As part of her preparations for the Grammy Awards in New York, where she performed on January 28, 2018, pop star Rihanna purchased her underwear in France. Her order was made to Arsoie, a company located in the town of Sumène in the Gard département. “We sent her 20 pairs of silk stockings in red, orange, pink, and fuchsia,” says Serge Massal, the CEO. “Our products enjoy an excellent reputation in the United States, where 1950s fashion and vintage lingerie are currently making a comeback.”
And yet, the love of silk stockings had all but disappeared 50 years ago. This symbol of luxury and eroticism had fallen out of fashion, replaced by the cheaper, more resistant nylon pantyhose that appeared as an icon of female emancipation. In Sumène, the production of the famous couture stockings – recognizable by the seam running down the back of the leg – ground to a halt in 1965. The diseases contracted by silkworms and competition from factories in Asia accelerated the decline of the region’s silk industry. The numbers of silk farms (or magnanery to specialists) that had been the flagship enterprises of the Cévennes since the 17th century had dwindled to a mere handful by the late 1990s.
“Reinventing Femininity and the Art of Seduction”
In an effort to save the silk house founded in 1920 by his great-great-uncle, Serge Massal drew inspirations from pieces by Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler. Among others, the corset came back into the spotlight. The young sales manager then convinced his father to relaunch the production of “fully-fashioned” stockings popularized by figures such as pin-ups, femme fatales, and Hollywood actresses. In 1999, the old Reading weaving looms were put back into service. Designed in Pennsylvania and sent to France as part of the Marshall Plan, these 20-ton monsters measured 18-meters long, and were capable of weaving 30 legs at once!
After being loom-weaved and hand-sewn, each stocking is then plunged into a bath of liquid dye, pulled onto an aluminum leg, and steam-heated for two minutes to set the thread. This process takes one hour per pair of stockings (as opposed to five minutes for a seamless pair). “That’s the whole appeal of this sort of stocking compared with a seamless version or simple pantyhose,” says Serge Massal. The other major difference is that looms ensure a consistent weave and transparence throughout the entire stocking. “The result is sexier, more glamorous, and more feminine.”
New Colors, New Customers
The silk thread is now sourced in China, but the artisanal know-how has remained unchanged. A team of 12 people is tasked with production; the women head up the looms, while the men are put on sewing duty. The stockings crafted in Sumène and sold under the Cervin brand are “vintage objects with a modern style,” says the CEO. The reissued models (Belle Epoque, Havana, and Libération, for example) are showcased alongside more contemporary pieces such as Séduction, Tentation, and Champs-Elysées. The catalogue features 60 different models, available in some 10 different colors including red, blue, and fuchsia.
Expect to pay 28 dollars for a pair of Palace stockings whose floral motifs are reminiscent of Madonna’s music videos and 1980s lingerie. Those who want to emulate Rihanna should opt for a bicolor Belle Epoque model, with the stocking in orange silk and the hold-up in black lace. Each pair goes for 50 dollars. If you are celebrating New Year’s Eve or going dancing with Jay Gatsby, then the brand’s flagship Charleston model at 111 dollars is just the thing for you. And why not round off the ensemble in style with a Boétie suspender belt at 65 dollars?
The pieces created in the Cévennes are up to four times more expensive than those sold by leading retailers such as Dim or Victoria’s Secret. “We don’t do the same thing,” says Serge Massal, whose company has been awarded the French Living Heritage Company label. “We produce the finest stockings in the world; ours are luxury products.”
Highly Sought-After Art de Vivre in the U.S.A.
Other than silk, which makes up 25% of its production, the French maison also weaves nylon and lycra. And as part of the diversification of its catalogue, it will be revealing a collection of seamless lingerie and ready-to-wear pieces, including panties, negligees, skirts, and sweaters. While they were distributed across almost 2,000 stores in France and abroad until 2011, Cervin’s products are now sold almost exclusively online. Some 70% of the company’s revenue (2.1 million dollars in 2017) is generated via e-commerce.
Cervin is still available in around 20 stores in Paris, Lyon, Nantes, Rennes, and San Francisco, where its pieces are featured in the Les Cent Culottes boutique. Arsoie now exports 15% of its production to the Unites States – the equivalent of 45,000 pairs of stockings every year. “We are hoping to grow our presence on the American market in the years to come,” says Serge Massal. “Our silk stockings promote a certain image of femininity and the art of the seduction that has found a loyal following among American women.”