It's OK for intellectual feminists to like fashion

Blog title from Hadley Freeman's book The Meaning of Sunglasses : "Prada styles itself as the label it's OK for intellectual feminists to like".

The author is a bilingual fashion editor, writer and translator with a serious blog, cinema and magazine habit.

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Explore the Fêtes Galantes at Paris’ Musée Jacquemart-André

From Watteau to Fragonard, Les Fêtes Galantes, an exhibition currently showing at Paris’ Jacquemart-André museum, is the perfect introduction to this elegant and refined period of French art history.

The term refers to a new style of painting and drawing that blossomed in the early 18th century, at the end of Louis XIV’s reign, and lasted throughout the Regency period. Typically, the paintings feature groups of men and women engaging in games or conversation amidst idealised representations of nature.

Located on the top floor of the Jacquemart-André museum, the exhibition explores, over 60 paintings and drawings, the chronological evolution of Fêtes Galantes.

The star of the exhibition is Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s La Fête à Saint-Cloud, a large painting on exceptional loan from France’s national bank La Banque de France. It depicts, in great detail, a fair in a Western suburb of Paris. There is a puppet theatre, puppet sellers, women playing, a fallen tree… Each scene could be a painting on its own.

Although La Fête a Saint-Cloud is an extraordinary painting and I was lucky to see it for real, my favourite section of the exhibition was the display of Antoine Watteau’s drawings, particularly his red chalks. Here, his talent and the spontaneity of his strokes are visible to all. Stripped from the corset of oil painting, his characters seem ready to move out of their frames, their clothes coming to life in the vivid rendering of fabrics and pleats.

Inspired by pastoral scenes, Watteau was a pioneer of the Fêtes Galantes genre. A fascinating short video at the very beginning of the exhibition explains how the at-times-lazy Watteau would cover his paintings with a sheet when his work done, just so he could make a copy and reuse groups of characters on other paintings. He used this technique on two depictions of a Pilgrimage to Cythera. Experts are still disputing which one he painted first. Neither painting is on display at the exhibition but the discussion surrounding them, particularly the debate as to whether the characters are arriving at or leaving from the island of love, is another Fêtes Galantes trait. Calling upon themes of love and relationship that resonate with all of us, the genre entices the imagination.

For instance, Jean-Francois de Troy’s The Rendez-Vous at the Fountain or The Alarm depicts a couple in close conversation. Is it an illicit meeting between lovers? Sweet words between newly enamoured young people? Or maybe a conversation between a man and a woman whose families disapprove of their union? A servant, asked to keep guard, interrupts. Quick, one of you hide! Someone is coming and they can’t be seen together.

Another painting that’s easy to extrapolate from is Jean-Baptiste Leprince’s La Precaution Inutile. A woman in her late teens sits on a bench, tied to an older man. He is sleeping. Is he a father, worried his daughter is going to show independent thought? A much older husband forced on her, concerned his wife might not be so enamoured with all his wrinkles? A servant tasked with looking after a girl displaying too much liberty? Whoever he is, his stratagem failed: a young man, partly hidden in the bushes, is taking advantage of his slumber to seduce the charge.

Beyond the beauty and technicality of the paintings, the Fêtes Galantes exhibition is a reminder of what romance was in the 18th century, and of the restrictions and social conventions imposed on individuals.

Sadly, the exhibition doesn’t make the best of its incredible surroundings. Much like the Nissim de Camondo museum, the Jacquemart-André Museum is a private mansion turned national museum, which dates back to the early 20th century. The Jacquemart-André couple collected multiple Fêtes Galantes paintings, which can be seen throughout the residence, without a clear link made to the exhibition taking place upstairs.

Collectors and artists, Edouard André and Nélie Jacquemart assembled, over 10 years, 5,000 or so oeuvres d’art ranging from Tiepolo’s massive fresco The Return of Henry III, moved from Italy to overlook the grand staircase, to Uccello’s iconic Saint Georges and the Dragon, which was reproduced in all my English language books.

An island of quietness straight on Boulevard Haussmann, the museum hosts a high-end café, with surroundings matching in grandeur and decoration the collections. There is a Fêtes Galantes-themed menu. My sister and I had the Lancret, a duck with soy and honey sauce, green asparagus and risotto and mushrooms. This was followed by a nutty Russian cake and a cream and raspberry-filled macaroon from the decadent dessert trolley. Despite this, the best part of the café probably is Parisians-watching. They are exactly the kind of Parisians you read about in books and magazines but don’t think exist in real life. This seems to be where they lunch.

Photo credits: (1) Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), La Proposition embarrassante Vers 1715 - 1720 Huile sur toile 65 x 84,5 cm Musée de l’Ermitage, Saint-Pétersbourg Photograph © The State Hermitage Museum / Vladimir Terebenin; (2) Antoine Watteau (1684 – 1721), Fête galante avec joueur de guitare et sculpture d’enfants jouant avec une chèvre Vers 1717-1719 Huile sur toile 115 x 167 cm Inv. Kat. Nr. 474 B Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie © BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jörg P. Anders; (3) François Boucher (1703-1770), Les Charmes de la vie champêtre Huile sur toile 100 x 146 cm Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, Paris © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi; (4) Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), Pierrot content Vers 1712-1713 Huile sur toile 35 x 31 cm Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; (5) Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743), Fête Galante avec la Camargo dansant avec un partenaire Vers 1727-1728 Huile sur toile, 76,2 x 106,7 cm National Gallery of art, Washington, W. Mellon collection © Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington; (6) Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743), Baigneuses et spectateurs dans un paysage (Les Plaisirs du bain) Avant 1725, huile sur toile, 97 x 145 cm Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des peintures, collection du baron Edmond de Rothschild (1926-1997); dation en paiement de droits de mutation, 1990 © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi; (7) François Boucher (1703-1770), Pastorale Huile sur toile, 64,5 x 81 cm Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle © Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe; (8) Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), La Fête à Saint-Cloud Vers 1775-1780, huile sur toile, 214 x 334 cm Paris, Hôtel de Toulouse, siège de la Banque de France © RMN-Grand Palais / Gérard Blot; (9) Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), Le Jeu de la Main chaude Vers 1775-1780 Huile sur toile, 115,5 x 91,5 cm Washington, D.C., National Gallery of art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress collection © Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington 3 

Posted at 6:53am and tagged with: Paris, france, address, museum,.

Paris Museum Review: Nissim de Camondo

The Nissim de Camondo Museum's story reads like too many French Jewish family stories from the first half of the 20th century.

Eager to serve his country, the young Nissim enlisted as soon as World War I broke out. At first, he served in the infantry, in the trenches, before joining the brand new French Air Force. He went missing during an air battle in Eastern France, aged just 25.  

In his memory his father, the banker, aesthete and collector Moïse de Camondo, gifted his hôtel particulier, in Paris’ posh and quiet VIIIe arrondissement, to the nation. His other child, daughter Beatrice Reinach, had shown no interest in his collection of 18th century art. Moïse stipulated that the museum would bear his son’s name and would be kept exactly as it was at the time of his death, in 1935. Nothing added, nothing removed.

Beatrice died a few years later, rounded up with her husband and two children by the police. Like so many French Jews, Beatrice had thought that her nationality, combined with her family’s services to the nation, would protect her. First kept in the Drancy transit camp, the Reinach family were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau where they died - either gassed or from typhus - between 1943 and 1945. With them, died the last of the Camondos.

Although not at the heart of the museum, the family’s painful history is present throughout the visit. It brings very human emotions to a time that would otherwise solely focus on the beauty and artefacts on display.

Nissim is there, through photos as well as through the home office he only used a few times whilst on leave. Beatrice is there through her love of horses, seen for instance in a bronze equestrian statue of her.

But most present of them all is their father Moïse. Moïse had the mansion built made-to-measure, modelled on the Versailles’ Petit Trianon's architecture, to welcome his collection of 18th century treasures, including paintings, furniture, china, carpets.

All were sourced from le style transition (1750 to 1774) and le style Louis XVI (1774 to 1785), two key Arts Décoratifs styles inspired by the discovery of Pompeii and geometric motives.

Walking through the museum, it’s hard to imagine that was only built and furnished 100 years ago; Moïse’s modern taste (in terms of home comfort) are an easy reminder of how far ostentation had been indulged between the Revolution and the early 19th century.

Moïse and Nissim both had large bathrooms with stoneware baths and bidets. The chef had a phone in his office. The kitchen displays the best late 1910’s culinary technology. Guests could take a lift rather than climb the spectacular flight of stairs.

In keeping with Moïse’s modernity and functionality, the museum recently launched the augmented reality app Camondo AR. Available on iTunes and Android, it guides the visitor through one of my favourite rooms: le cabinet des porcelaines, which displays an extensive collection of chinas. They span 18th century styles and techniques: soft paste porcelain from Chantilly, Meissen porcelain from Germany and the highlight, three sets of green services Buffon from Sèvres, decorated with illustrations from Buffon’s 1770 Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux (a natural history of birds). Thanks to the app, you can point your smartphone on any plate and hear each bird sing. The cabinet is a reminder of how much our current eating habits own the 18th century. Until then, there were no dining rooms; people ate in their bedrooms.

Moïse’s modernity wasn’t just functional, it was also personal. He had divorced his wife Irène Cahen-d’Anvers, who you might have heard of thanks to her portrait by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Their marriage had everything to do with bringing two powerful finance families together, and nothing to do with love. Following her daughter’s death in 1945, Irène inherited the Camondo fortune, which she is said to have squandered.

Luckily, the conditions of Moïse’s donation stopped her from splitting his painfully gathered collection. The museum was closed during the war and emptied of its treasures, stored for safekeeping in the Valençay castle. Thanks to this foresight, we can admire Moïse’s precise taste. For instance, two console tables on display in the Salon des Huets were purchased almost 30 years apart. The library dictated the height of the first floor because it needed to be perfectly dimensioned to welcome the panelling Moïse had bought from an original 18th century mansion. The Savonnerie carpet in Moïse’s room comes from Versailles, where it had been delivered in 1760 so Mesdames the King’s sisters could use it in the chapel on holidays and Sundays.

Through his purchases, Moïse safeguarded multiple 18th century oeuvres d’art. He isn’t the only member of the Camondo family French museums owe a debt to: you can spot the name next to numerous early 20th century paintings in museums like Le Louvre and Orsay. This is thanks to Moïse’s cousin Isaac - his 1911 donation contained some of the Impressionists’ most famous paintings. Manet’s Joueur de Fifre, Degas’ La Classe de Danse and Sisley’s L’Inondation à Port-Marly are all on display thanks to Isaac’s taste.

The Nissim de Camondo museum is open Tuesday to Sunday. Leave two hours to visit, up to three if you go through every option on the audio guide.

Photos courtesy of Camille Goulet.

Posted at 8:54pm and tagged with: Paris, 18th century, address, france, museum,.

From Luxor to Paris: The Odyssey of the Place de la Concorde Obelisk

It’s a miracle an Egyptian obelisk stands proud on the Paris Place de la Concorde. Not so much because of the mystery surrounding its carving, transport and erection in Upper Egypt in the 8th century BC, but rather because of the number of obstacles it faced on the journey from the city of Luxor to its current French abode. End to end, from Egyptian Khedive Muhammad Ali gifting it to France to its erection in Paris, the journey took seven years (1829 to 1836) and encountered technical difficulties, a cholera outbreak, stormy seas and Egyptian droughts.

The transfer was more than geographical, it was topical. A symbolised link between gods and humans in Egypt, the obelisk became a prime tourist attraction in France, and is currently the focus of a detailed exhibition at the Paris Musée de la Marine. It’s a fitting location: the French navy oversaw the journey. Apollinaire Lebas, the engineer who lead the project, was appointed curator of the museum in recognition of his work.

Focused on the Luxor-Paris journey, the exhibition quickly deals with the question of how the obelisk was made during Ramesses II’s reign. A video at the entrance shows men carving a bedrock of pink granite in the Aswan quarries.

When Muhammad Ali offered both obelisks from the temple of Luxor to France 16 centuries later, they were buried in nearly four metres of sand, as shown by the miniatures on display. In the 19th century, Egyptian monuments were used as an easy place to source rocks or build on, rather than as historical testimonies.

Lebas’ party, tasked with collecting the monolith, arrived in Luxor in August 1831 after five months at sea aboard the Luxor ship. Imagine Luxor at that time of the year: scorching. The obelisk itself was not in the condition the men expected; an eight-metre long fissure threatened to break it if they dared to try and move it. As his men watered the Luxor, now lying on the sand on the side of the Nile, twice a day, Lebas was forced to rethink his initial plan to take the obelisk down.

Two months later, everything was ready. Using two machines actioned by 200 men, the obelisk was brought down. During the transfer however, its centre of gravity moved and the obelisk fell in the sand, in the wrong direction but… in one piece. Lebas had succeeded in the first part of his mission.

The second part: bring the monolith back to the Luxor, 400 metres away. A span was cut in the sand. Using four capstans, 48 men managed the journey in two hours. The Luxor had been cut open to welcome her charge and, once the obelisk was on board, put back together.

Christmas day 1831 saw the men waiting for the flood for the first, but far from last, time. They needed the Nile to rise for the Luxor to float with her charge, a meteorological event not scheduled until the following summer. During that time, the party split in a few groups: some explored further than where Napoleon’s soldiers had gone, gathering scientific samples and taking Egyptian antiques for the Paris museum; others stayed in Luxor where they built a refreshing garden.

On 25 August 1832, just over a year after reaching its destination, the Luxor began the trip back to Alexandria. It reached the seaside town six months later, after being unexpectedly stuck in sandbanks.

The Sphinx, the first French navy steam boat, pulls the Luxor to Toulon, where she was initially quarantined before Lebas was able to disembark. His mission was only half complete: he still needed to get the obelisk to stand tall, in the heart of Paris.

Key to the success of this first leg of the journey was its core team. Aside from Lebas who, not wanting to live with the shame of failure, placed himself under the obelisk as it was erected Place de la Concorde so it would crush him if it fell, the party included: Lieutenant-Commander Raymond de Verninac Saint-Maur; his right-hand man Léon de Joannis, who documented the journey through sketches and Justin Pascal Angevin, a doctor. Angevin was not actually meant to be on board but switched places with the nominated doctor because he was determined to go to Egypt. He protected the men against cholera and dysentery. Although the exhibition doesn’t discuss the dynamics between the men, it is a lesson about the team’s role in the success of any project. With a different doctor, the whole party might have died.

Finally, after the last leg of the journey that saw the Luxor pulled by horses on the Seine, and the authorities somehow losing track of her, the obelisk reached Paris. However, it spent another two years lying by the pont de la Concorde before it was erected at its current place. King Louis-Philippe attended on a nearby balcony, only emerging when the experiment was a guaranteed success.

So the Obélisque has stood, overseeing traffic, for nearly two centuries. Louis-Philippe picked the place because he wanted it to be known for something else than the rivers of blood flooding there during Revolutionary beheading, including Marie-Antoinette’s and Louis VXI’s. By creating a new landmark and a new shorthand for Paris’ landscape, he succeeded. Yet few of the Parisians and tourists walking by every day marvel at how the obelisk got there, at the technological prowess and bravery involved in bringing a 230 tonne, 20 metre-high block of granite from Luxor to Paris in 19th century conditions. Le Voyage de l’Obélisque rights this oversight, mixing human stories with engineering in an exhibition covering all aspects of the journey.

Its only failure is not addressing whether the obelisk should be sent back to Luxor. The French authorities probably want to discuss the topic as much Neil MacGregor wants to discuss the Elgin Marbles’ ownership. The conditions under which the obelisk was obtained are less dodgy than the Parthenon sculptures though. Like any good 19th century French tale, it also involves the Brits. In fact, the Luxor obelisks could be standing in Trafalgar Square, since it had initially been promised to the Crown. Jean-François Champollion, liaising with Muhammad Ali on the topic, convinced the British consul to take the bigger Karnak obelisk instead, the only one worthy of William IV. It also turned out to be impossible to transport, which Champollion probably knew. So cunning, those French archaeologists!

The exhibition is open until 6 July 2014.

Photo credits: The exhibition banner; Flickr user Marc Ben Fatma Place de la Concorde; Flickr user Yann Caradec Obelisque de la place de la Concorde; Flickr user Le Jhe Concorde; Erection of the Luxor Obelisk Érection de l’Obélisque de Louxor,25 octobre 1836, détails, aquarelle. Cayrac, 1837 Dépôt du musée du Louvre© Musée national de la Marine/P. Dantec; The Luxor Obelisk being taken down Abattage de l’obélisque de Louqsor Maquette au 1/66 Atelier du musée de la Marine, 1847 © Musée national de la Marine/A. Fux; Shipping off the Luxor Obelisk Embarquement de l’obélisque de Louqsor Maquette au 1/66 Atelier du musée de la Marine, 1847 © Musée national de la Marine/A. Fux; Façade du temple de Louxor, vers 1800, aquarelle. François-Charles Cé-cile (1766-1840). © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)/Les frères Chuzeville; Portrait d’Apollinaire Lebas (1797-1873), anonyme, milieu XIXe siècle © Musée national de  la Marine/A.Fux; Flickr user Jason Garber Place de la Concorde

Posted at 5:23pm and tagged with: exhibition review, Paris, address, Egypt,.

My four Paris Coups de Coeur Addresses

My sister Camille and I have just come back from our yearly Paris weekend: multiple back-and-forths between Concorde and Champs-Elysées, sale shopping, eating lunch and dinner out, visiting a haute couture exhibition at the Mairie de Paris… Below are our four favourite addresses from the past two days, these are the four places we would go back to and would recommend to anyone. 

Spa Nuxe Montorgueil, 32-34 rue Montorgueil 75001

An award-winning spa and a quiet heaven in the heart of Paris. I treated myself to the Soin prodigieux à l’Immortelle Bleue, while Camille enjoyed a honey-based treatment. We left with the softest skin we’ve had since we were born and a bag heavy with skincare products. The beauticians’ expertise enhances the quiet luxury of the place. Treatments from £90 include a recommendation on the type of Nuxe products to use, all available to purchase with a 20% discount. 

Le 20eme Art, 49 rue des Vignoles 75020

The perfect rendering of what Parisians think eating in province is like, the Le 20eme Art restaurant offers a daily-renewed menu with around five starters, mains and desserts to choose from. The service is friendly, accommodating and swift. Portions are the perfect size: big enough to enjoy but not so large you feel stuffed. Camille and I had steamed asparagus with a poached egg and bacon vinaigrette to start followed by a slab of foie gras for me and a navarin d’agneau, the local specialty, for her. We finished with a meringue lemon tart and amaple syrup cheesecake.  From £25 for three dishes. 

Mastino, 46 rue Caulaincourt 75018

A good and efficient pizza place close to Montmartre, but not so close it is full of tourists, Mastino offers a simple menu of classic pizzas and antipasti. The restaurant only uses the best and freshest ingredients, including a first-rate Italian flour, and leaves the dough to rest for two days, ensuring that the pizza dough is the perfect balance of thin and crisp. I had a classic Margherita jazzed up with some mozzarella di Bufala; Camille ordered the 4 Stagioni with ham, artichokes, mushrooms and olives with some Pomodori & mozzarella di Bufala to share. Pizzas from about £10. 

Ambali, 79 rue Vieille du Temple 75003

Our fashion discovery of the weekend, Ambali is a Paris-based Japanese womenswear brand. The clothes are simple and incredibly well made: each dress is lined, zip closures are hidden and even the most classic item displays unexpected twists. The staff is helpful and knowledgeable about the brand and wears the clothes with style and elegance. Dresses from about £200, t-shirts from about £75.

Posted at 8:01am and tagged with: Paris, restaurant, beauty, address,.

O a Presidential Novel, Anonymous

This is the perfect novel for all of you out there suffering from WWWS (West Wing Withdrawal Symptoms, a yet-to-be recognised by the WHO illness which symptoms include seeing every White House official as a West Wing cast member). Anonymously written by former McCain speechwriter Mark Salter, O is the fictionalised account of President O, the first black American Democrat to reach the White House, running for reelection in 2012. Half the fun of the novel is trying to guess who hides behind Salter’s acerbic description of political operatives, party player and journos while remembering the cold truth of a political campaign: no matter how hard you work, the outcome will likely be decided by an event you have no effect upon (San Andreo nuclear incident anyone?). Although Salter’s autorship hasn’t been formally confirmed, it’s easy to believe O is the work of a Toby Ziegler wannabe. His use of modals to switch from future to present as well as his ability to switch view point within the same scene, not to mention his scarce use of the present tense to focus on O’s feeling on the eve of the reelection reek of elevated Keep It Simple Stupid penmanship. The novel is, of course, open-ended: only the American electorate will decided who succeeds O at the White House on 20 January 2013.

Entre Nous A Woman’s Guide to Finding her Inner French Girl, Debra Ollivier

If you’re a regular on this blog, you probably know that I have a soft spot for books explaining how to become a French woman, passport optional. Entre Nous isn’t the best I’ve read so far. More how-to than memoir, it lacks the humour of an All You Need to Be Impossibly French. Yes, it does introduce anecdotes from Ollivier’s time in France to illustrate her advice on how French women dress, eat, cook, party, work and play but many of them don’t ring that true or border on the cliché. I would also grant a lot more weight to Ollivier’s expertise in Frenchness if her French quotes contained less mistakes. All in all, a forgettable exercise in the anthropology of French women.

A Vintage Affair, Isabel Wolf

Roman à l’eau de rose veteran Isabel Wolf has two tried and tested scenario: scenario #1 - the main character ends up with a man who came out of nowhere; scenario #2 - the main character starts dating Man A who turns out to be bad bad bad. She then realises that Man B, who she dismissed early on, is her soulmate. A Vintage Affair is a case of scenario #2 (yes, spoiler alert). After a double heartbreak (breaking off an engagement plus her best friend’s death), Phoebe realises her life-long dream of opening her own vintage shop. Cue to listings of vintage garments and designers which feel straight out of a specialised book rather than real-life conversation. Wolf tries hard to maintain suspense and reader’s interest throughout the novel but expectable twists and proven characterisation mean she fails to deliver.

Deadly Decisions; Bones to Ashes; Fatal Voyage; Devil Bones, Kathy Reichs

Four more books in the Bones series, one to go and I’m starting to suffer from repetitive reading fatigue. Reichs sticks to her proven recipe through and through, suggesting that reading one of her thriller after the other is a bad idea in killing suspense. On the plus side, my knowledge of the human skeleton has skyrocketed.

Fried Why you Burn Out and How to Revive, Joan Borysenko

There are books you really don’t want to identify with and Fried is definitely one of them. Borysenko has made a name as a self-help book writer on “spirituality, integrative medecine and the mind/body connection”. In the process of becoming “a New York Times bestselling author” (both quotes from her publisher), somewhere between meeting another deadline and speaking at another conference, she suffered from the 21st century illness: burn out. She’s recovered and, as she advises in her book, decided to get something productive out of the experience: another book and a few bucks. Broken down into the twelve stages of burn out and chapters covering the origins of the issue, from childhood trauma to big pharma, Fried compares burn out to Dante’s Inferno. The most interesting part of this book however is the way she wrote it, crowdsourcing experiences of burn out via Facebook.

Posted at 8:49am and tagged with: Paris, The West Wing, book review, politics, Roman à l'eau de rose,.

Picture the perfect romantic Paris photo: the Tour Eiffel, a femme fatale wearing the most romantic of Christian Dior Couture gown on a carousel, a sign directing you to the nearest toilets…

Proust had a theory that to properly understand a painting, had to observe it through one singled out, tiny detail. Is Annie Leibovitz trying to tell us something about how she feels about her subject? Could no one in the Vanity fair Photoshop department understand French? Or on the contrary is the contrast between the mundane of the sign and the surreal beauty of Katy Perry’s dress making the picture? “The picture would have been perfect without that sign”. Except the accompanying interview isn’t about Perry’s perfection but about her life, its pink and its black.

Katy Perry’s Grand Tour, Vanity Fair June 2011

Posted at 9:07pm and tagged with: Paris, vanity fair, photography, Annie Leibovitz,.

Picture the perfect romantic Paris photo: the Tour Eiffel, a femme fatale wearing the most romantic of Christian Dior Couture gown on a carousel, a sign directing you to the nearest toilets…
Proust had a theory that to properly understand a painting, had to observe it through one singled out, tiny detail. Is Annie Leibovitz trying to tell us something about how she feels about her subject? Could no one in the Vanity fair Photoshop department understand French? Or on the contrary is the contrast between the mundane of the sign and the surreal beauty of Katy Perry’s dress making the picture? “The picture would have been perfect without that sign”. Except the accompanying interview isn’t about Perry’s perfection but about her life, its pink and its black.
Katy Perry’s Grand Tour, Vanity Fair June 2011

If you’ve been a regular French ELLE reader, La Parisienne by Ines de la Fressange is unlikely to teach you anything. Chances are, you already know what to do with black and navy (wear them together), what the best accessory for a Breton tee is (pearls and fake diamonds), where to buy semi-precious jewels (Marie-Hélène de Taillac, 8 rue de Tournon, Paris VI) and what not to wear with loafer (headband and pleated skirt).

Otherwise, la Fressange is probably as good a guide of rive gauche Paris as they get. She started her career walking for Chanel, is currently designing Roger Vivier pumps, is an ELLE pages regular and walked Chanel again last season. As the story goes, after years of being asked for her bonnes adresses by friends and strangers, she decided to team up with another ELLE woman, journalist Sophie Gachet, for a guidebook on what it means to be Parisienne.

Split into seven parts, the book takes the reader on a guided tour of fashionable Paris, from the indie store everyone wishes s/he had discovered to the chicest hotel. Common point of all those addresses: the price tag. Most unlikely (and cheapest) place prize goes to: les toilettes de la Madeleine (Place de la Madeleine, Paris VIII) - yes, those are public toilets.

The book doesn’t pretend to be objective: in adresses à la mode, Roger Vivier is awarded a double page spread and Sophie Fontanelle, another ELLE journalist who regularly features la Fressange and daughters in her blog, is named in the Parisienne Virtuelle part. In many ways, the book’s tone suffers from the same character traits often reproached to Parisiennes: a tad snob and snotty but oh so chic.

La Parisienne, Ines de la Fressange, Sophie Gachet; photos Benoît Peverelli, model Nine d’Urso - Flammarion €25 (French only for now)

Posted at 4:31pm and tagged with: book review, ELLE, Ines de la Fressange, Paris, france,.

It’s only August, but it’s already quite clear that 2010 is the year of Yves Saint Laurent. There has been a CD dedicated to him, Pierre Bergé’s Lettres à Yves, followed by the rétrospective exhibition at the Petit Palais, Laurence Benaïm’s Requiem pour Yves Saint Laurent, Marie-Dominique Lelièvre’s scandalous biography Yves Saint Laurent Mauvais Garçon and, coming to a cinema near you on September 22nd, Yves Saint Laurent Pierre Bergé L’Amour Fou. To top it all, I’ve just bought my first ever piece of vintage YSL Rive Gauche, a purple  pencil skirt which looks like the skirt in his 1988 “Hommage à Vincent Van Gogh” Haute Couture ensemble.

It’s quite easy to imagine that, like Chanel, the biopics will come next. His life, in Benaïm’s definitive biography Yves Saint Laurent Biographie, reads like a movie scenario between rehab, fashion spats and lovers.

Saint Laurent died over a year ago. None of those tributes will have any true meaning, besides making money, if his name is nothing more than a footnote of fashion history in 50 years’ time.

1) Yves Saint Laurent rétrospective

The exhibition is showing until August 29th, with tickets selling out every day. With 300 or so pieces on show, it gives an excellent overview of his work from his Dior days to his last Haute Couture collection in 2002. Garments are cross-organised by theme and chronological order, with a Cannes steps-like room at the end, allowing the visitor to understand both his inspiration and his style evolution. It ends on a pessimistic note, showing that Haute Couture doesn’t have a reason to exist anymore since places to wear it are few.

Most iconic Saint Laurent garments are on display, from a room dedicated to the Smoking to a row of Sahariennes. I was quite disappointed not to see the bikini-wedding dress Laeticia Casta wore at his spring/summer 1999 show. This was the dress which introduced Saint Laurent to the 12-year-old me. I still have the press cuttings from that particular défilé.

2) Requiem pour Yves Saint Laurent by Laurence Benaïm

Benaïm, editor and founder of Stiletto magazine, is probably one of the most authoritative Yves Saint Laurent writers. Her biography of the man, published in 1993 and updated in 2002 and 2010, is nothing short of a scholarly, though slightly biased, work. She  writes extremely well, in a broken stream of consciousness way. Her Requiem is about the last years of Saint Laurent, after he left his fashion house. It shows how fashion evolved from a creative-centred world to one dictated by business and marketing. The book is quite emotional, underlying how out-of-place Saint Laurent would have been if he were still creating nowadays. Benaïm doesn’t try to distance herself from her subject - she knew him and doesn’t pretend otherwise. Her expertise on the fashion sphere and emotional attachment to Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, whom she’s met many times, make her book all the more powerful and sad.

3) Yves Saint Laurent Pierre Bergé L’amour Fou

I haven’t seen it, and I doubt it will be out in the UK before some time, but I expect a documentary in the line of Valentino: The Last Emperor or Loïc Prigent’s work. Judging by the trailer, Pierre Thoretton has put together archival footage and contemporary interviews to tell the story of the Bergé-Saint Laurent professional and private partnership.

Yves Saint-Laurent-Pierre Bergé, l’amour fou sur Comme Au Cinema

Pics: Banner from Café Mode; Van Gogh from Fashion is my Muse; Petit Palais from Madeleine de Proust

Posted at 6:00pm and tagged with: ysl, yves saint laurent, pierre bergé, book, Paris, cinema,.

I haven’t lived in France for more than two months in a row for over six years. Going back always feels unsettling, like being a foreigner in a land which is mine. In between each trip, I keep forgetting how different France is. I tried to pay attention this year, to finally understand why all those clichés about the French exist.

1) The French speak French. No shit Sherlock and all, I know. Not to be too cliché, they speak French and little else.

2) Customer service anyone? From Tiffany Rue de la Paix to Des Petits Hauts by Saint Sulpice (picture), this weekend was a failed exercise in getting sales assistants’ attention.

3) There really is a French style. However, it has little to do with what British and US glossies call French style. More put together, breezy, effortless and less bourgeois.

4) French women really don’t get fat, or if they do, not the same way as the British or Americans. I have never seen so many skinny women in one day.

5) I’ve counted beggars by the dozen. London also has poor people but they don’t ask for money in the underground, in cafés or in the middle of the street. Why? Is it a British education thing? Or is Boris parking all the poors in places they can’t get out of? Mais que fait Sarkozy?

6) Some shops look much better online than offline. Example: Les Fleurs, a cute and inspiring website but a messy and disappointing brick-and-mortar boutique.

7) France closes down in the summer. And on Sundays. And on Mondays too, sometimes. Berthillon, the famous glacier (ice-cream maker) on the Ile Saint Louis, closed for August, one of the hottest months of the year with most tourists. I asked the sales assistant at the amazing Cire Trudon shop (picture) if she opened on Sunday. She was shocked and offended.

8) Yves Saint Laurent still fascinates. I hadn’t realised how much until I queued to get inside Le Petit Palais (picture). The exhibit was packed and sometimes hard to navigate. There were some tourists but most people spoke French.

9) People do have picknicks by the Seine with nothing but white wine.  It is however a very civil affair, not getting drunk for the sake of it.

10) The Metro is more reliable but less staffed than the Tube.

All pictures except for the last one, which is mine, are from my sister’s blog, Madeleine de Proust.

Posted at 2:38pm and tagged with: Paris, yves saint laurent, ysl,.