LESS IS MOI
Paris, FRANCE — “Do you know, I haven’t seen one well-dressed woman yet. I thought Parisian women were supposed to be the most stylish in the world.” So narked my fellow Yorkshire(wo)man as she scoffed her second croque monsieur of the morning. (So much for ‘petit’ dejeuner.) And even though I doubted that any real Parisienne had walked past us, such is the relentless throng of international visitors to the world’s fashion capital, her comment got me thinking: is this idea that Parisian women are the world’s best dressed a myth or a reality? And what is this Paris Style that people go on about, anyway?
I put the question to Inès de La Fressange, brand ambassador at posh cobbler Roger Vivier, face of L’Oréal Paris and author of best-selling style guide La Parisienne [English title: Parisian Chic].
“Hmmm … is it a myth?” ponders the 58-years-old who looks just as beautiful today as she did 30 years ago when she was the first model to sign an exclusive contract with a maison de haute couture — Chanel under Karl Lagerfeld, for whom she was a muse from 1983 to ‘89. (She last walked the Chanel runway in 2011, aged 53). “No. There is a difference between Parisian women and, say, women in England where they follow fashion trends more — just look at the size of the department stores and the number of fashion magazines there. Here in France, they dare to mix up the old and the new; the expensive and the cheap. They wouldn’t like that idea so much, say, in America where they call a shop to put their name down on a waiting list for something they’ve seen in a magazine but which hasn’t arrived in-store yet. No way would they do that in Paris. In Paris, they would want to try it on and then shop around.”
De la Fressange is as Parisian as poodle pooh on the pavement, and her signature style — tomboy or garçonne, as they call it in France — has become legendary, the ingredients being distilled to a jacket (“It should be tiny to make things sweeter”); a cropped pair of slim pants or dark jeans (“APC’s low-rise jeans are good, they suit a lot of people”), flat shoes (“Sensuality doesn’t come from heels, especially if you can’t walk in them”); and a man’s shirt (“A few years ago, I would have said a white shirt, but that’s boring now. If you have an uptight, bourgeois outfit, a denim shirt can change that”).
Today, sprawled out on the floor of her shocking pink-coloured office at Roger Vivier, she remains true to her tried-and-tested formula, wearing a pair of beaten-up brogues with chunky-knit socks, skinny beige corduroys, a man’s shirt, a sleeveless jumper and two favourite Marie-Hélène de Taillac rings.
“Nobody talks about elegance anymore, but when you think about Parisian elegance you think of Françoise Hardy, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman. Very often they borrowed from the man’s wardrobe. Men buy fewer clothes and they keep them for longer; there is a quality to men’s clothes. These shoes for instance are old ones from Hermès. No way would I keep women’s shoes for so long because when they’re old women’s shoes don’t look so nice.”
She takes a drag on her electronic cigarette. “Personally, I’ve had everything in fashion. I am the girl who could go into the Chanel shop on Rue Cambon and have anything I wanted. Here, at Roger Vivier, it’s exactly the same. I am the luckiest girl on earth. But I’ve done that. Now I know that I don’t need a lot; I just need the good things: the right cashmere jumper, the right bag…”
According to De la Fressange, Paris style — like the best of its cuisine — is cooked up from few ingredients, but the very best ones you can afford. “Today you can buy cheap things all the time — at 3am you can log onto the internet and buy whatever you want — but this means that people buy things because it’s fun [to shop online], not because they are going to look better. They buy the wrong things or too much, or probably both. For some people it’s boring to buy just one shirt or just one pair of jeans, but when you find the right one that’s enough. They’re not basics because that makes them sound sad; they’re good design. These are things that people keep forever.”
“I think that the internet has made fashion vulgar,” agrees Nomad Atelier’s Rita Britton wading into the debate with gusto. “It shouldn’t be about fads but about going into your wardrobe and finding pieces that still excite you after having had them for 15/20 years; pieces that are personal classics. I’ll never forget the time that David Hockney found his idea of the perfect shirt at Pollyanna — he ordered 26 of them.”
Of course, when it comes to clothes that people keep forever, there are none more treasured than those crafted in a haute couture atelier; hand made in the world’s most exquisite fabrics to your body’s exact specifications.
“Today, fashion is a bit too manufactured,” says Farida Khelfa, brand ambassador of Paris couture house Schiaparelli. “Fashion has to bring something unreal that puts you on a different level. So maybe what fashion needs right now is more of a dream.”
Khelfa, who earned a reputation in the late 1970s and early ‘80s as the hard-to-please “door whore” at the legendary nightclub Le Bains Douches before becoming a muse to Azzedine Alaïa and Jean-Paul Gaultier, certainly looks a dream working her trademark masculine look (“I like suits: men’s suits and Le Smoking tuxedos”) in a pair of extra wide grey wool Oxford bag pants and a knitted Alaïa jacket. “No bags. I hate bags. All a woman needs is one pair of men’s shoes, one pair of jeans, a man’s suit, and a skirt to adapt with the jacket. That’s it.”
So does Khelfa agree that menswear is an important component when it comes to deconstructing the essence of Paris style? “Yes, it is true that Paris style is associated with le style garçonne. For me the ultimate image of the garçon is Marlene Dietrich in a grey flannel suit and a tie. She looked very chic. And I loved the way that Katherine Hepburn looked. She was always very elegant and very, very stylish. But I can’t think of any modern French style icons from today. In fact, I think it’s a myth that Parisian women are the most stylish because it’s rare that you see well dressed women in the streets here in Paris.”
De la Fressange agrees: “In London, I see very stylish girls on the streets; they all look like little Kate Mosses. But I don’t think people in the streets of Paris are so stylish.”
So where are these well-dressed Parisian women then, if they are not catwalking up and down les boulevards?
“Ah, you have to look a bit harder,” whispers Brit-born, Paris-based fashion stylist-cum-cashmere aficionado, Jane Cattani. “A Parisian is never overdressed, and the word ‘understated’ is key in the Parisian fashion dictionary.”
Cattani, who is in her late-50s and whose CV boasts Harper’s BAZAAR and Christian Dior, runs rings around those French darlings of digital age style Clemence Poésy and Charlotte Gainsbourg when it comes to effortless style.
“Parisian chic looks thrown-together even if the look has taken hours to achieve,” says Cattani wearing pieces from the E+J cashmere collection she launched eight years ago with her friend, Emanuela Calvi.
De la Fressange nods vigorously. “If you say to a Parisian woman, ‘I love your jacket’, she will instantly say, ‘Oh, it’s nothing. I’ve had it for years’. She won’t want you to think she’s been shopping. And you will never see a Parisian showing off with a brand. For example, for years Parisienne wouldn’t dare buy a Louis Vuitton bag. In fact, you don’t really see French people carrying the LV bag. To show off with logos is not very Parisian.”
“And you wouldn’t see a Parisian wearing stripper heels that she can’t walk in,” says Britton, pointing out that her chunky hiking boots are actually Louis Vuitton (sans the logo). “The amount of girls I have watched walking down Market Hill with bent legs because they can’t straighten them…”
De la Fressange nods. “One of my friends has huge tits and she was always showing them off. So I said to her, ‘You don’t need to worry about looking sexy: you are sexy. Don’t worry about showing that you have an amazing pair of boobs: we’ve all noticed them.’ I told her that she would look much more sexy and elegant in a man’s shirt. She screamed in horror.”
It’s exactly this understated sensuality, as opposed to overt sexuality, that gives Paris women the edge over those who clomp their way through life in clodhopper heels, staining everything that they come into contact with in a shade of faux-tan orange.
“French women always boast their femininity in the most tasteful way,” says Cattani. ”It’s never in-yer-face”.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Parisian women have the same attitude towards an even more delicate topic: ageing. “In America you are old after 30 but not in France,” says Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat and French Women Don’t Get Facelifts. “France is not obsessed with youth culture. There is still respect for women in their fifties.”
Guiliano, who cites Catherine Deneuve, 72, as a role model and declares that French women are more comfortable with the aging process and “seek a more natural look and feel”, continues: “I feel young in Paris for the obvious reasons. Men still look at women my age and try to flirt. [It’s] low-key but seduction nevertheless. And what woman is not sensitive to it?”
It’s a serendipitous fact that all the women interviewed for this feature are all quinquagenarian (in their 50s) and yet still look to be in their prime.
“It’s important to have good skincare so that you don’t need all that heavy foundation; just a little bit of mascara and lipstick,” says Cattani. “Hair should be long and healthy so that it can be tied or twisted up with nonchalance.”
For Khelfa, who has a boyish mischievousness about her despite being in her 50s, the question of beauty is almost anathema. “Just a little bit of concealer by Clé de Peau Beauté. And for fragrance I like Frederic Malle and Serge Lutens. Simple.”
De la Fressange is equally straightforward in her response: “Carrot juice. It’s boring because you have to wash the juicer afterwards but it’s very good for the skin. And dental hygiene. Some people have expensive clothes and perfect skin, and then when they smile…” she shrieks in mock horror. “They should spend all of that money they spent on clothes, on a good dentist instead.”
I ask De la Fressange, who was the face of Chanel fragrances during her modelling years, what her olfactory preferences are. “I hate all the new perfumes. I think they stink,” she declares. “They all smell of vanilla and prostitutes. And I hate all these perfume ads with the idea that everything has to sell around sex. I love the older fragrances from Guerlain, but it’s better to wear nothing than wear a bad one.”
Back in Barnsley, where the streets are filled with women drenched in sickly sweet perfume and wearing the novelty glitz of their Christmas party get-ups (including one in a tinsel one-sie), I ask Britton if les femmes Parisiennes really do deserve their sartorial reputation. “I think that nobody does fashion innovation like the British but French women never put a foot wrong. I don’t think that French women are the most exciting in the world when it comes to fashion but they are certainly the best dressed.”