Hilditch & Key in Paris is the oldest established English shop in the whole of the Capital. And if you're going to have a branch in this most wonderful and breathtaking city, then it might just as well be on an almost impossibly beautiful site, as is Hilditch & Key: the very last shop on the seemingly endless Rue de Rivoli, its handsome arched and pilastered covered walkways running parallel to the Tuileries Gardens up to the Louvre and beyond. Almost next door is the five star Hotel de Crillon, famous for hosting the annual ball to mark the coming out of the cream of Europe's debutantes [Paris - c'est tres chic, non?].
The Hilditch & Key shop has unusually high ceilings - and above the fine oak panelling and cases piled high with all the beautiful shirts, one can glimpse the little glass-fronted atelier where a small and dedicated posse of highly-skilled women are constantly beavering away at the bespoke side of things. Many discerning customers depend upon their expertise in making up exactly what is required - most notable of whom is Karl Lagerfeld, of Chanel fame. You have seen endless photographs of him in his spaghetti-thin black trousers, white ponytail, dark glasses and rather curious driving gloves - but the magnificent high-collared white shirts that he wears so well are all hand-made by Hilditch & Key. He delivers to the shop swiftly executed, deft and rather elegant sketches, and it is up to the brilliance of the Hilditch Ladies to turn them into reality: the painstaking detail is quite fantastic. So, if it's bespoke you're after, there really is no better place on earth.
The ready-to-wear selection here, though, is mighty. Rather brighter colours and more daring patterns, maybe, than in London, and lots of first class cashmere. There is a wonderful old lift with the initialled 'H & K' logo in wrought iron incorporated into the design of the cage: the French equivalent of our own and much-loved 'Elf 'n Safety' boys have decreed, however, that because it is so old, it can no longer be operated. Never mind - it is just a short hop up the winding staircase to the salon above. Here there is more of the oak panelling and what look like very fine and built-in glass-fronted bookcases, all of them filled with glorious shirtings. Also up here are racks of such as tweed jackets, cord trousers and waxed weatherproof coats: Parisians are still great admirers of 'Le Style Anglais' [rather more so, alas, than the Anglais themselves]. But maybe the true attraction of this upper floor is the view from the window: you are right on the corner of the Place de la Concorde, and there is the ancient obelisk at its centre - marking the spot, it is rather hard to believe, where all the aristocrats were guillotined during the French Revolution, while the tricoteuses sat and watched and squawked. It's nicer these days. Beyond and in the distance is the Eiffel Tower: this is truly the quintessential Parisian view.
Bruce, the manager of the shop, has been here for many many years, and he runs the place quite admirably: everything is always just so. He also supervises the dressing of the very stylish windows, which at the moment are sporting black-and-white photographs of those two most elegant icons Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich - just a couple of the company's illustrious clients of the past and present. And in my next piece, I'll tell you about all of them.
Joseph Connolly has written ten novels, all of which are in print. The latest is JACK THE LAD AND BLOODY MARY [Faber and Faber £12.99]