In the tradition of not knowing what to pack for a vacation in Paris, I decided not to think too much about it and threw some basics in my suitcase.
I checked the weather forecast, which said it would be hot and sunny and rainy and cold on the same day. So I packed jeans, T-shirts, a cotton sweater and sneakers. Also, a pair of flat velvet sandals that I can walk for miles comfortably – but can muster at a fancy boutique or restaurant.
What else? A light trench coat, silk blouse, and designer track pants. Earrings. A classic black crossbody handbag and soft raffia tote bag. Done.
I would buy everything I needed when I got there. I had a small shopping budget – may be a good coat or another pair of shoes.
But first, I had to know what the Parisians were wearing. Those classy fashionistas can destroy you with just one scathing look at your poorly tied scarf.
I snooped around, did a little stealth exploration, and discovered exactly what fashion item I was missing; the crucial piece would make me look like an insider.
Twin faces of fashion
I went to the two major department stores on Boulevarde Haussmann, Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, to get an overall vibe. It was clear when I’d combed every floor and the le Bon Marche department store on the left bank.
Fashion is pretty much the same all over the world. Like the economy, it has been pushed into two extremes. There’s fast fashion on one side and queues at Louis Vuitton or Chanel on the other. There is a much reduced middle ground: that classic French woman with a great haircut wearing a smart coat and nice shoes.
The internet informs us in real-time that a showy Y2K hot pink Balenciaga handbag or an oversized Givenchy sneaker is the hot ticket item. You’ll find the same fashion brands with the same merchandise in malls around the world.
I looked at the locals, and what I packed worked anyway – jeans, Nikes, the trench coat, a tote bag (my raffia bag was fashionable). I didn’t really need any new clothes. But there was still some shopping on the agenda, so I turned my attention to everything else the French do so well.
La Belle France!
Chocolate shops, patisseries, dining rooms, two-story boutiques dedicated to delicate teas, and exotic room candles so fragrant you can smell them across the street.
Shops that only sell white china, bedding shops with beautiful hand-embroidered pillowcases, and nightgowns with dazzling price tags.
Antique shops with Bauhaus masterpieces next to colorful Portuguese soap shops.
Art books, vintage jewelry, baby clothes, jam, lingerie, hand cream, lipstick, and bread. Castaner Espadrilles. Annick Goutal fragrance. Michel Vivien woven leather sandals.
Designer fashion, at least the big labels, feels that it can stay in the background for a while.
It’s much more satisfying to queue for the perfect éclair.