Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Paris à la Mode

Temporary pavilions are going up in the Tuileries. All year round, these prefabs are going up in the few open spaces this city affords, and then a few days later being torn down. For now, the reason is the Pret à Porter Fashion Week. We’ve had the Haute Couture shows: they take place in more august settings. For instance, The Ritz swimming pool, a Pompeian styled double height space with a grand staircase at either end which models descend. But the fashion houses and their twice-yearly Collections are only the tip of the fashion iceberg, the show biz end of a hugely profitable industry where perfumes and cosmetics dominate and ‘Collections’ are for hyping Brand. Money is the key and as financial pressures mount on top designers, nervous breakdowns among their executives are not uncommon. When the then Editor of Harpers and Queen some years ago told me, “Fashion people are not like us,” she spoke with grim feeling.
In Pret à Porter the stakes may seem less elevated but high stress is linked to the bottom line. Getting a Collection ready to show the buyers is fraught with delayed delivery dates or production crises. A friend who works for an Haute Couture designer who also has his own Pret à Porter label has been toiling late evenings and weekends since before Christmas. He’s a perfectionist and the limited editions of his latest models must be exact to his cut or done again. He already has a big name and a vast salary in Haute Couture and his future and financial survival as a big name in Ready to Wear depend on maintaining that standard.
When Pret à Porter people flock to Paris twice a year to show or to buy, we cant avoid knowing they are here. The ready to wear mob are more practical and more numerous than their Haute Couture cousins. Many rent space in the pavilions that stretch along the Rue de Rivoli side of the Tuileries Gardens. Some take boutiques. Last autumn I passed a temporary showroom in the Palais Royal’s ‘Galerie Montpensier.’ I heard an English voice in a doorway say, “Oh so you’re showing from here. How clever of you.” Many also show in apartments on the Rue de Rivoli where, suddenly, one can be confronted by an ultra chic figure in a black trouser ensemble, coiffed and made up à la Coco for a Noel Coward play.
Fashion is theatre and fashion people are actors.  Sometimes models are snapped against the backdrop of the Louvre, the Palais Royal or the Tuileries. Last year, I saw a model shivering in a little summer number on stone steps while a snapper snapped. The background was a wall. They could have done the shoot somewhere warmer.
Buyers come more warmly clad. Some of the most fabulous furs I’ve seen, the most stylish and original designs have been on my quartier’s streets during 2011’s cold spring Fashion Week.
Sadly, Parisians no longer play a visible part in fashion. The recession has made it harder for ordinary women to dress well. Also, it’s harder to buy something original. Chains have taken over from the privately owned boutiques that made shopping in Paris a paradise. Globalization and the Euro are to blame. Not only that, but the weather and prevalent styles. Last summer one wearied of podgy little girls in denim shorts waddling along the streets. As the weather chilled, they donned opaque tights with their shorts. The alternative is leggings or jeggin’s. Few wear them with style. When I arrived here, women were enviably able to take jeans or a well cut skirt and accessorize them into seductive chic. Now, that art seems to have been lost except among older women. There is a generation gap in the dress codes but also in the sense of style. French schoolkids have it drummed into them to conform. No one wants to look ‘different’. And prevailing fashions are drab. Business women create a monotonous stream of black on the streets. One friend who lectures in fashion schools, and invariably wears bright colours, complains that “Traveling on the Metro is like going to a funeral.”
If it’s ok for younger women to dress down in torn denims and Ug boots, it’s also ok to get fat. Many French girls are built skinny, but fast food has entered the French diet and too many girls wear skin-tight jeans, leggings or shorts that accentuate their figure faults. It also takes all the sex appeal out of a short skirt when someone is showing all but their anal fissure and wearing it with flat shoes; or worse, clomping along in ultra high platforms like a cowgirl just dismounted from a fat horse. Try walking along behind them!
Is there worse to come? While fashion models have been getting skinnier for decades there is a movement to bring on so called curvaceous models. Think Monroe, Bardot, Sophia Loren, and we might say, yes, why not make curves fashionable again? But, in order to promote the idea, February’s French Elle featured a hefty female on its cover. Yes, hefty, with walloping great thighs and unbalanced proportions. Wearing a navy blue body reminiscent of grandma’s navy gym knickers, she shows a belly bigger than her breasts. English Vogue is to follow in October with plump singer Adele on its cover. She has a great voice but does she have a waist? Many fat as opposed to curvy women don’t. Corsets could become the rage once more! But today’s image is more androgyne, slim hipped, long legged, small breasted. It reflects the changed role of women as providers not nourishers.
I’ve always thought fashion and good figures were about pleasing the eye, but it seems we’ve lost all sense of the beauty of a woman’s shape if the only alternative on offer to the anorexic bodies that lazy photographers and fashion designers find so easy to use in place of coat hangers, is some lumpen lass who makes one wish she would wear a burka—or lay off fries.
My ideal female model is in the Tuileries. She’s a statue of Diana the Huntress: and aesthetically pleasing.  If you visit Paris, take a look at this classical image of female beauty by Louis Auguste Leveque, and imagine her dressed by Saint Laurent. Yves, you should be with us at this hour.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Paris in Love

All over the world St Valentines is a commercial opportunity to sell flowers, chocolates, or saucy undies.   In Paris, love is a round the clock, round the year event. On every corner, and sometimes on one or two specific corners one may see them, the couples who have nowhere else to go-- because both are married, perhaps, or because one is married and the other lives with parents or friends. One can’t avoid seeing them. No matter what weather, they are there, entwined on park benches, welded together on street corners. There is one couple I see each time I approach the doors to my swimming pool. They are, perhaps, sheltering from the cold. But there are others who brave the cold and I see them, legs wrapped around torsos on benches in the Tuileries, kissing deeply while snow flakes fall around them like petals of some blown white virgin rose.
How hard it must be to be lovers who have nowhere to go and no time in which to be together outside their legitimate relationships. And there are increasing numbers of those as separation and divorce becomes more common and easy to obtain (the rate in France has risen to 40% during the past decade) but affordable housing is in short supply. The law caters for it with Gallic efficiency. Children become back packers, spending alternate weeks with father or mother. In one case I know, a father of seven married a mother of three. Thus ten children have to divide their time between two homes: the house of the second marriage is a Grand Central Station for them all. Despite these fearful consequences of such new married love, there is no shortage of bonding between the newly single. More and more couples are however opting to live separately in their own apartments. Will this mean fewer passionate pairs entwined along streets and in parks? Or do the French prefer to share their intimate moments? Paris is exceptional in this. I have lived in many cities but I have never seen this clinging together of couples whose aspect is that of love at the end of the world. However ephemeral their passion, it seems real and intense. Love is now. A stranger can sweep you into his arms on a street corner.
The romantic behaviour of Frenchmen is in their blood and in their mythology. I was having a St Valentines lunch with my French lover who has long displayed his romantic instincts as well as his fervent passion. He buys me underwear so that I now view him as my corsetiere: and he is becoming better and better at choosing the bra styles and remembering the sizes.
Our Valentine lunch was at the Café Ruc, a couple of blocks from my apartment and I was not surprised when he ordered his favourite steak tartar with pommes allumettes. There is something invitingly naughty about stealing your lover’s frites from his dish. Not as naughty as having your knickers stolen if you go off to the loo and he follows you with such intent. My concern is he doesn’t end up at home with my knickers in his pocket.
However, St Valentine's is also important for married couples. I saw some neighbours from my building sitting down to lunch around the time my lover and I were ending our own dejeuner. They are elderly, but sans dout their love is still worthy of celebration. The husband is one of the most handsome men in my quartier. Although white haired and becoming frail, he is clearly a lifelong lady killer. He invariably bows to me as we pass and gives a lingering look from under his brows, a lifetime habit, I feel. His wife, a tiny mouse of a woman who has probably been fighting off attacks from predatory females for decades, never greets me. No wonder they are never apart. As they were shown to their table I was touched at the way M’sieu was gently helping his wife shed her coat and making sure that she was at her ease. He was gallantry and courtesy personified. But he belongs to another generation: and another world of courtesies.
My lover leaped up to pay the bill discreetly, taking his coat and apparently abandoning me, his scarf and his briefcase. I had to follow him with these items. Before pouncing at my nearby apartment, he had to check his Blackberry then switch it off. He had a lot of concentrated passion to get through before getting back to the office.
He had already given me some delightful lingerie, plus black stockings trimmed with red satin bows at their tops and a big box of champagne to keep us going over a number of passionate visits. He is absolutely gorgeous and very, very smart.
A Frenchman can be all a girl really needs. If he’s the right Frenchman. Purrrrrrrrrrrrrr….