It seemed like such a 70’s New York “I’m-having-a-nervous-breakdown-and-I’ll-never-speak-to-Truman-Capote-again!” thing to do. Seek asylum from the summer heat in the cool, sleeping-pill blue D. Porthault linen shop at 18 East 69th Street. Didn’t Capote say the difference between the rich and the rest of us was their insanely fresh vegetables and crisp Porthault sheets?
Inside was exactly what you need for your next padded cell. Vitrines were stocked with classic, lush, Egyptian cotton Porthault sheets including the heart-shaped motif designed originally for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and the four-leaf-clover print inspired by the signature of Louise deVilmorin, the French writer. Thread counts? If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.
There are new looks as well. Geometric designs and satin jacquard pieces with an ethnic theme.
“Before my family opened our first New York shop on East 57th Street, my grandmother used to come to New York with luggage filled with things for her American customers,” said Remi Porthault, the 36-year-old grandson of Daniel and Mad-eline Porthault who, in 1920, founded D. Porthault, a family business that is still privately owned. Clients included Bunny Mellon, Jayne Wrightsman and Jacqueline Kennedy, who invited Mrs. Porthault to the White House, where she provided linen for the Kennedys’ private apartments and the guest bedrooms.
“But Porthault goes forward. Porthault has to go to a new level, a new stage,” said Mr. Porthault. Twelve years ago the store moved uptown, and last year Remi Porthault was named marketing director and president of the company’s U.S. subsidiary; his father, Marc Porthault, runs the business globally. Before taking his new post in the United States, Mr. Porthault, who received his master’s degree in business administration from the University of Hartford, handled the licensing for French ready-to-wear designer Danielle Hechter and, in 1991, founded Concepts & Parfums, a company that created Porthault’s line of home fragrances and candles. Now Mr. Porthault works in New York. The rest of the time, he lives in Paris with his wife, Isabelle, the head of human resources for Chanel in Europe, and their two children, Daniel, 6, and Ombline, 5.
Mr. Porthault paused by the Ethnique collection, the new African-art-inspired line of which he is particularly proud. “The tendency is always to rebel against your family,” he said. “I strive for a balance, but I think contemporary is important. I like to live with my century.”
Nowadays, Porthault’s American clients range from almost the entire townships of Southampton, L.I., Locust Valley, N.Y., and Kent, Conn., to the three Miller sisters, Woody Allen, Tina Turner and, most recently, Bill Gates, whose decorators shop for the cybergrandee at Porthault. The cotton sheets start at about $600 for your basic four pieces: flat and fitted sheets and a pair of pillow cases. As fast as you can say Tour de France, prices race upward from there–and the sky is the limit for made-to-order. Cotton voile, linen, silk, crepe de Chine, satin, organdy, hand-knotted lace, openwork embroidery, monograms, coats of arms, personalized designs, the options go on. They also sell flatware, bathrobes, tablecloths, baby pillows, neck rolls and tea and coffee sets. Mr. Porthault allowed that, recently, an Arabian prince placed a $7 million order for his house. How did the tabloids miss this?
“It is a delicate balance between exclusivity and popularity we deal with,” Mr. Porthault explained. “There are two distinctions in the luxury retail business now: There’s the industry of luxury and the artists of luxury. We are the artists … We will expand, but we must keep our image in good shape.”
To do that, Mr. Porthault said he is considering commissioning a limited advertising campaign and, meanwhile, he is looking for additional retail space in the United States. There are now only two stores: the flagship store on East 69th Street and on the Avenue Montaigne across from the Plaza Athénée hotel in Paris. Porthault is also sold at Bergdorf Goodman and through the Neiman Marcus catalogue.
“Even if you go to a deserted island, the best way to control the image is by opening your own stores,” he said, mentioning Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle as possible locations.
The history of dressing the bed and the dining room is as potent a cultural indicator as the history of fashion. For centuries, a wedding trousseau was filled with the finest needlework imaginable. So excessive were some pieces that the French parliament in 1639 attempted to legislate against decorative braiding and needlepoint on sheets. It didn’t work. According to Françoise de Bonneville, author of The Book of Fine Linen , a rich town-dweller’s trousseau at the turn of the 20th century “might include 96 sheets for family use and 60 sheets for servants.”
In the 1920’s, Worth and Lanvin, the French fashion houses, went into the “home” business with collections of bed linen using fashion fabrics such as crepe de Chine and silk satin. Europeans preferred white bed linen. It represented purity and isolation from the colors of the rest of the world. Printed fabric was used for clothing and home furnishings.
Madeline Porthault, borrowing from the fashion world in the 1920’s and inspired by post-Impressionist paintings, created the first floral sheet in 1925. “My grandmother got the idea from ready-to-wear clothes,” Mr. Porthault said . “It represented a great change in the culture of the time.”
Although the Porthault business has thrived because of the abilities of its design department and factories, until the 1970’s the French shied away from the floral patterns so popular with American customers.
“People are very rich, very fast these days, aren’t they?” Mr. Porthault observed.
Getting the good life into sound working order takes great care, however.
“Building a trousseau over time educated young people about the finer things. Now we judge quality by the clothes one wears. This is why communication is so important for Porthault. You don’t see linen as often as you see clothes.” He paused, and smiled.
“If you have someone over to your house, the last thing they see is the bedroom. Usually.”
Billy’s List: Quiz time!
1. Who is Margot Fraser?
a. The main character in Tama Janowitz’s new novel A Certain Age .
b. The president and founder of Birkenstock Footprint Sandals.
c. Gwyneth Paltrow’s alias when she swims at the Colony Club on Park Avenue.
2. Although not “recalled” quite yet, some recent-model Rolls-Royces reportedly may cause what problem for their drivers?
a. Car seats overheat, which may cause hemorrhoids.
b. The CD-DVD players in the back seat skip.
c. Tom Cruise recently complained that British moviegoers care more about the actor’s Rolls-Royce than they do his “craft.”
3. Why is Janet Jackson’s former cook suing her?
a. He claims he was dismissed when he refused to make her brother Michael Jackson a robin’s egg omelet at 3 in the morning.
b. He claims Ms. Jackson’s consistent refusal to eat his desserts when she gave dinner parties sullied his reputation among Beverly Hills private chefs.
c. He claims she ordered prescription drugs under his name without his consent, to maintain her privacy.
Answers: (1) b; (2) a; (3) c.