all anonymous and with a suitable delay with respect to the season currently in preparation. The circle closed to everyone’s advantage. Pas mal, non?

So Casa Zegna is also an archive of other archives. In this case, of samples of timeless creativity. A heritage is also the sum of other experiences and as such must be properly understood before yielding its full value.

Heritage is an ongoing process.

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