May 17, 2013 6:20 pm

Expat lives: France to the US

Manhattan’s can-do spirit impresses Laurent Claquin, head of Kering Americas
Laurent Claquin in Gramercy Park, New York©Brian Shumway

Laurent Claquin in Gramercy Park, New York

There was an inevitability to Laurent Claquin’s 2011 move to New York City from France. With extensive careers in both fashion and contemporary art, Manhattan was a logical relocation from his previous home in Paris’s atmospheric Porte Saint-Denis quarter. Claquin is head of Kering Americas, the parent company of leading global fashion brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney.

Based at the headquarters of Kering (formerly known as PPR) on East 57th Street, Claquin, 41, operates as a behind-the-scenes adviser helping to expand the company’s presence across North, Central and South America and is the first person to assume this newly created position.

Born in Brittany and educated in the UK and France, Claquin lives in Gramercy Park, an eastside Manhattan neighbourhood formerly home to John F Kennedy and John Steinbeck and today best known for its namesake park.

Tree-lined and bucolic, Gramercy Park is favoured for its elegant brownstones and grand apartment buildings – the most coveted directly facing the park itself. Once swampland, the area was initially developed in the 1830s and today is the only private park in Manhattan – accessed only by the highly-coveted 383 keys made available to residents.

Claquin, who travels at least twice a month throughout North and Latin America for business, lives in a light-filled loft six floors above East 19th Street, one of Manhattan’s most picturesque streets owing to its meticulously preserved carriage houses and red-brick town houses. “My loft is quiet enough to hear the building’s old steam pipes gurgling,” says Claquin, “with beautiful views of the town houses below and the sky all around.”

The converted industrial space suits Claquin, who likes the kind of authentic Manhattan lifestyle he first encountered during a visit with his father in the early 1980s. “New York really seemed like a dream back then,” recalls Claquin, who as a teenager gutted bass and monkfish at a Breton fish-packing factory. “Later on, I would visit for work every two months; living here, however, has been an entirely different experience.”

With its fashion boutiques and notoriously-stylish residents, the West Village might have been a more obvious choice for Claquin. “The West Village has a great European vibe but I really loved Gramercy Park’s ‘old New York’ feeling,” he says.

Set squarely where Midtown eases into Downtown, the neighbourhood is within walking distance from Union Square’s near-daily Greenmarket, the East Village and SoHo, as well as being an easy commute to Kering’s Midtown offices. “I had a car and motorbike back in Paris but here I can walk to work or quickly ride on the subway ... the trip is easy and I love the people-watching,” he says. “Every morning I stop on the way at Irving Farm Coffee Roasters, which makes the best cappuccino in town.”

Claquin explains that one of the city’s best attributes is the light, which reminds him of his childhood in Brittany. “Having been raised along the Atlantic, I love that Manhattan is an island – you feel the connection with the rivers and the sea,” he says. Then there’s eye-contact, a staple of Parisian street-life that, he says, is sorely missing in Manhattan. “France has this wonderfully Latin-style of ‘seduction through the eyes’ that you just don’t find in New York.”

As for the city’s fashion – particularly “street” fashion – Claquin is more sanguine. He loves the way that New York women like to dress up, whether young professionals socialising after work or people dressed in their “Sunday best” for church services in Harlem.

Claquin describes New York as more open and accepting of individuality and experimental styles than Paris. “Parisians are quite judgmental when it comes to fashion,” he says, “but New Yorkers have this freedom to use fashion as a vehicle to express exactly who they are and how they feel.”

Along with fashion, Claquin is equally inspired by New York’s arts scene and spends much of his free time at museums such as the Whitney and PS1, or private galleries in Chelsea or the Lower East Side such as David Zwirner and 47 Canal Street. He is both a collector and admirer, and continues to stumble upon new talents on his regular weekend gallery crawls. “I’m still in that New York ‘discovery’ phase,” says Claquin, who has also made numerous pilgrimages to the Donald Judd installations in Marfa, Texas. “Though I suspect that will still be the case if I stay here for 20 more years.”

Almost two years after arriving in the Big Apple, Claquin says an extended residency is quite likely. He admits to missing Parisian baguettes, though acknowledges that Manhattan restaurants have much to offer, happily frequenting places such as Acme, Rouge Tomate and Lafayette – celebrated chef Andrew Carmellini’s new brasserie.

He also misses his Parisian circle of friends and their almost “tribal-like” closeness. Friendships in New York, he observes, are often far more transient. “People arrive in Paris and never leave, so you spend time with the same group of friends for 20 years. But America is far larger and more mobile; you can quickly make friends in New York but people often move away.”

Nonetheless, Claquin still finds New York imbued with the American can-do spirit that first fuelled his imagination three decades ago. Outside observers might call it cliché but Claquin finds it refreshing, particularly when doing business.

“There is a straightforwardness to America, everything is very clearly black or white,” he says. “I actually like shades of grey – it’s a space for dreaming and for possibility. But I also like that people in New York come from a place of ‘yes’. In Paris, everything starts with a ‘no’ – though somehow people manage to make things happen.”

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Buying guide

Pros

● With its elegant architecture and literary history, Gramercy Park is considered one of Manhattan’s most desirable districts

● Close to Manhattan’s “Hospital Row”, which includes many of New York’s leading medical institutions

● Short walk from Union Square, a hub for several Subway lines

Cons

● Gramercy Park property is limited and expensive. Average home sales jumped 34 per cent, from the first quarter of 2012 to the same period this year, to $1.285m

● With nearly 75 per cent of its population Caucasian, Gramercy Park lacks racial diversity

What you can buy for ...

$500,000 A small one-bedroom/ one-bathroom co-op with prime Gramercy Park views

$1m An 1,100 sq ft two-bedroom/ one-bathroom co-op in a 1910 brownstone a short stroll from Gramercy Park

$5m A three-bedroom/two-bathroom condominium in a full-service building with expansive views

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