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Fashion Capitals - Paris
by Stuart Haggas
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(Page 2 of 2)

One of the oldest parts of Paris, the Marais, is also the most unorthodox. This former marshland in the 4th Arrondissement (marais means marsh in French) is home to the city’s gay community. The area is characterized by its narrow streets crammed with interesting and individual stores, as well as an endless choice of cafés and bars. Only a handful of the most forward-thinking international brands, such as American Apparel and M.A.C Cosmetics, have found their niche in the Marais. Neighborhood department store Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville, know simply as BHV, is a good multibrand option, particularly the branch devoted to menswear. Unlike the rest of Paris, the shops of the Marais tend to open on Sundays, so it’s at its prime when everywhere else is closed and deserted.

The best advice here is to follow your nose, or to follow whichever cute local catches your eye. Rue des Archives and Rue de la Verrerie are the most happening queer streets, but you’ll spy same-sex couples strolling arm-in-arm throughout this part of Paris.

Rue des Rosiers, the heart of the city’s oldest Jewish quarter, is also worth traversing because many fashionable boutiques have opened up among the kosher delis and restaurants. Dating back to 1605, Place des Vosges is a perfectly symmetrical square that’s considered to be one of the most beautiful in Paris. Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, once lived here. Today, its shady arcades are lined with contemporary art galleries and chic cafés.

Although you’ll inevitably find your personal favorites, mine include Fleux, a vast contemporary space crammed with covetable interior décor inspiration; Tout A Loisirs, a frivolous emporium brimming with thousands of different buttons, beads, and trimmings; Vintage Bar, a treasure chest of best-quality retro clothes and accessories including vintage Louis Vuitton bags, Balenciaga sunglasses, and Hermès scarves; and Lucky Records, a Madonna-centric record shop (rare collectables from other gay favorites like Bananarama and Kylie are also stocked). Afterward, indulge yourself even more by visiting gay-owned and run artisan bakery and patisserie Legay Choc, which made headlines for baking a penis-shaped loaf known as “La Baguette Magique”—perfect for indecisive moments when you can’t decide between bread rolls or a baguette.

Worthy of individual mention is French chain The Kooples. Its fashion manifesto is to mix the chic of Paris with the sharpness of London, and to that end the design team works with Norton & Sons, historic tailors on London’s Saville Row. With sixteen branches across Paris, including three in the Marais, the clothes take style inspiration from famous Anglo-French couples like Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, and are a mix of 1960s British mod tailoring combined with vintage Parisian frivolity. Their ad campaigns feature stylishly attired real-life couples, which inevitably include gay and lesbian parings. Although now available in New York, Zadig & Voltaire also warrant checking out. This season, they’re taking retro style inspiration from DJ and music producer Mark Ronson and French chanteuse Joséphine de la Baume, both of whom feature in the label’s current ad campaign.

True to the area’s character, there are no big hotels in the Marais, instead you’ll find boutique boltholes such as futuristic Murano Urban Resort, where room keys have been dispensed with in favor of a high-tech fingerprint ID system, and the 52 brilliant, white rooms and suites are decorated with one-off Pop Art prints.

The most fashionable choice for accommodations in this area has to be Hôtel du Petit Moulin, a former bakery (reputed to be the oldest in Paris) transformed into a charming hotel with just 17 rooms, each individually decorated by French fashion designer Christian Lacroix. The result is a beautifully assembled scrapbook of inspiration that combines Lacriox’s fashion illustrations with Venetian mirrors, rococo wallpaper, graffiti, and Empire-era antiques.

Although high-end Paris fashion doesn’t appear to have taken note of the credit crunch, you’ll be relieved to hear that Paris’s most popular gay venues are at their busiest and best during the generous happy hours. The appropriately named Open Café begins serving café crème from 11 A.M., then lunch, then at 6 P.M. it’s time for the four-hour happy hour, followed by champagne happy hour from 10 P.M. No wonder this friendly, gay café-bar is always full.

Another popular happy hour option is Cox. Attracting a butch thirty-something crowd who favor the tried-and-tested jeans and t-shirt look, it nonetheless deserves a mention because its interior undergoes dramatic makeovers each season, although the décor is more Tom of Finland than Tom Ford. I’ve witnessed a Wild West theme with cowboy hats for lampshades and cacti aplenty, and a nautical sailor theme with anchors, ropes, and tattoos. The bar boys generally get involved and dress accordingly. The men’s room is also worth visiting, because the urinals were custom-made from old metal beer kegs.

Trendy bar Raidd is a hotspot for early evening Champagne or aperitif, but it’s after midnight when things really get hot as the notorious shower boy shows raise the temperature. Nearby Freedj is a slick new place with a glass-walled smoking room in the back, and a demi-club in the vaulted basement that gets rammed at weekends.

Queer clubbing in Paris is currently in a transitional phase, with hardcore French party boys preferring to weekend in Brussels or London. Famous Parisian discothèque Queen attracts so many straight suburbanites nowadays, even on dedicated gay nights like Overkitsch, that most locals have guillotined it from their must-do list. Similarly Les Bains Douches can be fun, and is recommended for those who like streetwise Algerian go-go dancers, but it’s not as happening as it was when it first opened back in 1978. More popular are one-off parties, such as the recent Club Sandwich soiree at Maxim’s de Paris during Mens Fashion Week, hosted by Jean Paul Gaultier, Kylie Minogue, and Ricky Martin to raise money for AIDS charity amfAR.

Although the gay scene remains steadfast in the Marais, in recent years Paris’ fashionable nightlife scene has drifted east. Oberkampf in the 11th Arrondissement had its moment in the spotlight a few years ago, but now the Saint Blaise quarter in the 20th Arrondissement is the current hotspot. It’s here that the Trigano family, co-founders of the famous Club Med, acquired an old garage and, with the help of French architect Ronald Castro and designer Philippe Starck, they created Mama Shelter. The 172 rooms of this funky destination hotel are decorated in an urban mix of waxed concrete and black emulsion, and feature 24-inch iMac TVs, and bedside lights shaded by plastic masks of Batman, Spiderman, and other comic book characters. The ceilings of the lobby, restaurant and bar are like a chalkboard Sistine Chapel, embellished with an ever-changing landscape of poems and doodles; while boards on each floor are updated daily with news of local cultural events and happenings such as gallery openings or live gigs at nearby electro-indie rock club La Flèche d’Or. The hotel boasts a slick restaurant serving classic French food, and a chic but cheap pizzeria, both reliably packed with hip young Parisians.

Nearby flea market Marché aux Puces de Montreuil is where many French fashion designers head on the weekends for inspiration. Although not as famous as Marché aux Puces Clignancourt in the north of Paris, you’re more likely to find a genuine bargain here. There’s a lot of useless bric-á-brac, as well as countless stalls selling fake designer merchandise, but patience and determination can sometimes be rewarded. It’s also a good source for of-the-moment army surplus gear and oversize eighties jewelery and sunglasses.

Another place in the 20th Arrondissement that’s inspired many artists and fashion collections is the eerie splendour of Père Lachaise. Reputed to be the world’s most visited cemetery, it’s the final resting place to countless famous French men and women including composer Georges Bizet, actress Sarah Bernhardt, and singer Edith Piaf. Although the tomb of American singer-songwriter Jim Morrison is probably the most visited, the tomb of Oscar Wilde is equally popular. Today, this dramatic art-deco monument is covered in the residue of thousands of lipstick kisses left by fans of Wilde’s prose. Created by world-renowned sculptor Jacob Epstein, the tomb was commissioned by Wilde’s former lover, Robert Ross, whose ashes were also placed here in 1950. Acclaimed American author Gertrude Stein and her lover Alice B. Toklas are also buried nearby, altogether illustrating that Paris is a gay-friendly city where styles may change but true love never goes out of fashion.

[Published: September, 2010]

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