The only light I could see was on the reception booth facing the front door. I pushed the Belle Epoque glass door with its old green painted metalwork and crossed the tiled parquet to the desk. A wizened little Indian man paled by Parisian winters sat in this box like a goblin, spotlighted yellow in the gloom. I began my request, “Je demande le disponibilite des chambers pour...”
“The hotel is closed, Madame,” he barked at me in English, with the rudeness of a born Parisian.
I had surmised that but I don’t know why he was sitting there like a one headed Cereberus at the gates of Hell, as if the place was still open, because it was otherwise a graveyard. Several years ago I had visited it to reserve a room for the friend of a friend. I had been enchanted by this reservoir of old France. Clotted lace curtains were swagged back from the courtyard windows; a very old lady, perhaps a permanent resident, perhaps the proprietor, sat in the corner by the fireplace crocheting. The dimly lit room had the patina of history. It would have served well for a film set in World War 2. (The old lady would of course have been in the Resistance and awaiting the arrival of a brave young courier from Normandy). Now it was the set for the epitaph of La France.
If an epitaph is needed it is because all that remains of Paris as you think you may know it, is a shell provided by the stupendous architecture of earlier days. Modern Paris is a building site, whose psychologically distressed inhabitants swirl in bewildered spirals, bumping into each other on the devastated streets. Vast cranes darken the skyline. Place Vendome is covered with hoardings concealing apparent demolition works. The Ritz is one of these, closed for two years. Scaffolding punctuates the rue St Honoré, the Faubourg St Honoré, and the Avenue d’Opera and surrounding streets including my own, have been dug up for work on underground networks of pipes and cables. The Tuileries was partitioned by fences for months while its paths were renewed—but then the State always has the money to spend thanks to grotesqe taxation.
Meanwhile, in the private sector, long established shops stand empty. Gourmet lunch traiteurs are being replaced by fast food joints or chain boutiques whose windows are lined by dreary rows of dummies clad in droopy garments. Gone are the artistic window displays of snazzy must haves. Everywhere, the old stylishness is giving way to the new dreariness. Even the Tabac on the corner of Rue St Roche where haughty service for postage stamps and phone cards has been a staple alongside cigarettes is being gutted to make way for, who knows what, alongside the likes of the Kooples or Sandro.
All this demolition is a sign of how Parisian life has changed, alas, for the worse.
The legendary grumpiness still abounds. But the snap and crackle of Parisian chic that made it tolerable has vanished. We might as well be in Birmingham.
Now as Paris Fashion Week fills the Tuileries with temporary pavilions and the fashonistas flocked into the local supermarkets, one might have been forgiven for wondering if the word “Fashion” means anything any more. Despite the biting cold I hardly glimpsed a gorgeous fur coat or a pair of boots to die for. The fashion buyers were barely distinguishable from the going home crowd of office workers in their flat shoes, leggings and puffa jackets. Even the smokers who relinquish their glasses of champagne in the interior of the trendy Collette on rue St Honoré to puff on the trottoir outside its windows, are no better dressed than the rest who trundle home with their grocery bags.
As the flood of fashionistas ebbed and the streets quietened, the empty Tom Ford gift bag on the corner of my street said it all. Goodbye to all that was of Paris fashion in the city whose name is still synonymous with fashion. The legend lives on for the moment but banal reality is not far behind. In the wake of spring fashion week, there remain only the copy-cat chains with their too high prices that will be slashed by 50% when the sales come.
But, behind closed doors in the private dressmaking establishments and the higher priced designer boutiques, the foreign rich are still shopping for a lifestyle invisible to ordinary mortals. The couture houses have sold their souls for profits from perfumes and cosmetics but true Paris fashion is still there, hidden behind the skilled cutting and cunning originality of a world available only to the discerning who can afford true style and individuality. Or to those rare beings who can twist a scarf into a true accessory or add a silk flower to a perfectly cut chemise.
For those who cant--either afford it or create it -- Paris fashion is no more. Like the Hotel de la Tamise it has had its demise.