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Fashion Capitals - Paris
by Stuart Haggas
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With a pedigree that extends through history, Paris is the grande dame of all the fashion capitals. Its magnificent palaces, elegant boulevards, and romantic neighborhoods have inspired designers and artists for centuries; and today the names of Parisian couturiers like Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, and Yves Saint Laurent are as synonymous with the city as landmark attractions like the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and Arc de Triomphe. Its reputation for being impeccably chic is long-standing, and one that Paris carries as confidently as a Louis Vuitton bag.

I first visited Paris as a fashion student in the nineties. As well as scouring discount shops like Mouton à Cinq Pattes for last season Jean Paul Gaultier samples, and partying at notorious gay discos like Queen and Le Boy with Jean Paul Gaultier models, I’d attempt to fake my way into the biannual prêt-a-porter runway shows. Taking place in vast tents pitched in the courtyard of the Musée du Louvre, I’d reflect how appropriate it was that next season’s fashion collections were premiered right here—in the absolute geographic and royal heart of Paris. Before becoming one of the most important museums in the world, the Louvre was the lavish home of a succession of French rulers including Louis XIV, and the adjacent Palais Royal is where Louis XVI held court with his frivolous queen Marie-Antoinette up until the day she was guillotined in 1793. A love of fashion and opulence can evidently be fatal in Paris, but, as most Parisians would agree, it’s one love affair that’s worth the risk.

The city is divided into twenty districts, or arrondissements. Starting by the Louvre and the Palais Royal in the 1st Arrondissement, they numerically spiral outward like the shell of a snail. There is no particular place in Paris where fashion is concentrated. Instead, each neighborhood has a unique style and joie de vivre.

The most exclusive shopping is along picturesque rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and around the “golden triangle” of Avenue George V, Avenue Montaigne and rue François 1er in the 8th Arrondissement, and on rue Saint-Honoré in the 1st Arrondissement. Skirting major tourist areas like the Louvre and the Champs-Elysées, these streets are the domain of immaculately coiffed and pampered Parisian women whose willowy arms brandish Hermès Birkins and Chihuahuas, or whatever designer bag and dog combination is currently in vogue. Here you’ll find grand old French establishments like Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, and Givenchy, alongside luxury international brands including Burberry, Gucci, and Ralph Lauren.

Should you make a fashion pilgrimage to these hallowed avenues, be sure to pay homage to Jean Paul Gaultier’s flagship boutique, decorated to resemble a chic but sexy boudoir with languid banquettes and polished mirror-clad cabinets. Balenciaga is also recommended, not only for designer Nicolas Ghesquière’s enviable clothes and accessories, but also for the store’s futuristic and interactive environment developed with French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.

Despite being one of the original haute-couture houses in Paris, Balmain had been marginalized by the fickle world of fashion until just a few seasons ago, when new designer Christophe Decarnin gave the label a glam-rock overhaul, and now it’s a hot name once again. Similarly, design director Alber Elbaz and menswear designer Lucas Ossendrijver have recently injected new life into Lanvin, so this is another classic French label worth revisiting.

Clothes aren’t the only luxury items to benefit from a makeover. Renowned product and interior designer Philippe Starck was recently tasked with reinventing traditional crystal brand Baccarat. Its flawless store now blends original chandeliers, candelabra, and mirrors with striking contemporary elements, and its gleaming products are once again on every fashionista’s shopping list. Lancel began selling deluxe smoking paraphernalia to the French aristocracy in 1876, and in the 1930s was the first French company to produce the automatic cigarette lighter. It later expanded into luggage, silverware, crystal, and porcelain. Its elegant new store is another must for high-end gifts.

Another area in the 1st Arrondissement worthy of exploration is Place Vendôme. This regal little square is lined with purveyors of the world’s finest watches and jewelery, including Patek Philippe, Rolex, Cartier, Chopard, Boucheron, and Van Cleef & Arpels. Fortunately, funky, plastic watchmaker Swatch also has a store here, so you can spend time without spending a fortune.

Paris has excellent department stores such as Le Bon Marché, Printemps, and Galeries Lafayette, but if you’re cash rich but time poor, the most efficient place to shop is multi-brand boutique Colette. Considered to be the city’s first lifestyle concept store when it opened in the 1990s, it’s spawned numerous imitators, but Colette remains on the cutting edge by showcasing a well-edited selection from the best names in fashion, accessories, fragrance, art books, and gadgets. Afterward, head downstairs to Colette’s famous Water Bar where thirsty fashionistas have a choice of 73 different brands of bottled water, including outrageously decadent Swarovski crystal-encrusted options, alongside detox drinks and designer snacks and salads.

Hereabouts are many of Paris’ best hotels. One of my favorites, The Ritz, has a unique fashion pedigree. It was Coco Chanel’s principal residence from 1934 until her death in 1971, and it was from here that Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed departed on that fateful day in 1997.

Meanwhile, Hôtel Plaza Athénée remains the favorite choice of fashion editors and supermodels. Renowned interior designer Patrick Jouin recently gave this 1911 landmark an opulent and flouncy overhaul, while legendary chef Alain Ducasse took charge of the kitchen. During Paris Fashion Week the Athénée’s summer terrace, glamorous bar, and acclaimed restaurant buzz with the latest news on handbags and hemlines.

As their svelte silhouettes testify, well-heeled Parisians don’t regularly snack, but when they do they’re likely to indulge in tea and delicate macaroons at Plaza Athénée’s award-winning La Galerie des Gobelins; or at Ladurée, a grand tea salon with neo-classical décor that dates back to 1862.

More contemporary sustenance can be enjoyed at Kong. This fashionable fusion of Paris and Tokyo sits under a glass domed ceiling on top of the Kenzo boutique, providing sushi lovers with spectacular panoramas of the River Seine. The interior, designed by Philippe Starck, is equally spectacular: plasma screens, perspex Louis XV chairs decorated with portraits of geishas, and a plethora of kitsch Pokémon and Hello Kitty memorabilia. It was given the Sex and the City stamp of approval when scenes of Carrie Bradshaw’s sojourn to Paris were shot here. New in 2010 is Kong’s Terasse Gallery, a hip outside drinking and dining space where smoking is permitted.

Cross over to the Left Bank (Rive Gauche) of the River Seine and you enter the 6th Arrondissement, a neighborhood that’s enjoyed many romantic liaisons with poets, philosophers, artists, and radicals of all sexes and sexual persuasions. Before World War I, Russian revolutionaries such as Lenin and Trotsky would plot and pontificate here. Then came American writers including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. After World War II, intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir further enhanced the area’s bohemian reputation by frequenting its bars and cafés. It was also the scene of the 1968 student uprisings, which prompted around nine million workers to join a fight for better pay and study conditions, a rebellion that had a profound effect on modern French society.

Leafy Boulevard Saint-Germain is still characterised by its café terraces, making it an idyllic place to read Le Monde while watching the world go by. It’s this typical Parisian character, one that ambles through the city with no apparent purpose, that gay American writer Edmund White portrayed in his Paris-set novel The Flâneur. Famous bohemian haunts Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots remain popular spots for a nostalgic café crème and an existentialist debate on liberty and gender politics, but today the area is also peppered with boutiques, galleries, and bookshops.

Shopping here is still upscale, but is somewhat younger and edgier, catering to the local intelligentsia (France’s most prestigious university, La Sorbonne, is nearby). One of the original Left Bank designers, flame-haired Sonia Rykiel, remains a formidable force in Paris fashion, and today she’s joined here by Cacharel, Paul & Joe, Barbara Bui, and Agnes B, as well as international brands including Prada and Moschino. Shoe fetishists wanting to indulge their addiction should make a beeline for the Christian Louboutin boutique, decorated in the same signature shade of lipstick red as the soles of his super-sexy stilettos.

A notable place to stay here is L’Hôtel, an idiosyncratic little place with twenty rooms that are individually themed. It was here in room 16, amid Victorian furniture and a vivid peacock mural, that gay novelist and playwright Oscar Wilde “died beyond his means” in 1900. “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death,” he allegedly said. “One of us has got to go.”

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