The classic taste of Bordeaux

When style guru Andree Putman was called in to design a shop for luxury leather goods, she brought a touch of French style to London's West End
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The Independent Online

Joan Collins once said that you haven't lived until you have sunk your bare butt into a Connolly leather seat. Connolly make the big, soft, squidgy leather seats that people in the back of a Rolls-Royce recline into. Ferrari racing drivers buckle themselves into wraparound Connolly leathers. So do passengers flying Concorde. Car seats for Jaguar smell so good that Cussons even marketed Imperial Leather soap to capture the scent.

Begun 122 years ago as a shoe-repair shop in Canterbury, Connolly moved from making leather coach hoods to body building for cars. Although they grew up within the British motor industry they haven't collapsed with it, courtesy of successful branding.

Just as Louis Vuitton today conjures up monogrammed trunks aboard liners or the Orient Express, and Hermes' bits and pieces signal thoroughbreds, Connolly first thought of exploiting their association with posh cars seven years ago when Isabel Ettedgui pointed out the value of branding. With husband Joseph, whose name has launched a thousand shops, she advised them on creating a collection of luxury leather goods.

Connolly opened their first shop in 1993 in an old stable with a smart address in Mayfair to sell stationery, belts and braces, as well as luggage with some fashion accessories. French interior designer and style guru Andree Putman designed it so glamorously in glass and leather and steel that it rapidly became a "destination shop" which is the retailing codeword for a huge success. So huge in fact that the family business realised they were amateurs at retailing and needed to concentrate on the core business of car seat suppliers. Last year they sold the luxury goods market to Joseph and licensed the name Connolly exclusively to him just for that. It is a very powerful name and opens doors. Jack Nasser, who heads Ford in the United States, pops in and out of the shop. That kind of exposure helps their core business abroad.

"We'd have stunted the growth of the place if we hadn't handed over the corporate identity to Joseph," says Anthony Hussey who does a good imitation of Joseph's sexy French whisper as he stresses that the businesses, though close, are quite separate. Joseph does not want to be a leather tanner any more than Connolly wants to be a retailer.

Largely because of the shop, Connolly now supply 22,000 tanned hides each week to the States, and have landed business deals with the Japanese car companies Mitsubishi, Honda, and Toyota. They also supply the name and most of the hides for the leather goods sold.

Now a second shop for Connolly opens this week at 41 Conduit Street, right in the heart of London's West End. Not surprisingly Joseph asked Andree Putman to design this shop as well. This arbiter of French taste who eschews fashion, says the best thing about the elegant new shop is that it houses a "proper product". Putman's interiors show due propriety in their refined materials in a subdued palette she calls seaweed.

Her goal was to create an interior with "absolute discretion in which neutrality is neither dull nor lifeless". This manifests itself in a long, narrow shop which has been transformed by a wavy wall installation along one side that winds sinuously to the back, where horse-hair panels framed in steel shimmer. They cost more than silk - or pashmina.

Oak floor boards the colour of kelp, rugs the grey-green of seagrass, and a wide band of golden onyx snaking across one side of the shop make it step out of the big white box that most shops turn into. They feel good too.

In competition with the world of e-commerce, real shopping has to be a sensuous, light-filled experience. Bold uplighters in black metal bounce light upon the ceiling around the edges of the shop. Downlighters are hidden in great scallops taken out of the ceiling which diffuse the source so effectively that you forget that there is no natural light source in this ground-floor shop. These light wells are scaled as large as those fashioned by Le Corbusier at Ronchamps. Putman famously restored and refurbished the Villa Turque by Le Corbusier at La Chaux de Font in Switzerland.

Having designed the private salons and apartments of Chanel's haute couturier Karl Lagerfeld, Putman is no stranger to obscure briefs. Lagerfeld said that he wanted his library of 4,000 books within reach of the sofa and that he wanted to be able to come in from the rain and put his boots on that sofa. But her brief for Connolly was even stranger.

All Joseph said to Putman in commissioning her was, "make me a little Bordeaux", a reference to the Museum of Contemporary Art she carved out of an old warehouse in Bordeaux. Hence, the shop features big columns, is bathed in top light, and features industrial materials such as glass and galvanised metal. Yet Putman interpreted the brief to mean that he also wanted the same atmosphere as Bordeaux, an altogether more elusive commodity to recreate in a West End shop.

At Connolly she purposefully created "an environment which does not wish to steal the show but allows what is displayed to speak for itself." For Putman, "absolute discretion and calm neutrality, is what is important for the interior." Style to her is not "a paralysing respect for period or images of wealth," despite the fact her childhood home was a 12th century abbey in Burgundy, the famous Abbaye Fontenay. Perhaps by virtue of this she aserts that "luxury and wealth are quite separate things".

At the moment, she's busy designing hotels, one for VW between Berlin and Hanover, and another in Paris on the Champs-Elysees. And despite nearly half a century of setting an exacting style trial for others to follow, she is still hard to double-guess.

Asked by BBC2 to pick her favourite building, she selected the best-kept secret in Paris, the Monuments aux Deportes built in memory of the Jews displaced during World War II as well as the many members of the French Resistance. Below a children's playground, "so boring no child plays there", lies the underground monument commissioned in 1960 by Andre Malraux, then Minister of Culture, from Georges Henri Pingusson, a Forties architectural teacher. "Overly depressed by my choice of this totally unknown treasure behind Notre-Dame, the BBC director sent a spy. Then she became more enthusiastic."

Built in stones from every region in France, pin-pricked with millions of tiny lights, and ending in a sharp angled cul- de-sac, the monument has verses by poets Louis Aragon, Robert Desnos, Paul Eluard and Jean- Paul Sartre inscribed upon the walls in a specially designed alphabet as barbed and thorny as the painful poetry. "The building is all about human courage and hope. That is why I like it so much."

Joseph and Isabel Ettedgui have shown courage of a different sort in taking an age-old brand and stretching it to provide Britain with a big new image-making brand. It could still break them. Time will tell, but all the signs for Connolly pulling out into the fast lane are good. As Anthony Hussey says, if Joseph at the wheel can't make it, no one can.