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Fashion Capitals - Paris
by Stuart Haggas


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.”

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]

Resources

HOTELS
Duo, 11 rue du Temple, Marais, 4e. Tel: 01-42-72-72-22. Ideally situated for the shops and gay bars of the Marais, this chic and contemporary hotel has 58 rooms and suites decorated in rich chocolate tones. Room rates from €140. http://www.duoparis.com

L’Hôtel, 13 rue des Beaux-Arts, St Germain, 6e. Tel: 01-44-41-99-00. This Left Bank hotel has a colorful history. Oscar Wilde stayed here until his death in 1900, and it’s since hosted glamorous celebrities including Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The 20 rooms are individually decorated in frivolous Beaux-Arts style. Room rates from €250. http://www.l-hotel.com

Mama Shelter, 109 rue de Bagnolet, 20e. A hip new destination hotel in the newly fashionable 20th Arrondissement, designed by Philippe Starck with popular bar, restaurant, and pizzeria. The 172 rooms have black and waxed concrete walls, and feature 24-inch iMac TVs and kitchenettes with microwave and coffee machine. Room rates from €99. http://www.mamashelter.com

Murano Urban Resort, 13 boulevard de Temple, Marais, 3e. Tel: 01-42-71-20-00. This futuristic design hotel boasts high-tech amenities and a happening bar and restaurant. Its 52 brilliant white rooms and suites are decorated with unique pieces of Pop Art. Room rates from €350. http://www.muranoresort.com

Hôtel du Petit Moulin, 29-31 rue de Poitou, Marais, 3e. Tel: 01-42-74-10-10. Created by French fashion designer Christian Lacroix, this charming hotel in the heart of the Marais is a wealth of history and creativity. The 17 rooms are individually decorated and full of surprising details. Room rates from €190. http://www.hoteldupetitmoulin.com

Hôtel Plaza Athénée, 25 avenue Montaigne, Champs-Elysées, 8e. Tel: 01-53-67-66-65. Deluxe five-star hotel decorated by interior designer Patrick Jouin. With a restaurant overseen by acclaimed chef Alain Ducasse, an award-winning tea salon, a fashionable bar, and a Dior Institut spa, it’s the preferred Paris address for fashion editors and supermodels. Room rates from €450. http://www.plaza-athenee-paris.com

The Ritz Paris, 15 place Vendôme, Palais Royal, 1e. Tel: 01-43-16-30-30. Dating back to 1898, this legendary Paris hotel provides palatial five-star luxury. Guests include royalty, Hollywood stars, and world-renowned fashion designers. Room rates from €550. http://www.ritzparis.com


SHOPPING
Baccarat, 11 place des Etats-Unis, 16e. A flagship store of the famous crystal brand. The interior was recently redesigned by Philippe Starck, so the original chandeliers and mirrors now sit beside more contemporary elements. http://www.baccarat.fr

Balenciaga, 10 avenue George V, 8e. Futuristic, interactive boutique of this famous old label, currently under the inventive design direction of Nicolas Ghesquière. http://www.balenciaga.com

Balmain, 44 rue Françios, 8e. Classic old French label, now hot once more thanks to new designer Christophe Decarnin. http://www.balmain.com

Colette, 213 rue Saint-Honoré, Palais Royal, 1e. Paris’s original lifestyle store opened in the nineties, and today is still the city’s best multi-brand designer option. Its basement Water Bar is famous for stocking dozens of types of bottled water. http://www.colette.fr

Christian Louboutin, 38 rue de Grenelle, Saint-Germain, 6e. This French shoe designer, known for his killer heels, became a household name thanks to Carrie Bradshaw’s shoe obsession in Sex and the City. http://www.christianlouboutin.com

Fleux, 39 rue Sainte Croix de la Bretonnerie, 4e. This spacious store in the Marais is packed with contemporary interior design. These range from stylish furniture, lamps, and mirrors by leading designers, to novelty teabag holders illustrated with caricatures of fashion designers Jean Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld, and Donatella Versace. http://www.fleux.com

Jean Paul Gaultier, 44 avenue George V, 8e. (further store at 6 rue Vivienne, 2e). This flagship store, carrying Jean Paul Gaultier’s prêt-a-porter collection, was designed by Philippe Starck to resemble a sexy boudoir. http://www.jeanpaulgaultier.com

Lancel, 127 avenue des Champs-Elysées, 8e. A classic French brand, purveyors of luxury gifts, luggage, silver, crystal, and porcelain. http://www.lancel.com

Lanvin, 15 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, 8e. Famous French label, now under the design direction of Alber Elbaz, with designer Lucas Ossendrijver overseeing the invigorated menswear collections. http://www.lanvin.com

Legay Choc, 17 rue des Archives, 4e (branches at 45 rue Sainte Croix de la Bretonnerie and 33 rue Rambuteau). Gay-owned and run artisan boulanger and pâtissier, best known for its “La Baguette Magique”—a penis-shaped loaf. http://www.legaychoc.fr

Lucky Records, 66 rue de la Verrerie, 4e. This record shop has an amazing amount of Madonna collectables for sale, as well as rare releases by other gay favorites like Bananarama and Kylie Minogue, plus French popstars such as Amanda Lear and Sylvie Vartan. http://www.lucky-records.com

Sonia Rykiel, 175 boulevard Saint-Germain, Saint-Germain, 6e. Regarded Parisian fashion designer, best know for her stripy knitwear. http://www.soniarykiel.fr

Tout a Loisirs, 50 rue des Archives, 4e. This button emporium, founded in 1984, is full of trays and jars crammed with buttons, beads, and trimmings—a great place for a rummage.

Vintage Bar, 16 rue de la Verrerie, 4e. Vintage clothes and accessories shop in the heart of the Marais, great for discovering fashion treasures from the sixties, seventies, and eighties.


DINING
Ladurée, 16 rue Royale, 1e. Famous tea salon dating from 1862, said to be the first of its kind in Paris. Larger and even more luxurious branches later opened at 75 avenue des Champs-Elysées 8e and 21 rue Bonaparte 6e. Their opulent décor and proximity to the most upscale shopping areas in Paris make each one a fashionista favorite. http://www.laduree.fr

Kong, 1 rue du Pont Neuf, Palais Royal, 1e. Fashionable bar and restaurant designed by Philippe Starck occupying the top two floors of the Kenzo boutique. Both the décor and menu are a stylish fusion of Paris and Tokyo. http://www.kong.fr


GAY VENUES
Open Café, 17 rue des Archives, 4e. Busy gay café bar open from 11 A.M., with good value lunch and popular evening happy hours. http://www.opencafe.fr

Cox, 15 rue des Archives, 4e. Popular bar attracting a butch crowd, know for its sexy interior décor that changes each season. http://www.coxbar.fr

Raidd, 23 rue du Temple, 4e. Fashionable video bar, with basement dancefloor and smoking room, famous for its revealing showerboy shows. http://www.raiddbar.com

Freedj, 35 rue Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnarie, 4e. Hip bar with DJ, a sexy and stylish crowd, glass-walled smoking room, and basement demi-club. http://www.freedj.fr

Les Bains Douche, 7 rue du Bourg l’Abbé, 3e. Open since 1978, this Paris clubbing stalwart is the biggest in the Marais and has an array of themed nights including weekly gay parties. http://www.lesbainsdouches.net