Movie Buff Gérard Séné Gets Top Billing for Costuming His Customers Like Hollywood Stars

UPDATED 10/03/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/03/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

The French can be a contrary sort. Give them a Yank in a polyester leisure suit and comfy Hush Puppies and they'll cry sartorial gaucherie. But show them outdated fashions from a 40-year-old movie and they'll call it high style. They'll also call for Gérard Séné (pronounced say-nay), the star-struck 44-year-old Parisian who has made old-time Hollywood the hot new wrinkle in Paris fashion.

Rodson, the Right Bank clothing store that opened last November, is a shop of cinematic dreams. "Stop being a spectator. Enter into the film," entices the Technicolor billboard on its Rue des Halles storefront. The interior, with its tarpaulin ceiling, floor-stand lights and '50s soda shop plastered with movie posters, has the feel of a mock movie studio.

Dressed in a copy of the two-button, flap-pocket suit that Gregory Peck wore in Roman Holiday(available at Rodson, of course, for $321), Séné helps a customer into a replica of the red suede jacket in which Elvis Presley made his screen debut in Love Me Tender. Nearby hang replicas of the high-rise trousers and three-button coat of Cary Grant in North by North-west ($446), a tuxedo smoking jacket worn by Fred Astaire in Blue Skies ($892) and the trench coat that hung from Humphrey Bogart's shoulders in The Big Sleep ($625). The cuts are "classics," says Séné. "The style of American cinema stars from the '40s to the '60s was the Rolls-Royce of American fashion."

Séné's sense of film finery began taking shape during his postwar boyhood in Paris. His parents, now retired, were café owners who had moved to the suburb of Montreuil from Corrèze in the '40s. "I'd go into the cinema every day and sometimes see the same film four times in one day," Séné recalls. "I discovered the styles of Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Cary Grant and others. I wanted to be like these stars, adopt their looks. They were my heroes."

Séné quit school at 13 and washed engine parts for two years. At 16, he went to work at Lucien Tak, a women's ready-to-wear company, and began learning about the fashion trade. He spent nights waltzing through Parisian nightclubs, looking, he hoped, like a Hollywood star. In 1969 Séné started his own line of women's clothing. He introduced another four years later, and in 1986 he started a retail leather business.

All the while, he was quietly pursuing another dream, collecting evidence of a world he longed to recreate. Since boyhood, Séné had prowled flea markets, antique shops and studio wardrobes. When he decided to launch his line of vintage greats, he consulted old notebooks of the stars' tailors as well as photos of the actors in his personal archives from the back issues of LIFE and Esquire. Authenticity became his obsession. He scrupulously matched materials, style and color, spurned synthetics and plastic buttons and searched until he found the '20s sewing machines that could produce the handcrafted look that he wanted.

At Rodson (the name was chosen because it sounded Anglo-Saxon), Séné's carefully styled suits now sell at the rate of 400 a month, and their creator—or re-creator—has begun expanding his business into retail shops throughout France, Italy and Japan. Twenty percent of his customers are women, for whom Séné provides, among dozens of other items, the Western skirt in which Joan Crawford once sashayed her way across the screen ($321) and the equally expensive suede cavalier pants that graced Kate Hepburn's hips.

Among the most devoted of Séné's distaff fans is his Swiss-born wife, Florence, 36, a Paris antiques dealer whom he married four years ago. Wed at a famed high-tack wedding chapel on the Las Vegas strip, Séné wore a double-breasted Marlon Brando Godfather suit to the altar. "It was a fantasy, like everything else I do," he notes happily. Says Florence: "He's the most elegant man I know."

The couple now share a four-room apartment near the Eiffel Tower filled with Florence's post-'30s antiques and Séné's collection of ultrarealist paintings. Weekends are spent at their California-style ranch house in Correzè, a five-hour drive southwest of Paris. The complex includes a tennis court, golf driving range, gym, swimming pool and billiard room—just the sort of playthings a movie star might envy. An avid motorcyclist in his youth (he was once a top-10 competitor in the European version of motocross), Séné also keeps eight cycles at the retreat, along with his '53 Buick, six pinball machines and a collection of 400-plus pairs of shoes dating back to 1935.

"When I first visited the U.S. in 1970, I thought to myself, it must be a mistake of nature that I wasn't born here," says Séné. "Now I live an American life-style in France. I live in Hollywood all day."

—By Harriet Shapiro, with Dana Micucci in Paris

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