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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Email: fashionmemex(at)gmail.com

US President Harry Truman

D.G. McCullough, Truman (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992)

Quoted in Kim Ghattas, The Secretary A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power (New York: Times Books, 2013)

Posted at 10:00am and tagged with: quote, politics,.

The people can never understand why the president does not use his supposedly great power to make ‘em behave. Well, all the President is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway

On 23 September, the French tribunal de grande instance, a Civil Court, ruled that the LVMH-owned fragrance and cosmetics chain Sephora couldn’t open its Champs Elysées store after 9pm. For the past 17 years, the store had opened until midnight Monday to Thursday, and until 1am on Fridays and Saturdays. 

The case was brought to court by the unions, despite heavy criticism for it from both management and employees. Firstly because they argued 20% of their revenue was made during night opening hours as tourists walked the Avenue, and secondly because they complained it would require a reshuffle of their schedules. Public radio France Inter interviewed a female employee who explained evening shifts worked for her because it enabled her to look after her sister’s children. Fifty employees even turned up to the hearing to support Sephora’s late night openings. 

Sephora management wasn’t the only ones who deplored the ruling. “The laws sometimes have to be open to the new world, and the new world is business that never stops,” Ventes-privées entrepreneur Jacques-Antoine Granjon said in a phone interview with The Business of Fashion on 8 October. “Where there is a need and where you have people who are ready to work, they should let them work.”

Granjon takes advantage of the no-Sunday work unless you are in the food industry law: his website is the third most visited in France, right behind Amazon and eBay. However, online shopping only works for people living in France, rather than for one of its first economy drivers: tourism

France needs to allow evening and Sunday work in luxury stores because tourists, who come to the country to buy its fashion and high-end goods, don’t care about French labour laws. If they can’t shop Printemps, they’ll shop Harrods or 10 Corso Como instead.

When Zadig & Voltaire first opened on Sloane Street, as a good little French brand, it was closed on Sunday, as I discovered one day,whilst doing my Christmas shopping. I went to the King’s Road instead, where all the stores were open. Zadig & Voltaire’s opening hours anomaly didn’t last long, although many luxury Sloane Street stores, such as Chanel and Saint Laurent, still close on Sundays. 

According to the weekly French management magazine Challenges, the grands magasins (department stores) generated 5 billion euros in revenue last year, mainly thanks to tourists, including Chinese customers who made up over 40 million customers in 2012. In Nice, on the Mediterranean, tourists account for 40% of local department stores turnover. 

Golden Week, the Chinese national holiday during which shoppers come to Europe en masse, has just ended. Last year, during that first week of October, one million Chinese customers came to Paris, over 800,000 more than the number who came to London according to a Business of Fashion interview with Gordon Clark, the UK managing director of shopping tourism company Global. Although many come with tour operators who would take into account department store opening hours, the lack of Sunday business is surely a miss for companies relying more and more heavily on tourist spending. 

I am not suggesting store management forces employees to work Sundays. It should be a choice. Labour laws provide financial incentives for people who elect to work nights or weekends, and days off are given later in the week. My summer student jobs included cleaning up the local hospital where I enjoyed working weekends or late shifts because the salary was significantly increased, and I got time off on weekdays instead. 

The Sunday work debate is representative of France’s current attempts to become more competitive without giving up any of its workers hard-earned social advantages, including the 35-hour working week. Buying French fashion in France holds a certain cachet (not to mention lower taxes and therefore prices than in many other countries), which the country needs continue to champion in order for the luxury industry to survive and flourish. 

Posted at 6:09am and tagged with: france, politics, retail,.

Book review: The President’s Hat (Le Chapeau de Mitterrand), Antoine Laurain

Does a black hat have the power to make a man stand up to his stupid boss and get a promotion, to convince a young woman to leave her married lover, to inspire a desperate nose to create perfume again, to turn a die-hard right-wing man to socialism? Five lives intertwined by one improbable hat is the premise for Antoine Laurain's brilliant short novel, Le Chapeau de Mitterrand (The President’s Hat). 

One night in 1986, Daniel Mercier, a Parisian accountant like so many, decides to treat himself to dinner in a high-end brasserie. A few minutes later, François Mitterrand, Roland Dumas and an unnamed fat man with a love of cigars and wine sit at the table next to him. On his way out, the President forgets his hat. Mercier decides to steal it.

Laurain describes his book as a fairy tale rather than a novel. He got the plot idea after losing his own hat in a café. When he went back to retrieve it the next day, the garçon told him they hadn’t found a hat, starting a series of hypothesis as to who might be wearing the hat and what they might be doing. 

Francofille warned me that it was a book she was militant about everybody reading after she lent it to me. And it is that good. It’s magical and sweet, powerful and funny. I had to stop reading it a couple of times on the Tube because I was laughing so hard people were looking at me weirdly. 

Laurain perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the late 1980s France. 1986 is a special year for me; it is the year I was born, so a number of events recalled I wasn’t around for. But the French society he describes rings perfectly true, if a little different from the current one. The fourth owner of the hat, Bernard Lavallière, moves in right wing circle where Mitterrand is so despised his name isn’t worth pronouncing properly, where men regret the time he could duel out disagreements, where names are synonymous with former glory and current poverty…

My only frustration was that once the hat changes head, you stop knowing about the previous owner and have no idea whether his/her life kept on its new trajectory. This issue however, is solved in the last chapter, alongside a very neat and unexpected ending.

Fanny Marquant, the second owner of the hat, compares the confidence it instils in her with the one she gains from her most expensive clothes, a pair of Sonia Rykiel pumps and a Saint Laurent skirt. “All she had to do was put on the YSL skirt and she felt immediately more attractive. The same went for the shoes, which had cost her almost a quarter of month’s salary: as soon as she slipped them on and did up the little straps, she felt taller, straighter and more significant. She walked completely differently, strutting along with confidence, and only she knew it was down to the hidden power of the Rykiel shoes”*.

Mitterrand’s hat had this power. Maybe not to change lives, but if you are to believe the Parti Socialiste, which has adopted the black hat-red scarf-black coat iconography as another symbol of its glory days, this hat is as much a source of success as Laurain suggests. 

The hat is the perfect gimmick. It stands for the womaniser Mitterrand was (take your hat off in front of women), for the man anchored in his land and for his dodgy World War II past when Résistants and Gestapo alike donned black hats.

From Kennedy disregarding the top hat during his inauguration address, as proof of what a modern man he was, to De Gaulle wearing his military uniform kepi as a proof of his authority, hats play a key role in the iconography of power. 

The President’s Hat was first published in France during the 2012 presidential campaign, won by Francois Hollande. He spent a good part of his canvassing trying to convince people that, not only was he normal, he was Mitterrand’s rightful heir. In 2008, when Mitterrand’s wardrobe was auctioned, Hollande asked the Socialist party he was then leading to spend over £5,000 to purchase one of the hats on sale. 

Donning a black hat and red scarf is something of an obligatory step on your way to left-wing political greatness, a symbol of leftist legitimacy ideas bordering on fetishism. There are pictures of Ségolène Royal and Laurent Fabius, two former ministers and presidential hopefuls, in the get-up. Even Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who left the Parti Socialiste to create his own dissident left-wing party, has often been seen wearing both accessories. They’ve all tried, rather unsuccessfully, to adopt Laurain’s theory: “The hat alone was responsible for the events modifying their lives”**.

* Translation Emily Boyce, Louise Rogers Lalaurie and Jane Aitken

**Translations my own from Antoine Laurain, Le Chapeau de Miterrand (2012)

Posted at 7:55am and tagged with: book review, france, politics, Accessories,.

In 1997 like today, from US Vogue editor Anna Wintour to the then New Yorker editor Tina Brown, successful female British magazine editors working in the US are cursed to rumours of ambassadorship the moment they get involved in political campaigns. 

Judy Bachrach, Tina and Harry Come to America Tina Brown, Harry Evans and the Uses of Power (New York, 2001), p. 256

Posted at 8:36am and tagged with: Anna Wintour, Tina Brown, magazine, politics,.

According to the tabloids, she [Tina Brown] was destined to become Blair’s ambassador to Washington. But these, alas, had even less substance [than the rumours about her husband Harry Evans joining the Blair government]. “I started that rumour. Absolutely,” Toby Young would later confess. “So they would look bad when it didn’t happen. I completely made it up”.

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A middle-class teenager who’s raised to running one of the biggest law firms in the world before joining the French government and heading the IMF through hard work, dedication, rigour and talent, Christine Lagarde has long been one of my role models. 

Reading through French journalists Cyrille Lachèvre and Marie Tisot’s biography Enquête sur la femme la plus puissante du monde in one sitting on Christmas day, it was impossible not to notice strong trends as to how she’s lead her career and life. 

She sticks to form Lagarde was the Eurozone’s favourite Finance minister, not to mention the French government’s, when she ran for head of the IMF, yet she humbly sent the organisation a CV and cover letter.

She’s true to her style. When Lagarde started as French Finance minister, there was an uproar over the ostentatious jewellery she liked wearing. She gave in a few times, appearing on TV without them, but eventually decided against it since it made her feel naked. She’s always refused to dye her white hair. Lagarde’s tendency to include English words in French conversations annoyed politicians until Nicolas Sarkozy noticed having a Finance minister speaking fluent English was a decisive advantage.

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She’s a meeting master. During one of the many all-nighters she had to pull to save Dexia, Lagarde kicked out of the room every person who didn’t hold decision power. When France ran the Ecofin, Lagarde sent the other European Finance ministers rules on how to behave during meetings, including “not reading the press while others speak”, “keeping speeches short” and “smiling”. Her time at Baker & McKenzie taught her to handle strong personalities and to always bring a back up to the negotiating table.

She’s generous. Lachèvre and Visot tell multiple anecdotes of collaborators who received gifts for no particular reason: she once bought her coworkers egg cups during a trip to the Netherlands because she liked them, purchased chocolate for everyone in Belgium and had a cake delivered to a journalist’s hotel room on his birthday. The meetings she runs always involve incredible food.

She has a very regimented lifestyle. Lagarde gets up before 6am everyday, usually to do some yoga, sometimes cycles to work. Photos of her discreetly exercising her abs during a meeting went viral in France. Lagarde doesn’t eat meat, hardly drinks any alcohol, doesn’t really go out late. Milk chocolate seems to be her only sin, sometimes eaten for lunch with litres of green tea.

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She’s lead her career according to athletic principles. In her teens, Lagarde was part of the French synchronised swimming team, and you can find atheltic principles in her whole life, including eating carbs before a night of negotiations and believing in team work.

She doesn’t badmouth, nor does she spread gossip. Not about her collaborators, not about other politicians, not even about the Left when she was part of a right-wing government. This would go too much against her team-work ethic. Her loyalty lead her to introduce Red Bull in France, as per Prime Minister François Fillon’s wish and to never complain or comment when Sarkozy’s overcommunication tendency lead to additional financial difficulties for France.

She’s a relentless worker. Lagarde has a reputation for knowing her cases backwards, for turning up herself when others would send mere collaborators, for being able to ingest a large quantity of information really quickly and for making decisions even more quickly.

Posted at 11:01am and tagged with: career, france, politics,.

When, in February 2011, American Vogue came under fire for its laudatory portrayal of Asma al-Assad, first lady of Syria, by Joan Juliet Buck, the magazine was reproducing a glossy tradition of obsessing over the Westernised wives of Middle Eastern and Persian dictators.

Reading Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs, his account of the fall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, I was reminded of how I first became aware of the dynasty’s existence: through a 1998 coffee-table book on legendary princesses, amongst which was the Shah’s third wife, Farah Pahlavi.

That book by French journalist Henry-Jean Servat, like most features on Iranian imperial life you could read in magazines such as Paris Match in the 1970s, couldn’t have been further from Kapuscinski’s account of fear, terror and torture.

Much like Buck's profile of al-Assad, it was all about fairy tale weddings and designer dresses, about a simple love story between a man and a woman and how good they were to their people and at modernising the country, about charity work and Western-educated women.

Western education is a key part of many dictators’ wives narrative, including for al-Assad and Pahlavi, who respectively studied in London and Paris. If they like our clothes and were educated in our universities, how can they not embrace our values and bring them back home? There is an underlying arrogance to these articles not dissimilar from the European empires determination to assimilate the world to their values over six centuries.

The Pahlavis might not have hired an American PR company to promote them in the West, but their oil money did the trick. Kapuscinski explains the frenzy governments got into the second they realised how much they could make of the Shah’s petrodollars. This focus on selling contracts to Iran might have been why foreign magazines chose to highlight the glossy, even though the state’s abuse of human right was already documented.

In her 2009 Sundance documentary The Queen and I, Nahid Persson Sarvestani touches upon the difficulty of remaining objective about her subject, something many biographers apparently struggle with. Sarvestani grew up in an impoverished Iranian family and, as part of a Communist group, took to the streets in 1979. Both her brothers were murdered by the Khomeini regime shortly after. Yet she waits until the last minute to ask Pahlavi about her husband’s regime abuse of human rights.

She acknowledges two reasons for this: a fear of her access to the Queen being cut short and her growing fondness for the Shahbanou.

When Sarvestani finally asks Pahlavi about human right abuses, the answer is a very nuanced acknowledgement

I’m not claiming that Iran was a democracy like in Europe. You have to take the conditions of the time into consideration. That was the period of the Soviet Union. It was the Cold War and it was the wish of the Soviet Union to make Iran communist and to have access to the Persian Gulf. So for the security of the country we needed a secret service. They did things that were wrong in comparison to the rest of the civilised world. If Savak was so powerful, how come they couldn’t identify the mullahs? All the leaders opposing the Shah in Iran and abroad are alive and well.

Knowing how much the wife of a tyrant is involved in his dealings can be difficult. Some, like Leila Trabelsi in Tunisia, are integral to their husbands’ reign of terror. Others, like al-Assad and Pahlavi, are seen as little more than arm candy focusing on charity and cultural work. How much can you ignore of what is going on in your own country and of what your spouse is doing? At what point does willing or self-imposed ignorance become tacit assent?


Posted at 5:32am and tagged with: magazine writing, Vogue, politics,.

Can you imagine Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, innovation and skills posing for the cover of the Sunday Times magazine wearing a bowler hat and an umbrella in defence of the British industry? Arnaud Montebourg, the man with the slightly communist title of Ministre du Redressement Productif, minister of Industrial renewal, did just so for Le Parisien Magazine in the French equivalent of the clichéd British outfit: an Armor.Lux stripy t-shirt.

In the accompanying editorial, Montebourg wears other products of the French fashion industry such as Caulaincourt shoes and a Bérengère Claire shirt. His acknowledged aim is to prove the French industry is still going strong, producing quality products, and to encourage his fellow citizens to buy things made in France.

The French industry can’t bounce back without exports, including clothing ones, which accounted for 7.2 billion euros in 2011. Armor.Lux, Saint James and Petit Bateau are three of the French brands succeeding in France and abroad thanks to their high-quality nautical style.

It’s therefore fitting that, even though Montebourg’s cover t-shirt was French, the styling decision was anything but, adopting the codes of what is perceived as French outside the borders, rather than what the French people really wear.

A recent staple of the French wardrobe, first used by la Marine (the Navy) the stripy t-shirt was popularized over the past century by designers such as Coco Chanel and Jean Paul Gaultier. Fashion is one of France’s strongest soft powers, and the sailor jersey has become a symbol of Frenchness abroad. No French-inspired editorial is complete without it, and American magazine TIME used the item to cover its issue on The death of French culture.

The stripy t-shirt sells well because it sells the French way of life and the Gallic romanticism foreigners still buy into. Montebourg is not just wearing a t-shirt, he’s wearing the millions of tourists who come to Paris for the food and the philosophical conversations in cafés, for the nonchalant cigarette and l’amour libre. He’s wearing a garment which innovation, ignoring colour and cut versions, is stuck somewhere on a 1920s Deauville beach. Is this loop of heritage and cliché really what the French industry is condemned to?

Posted at 7:45pm and tagged with: france, petit bateau, politics, chanel, Stripe,.

Yesterday, the Huffington Post asked whether Valérie Trierweiler was “France’s least popular First Lady ever”. The question stemmed from the latest unauthorised biography of François Hollande’s partner, La Frondeuse (The Troublemaker), which attributes her a string of concomitant lovers, while her marriage to journalist Denis Trierweiler was still ongoing.

Right-wing politician Patrick Devedjian and left-wing politician Hollande are named as the lovers (Spoiler: both Devedjian and Trierweiler are suing for slander, sorry Hollywood). A man in each camp! Clearly she wasn’t taking any chance! She obviously wanted power! She used her feminine wiles to get ahead!

Trierweiler is a classic case of the double standard society holds female sexuality to. No one has ever claimed Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who in between his three wives married into wealth and networks above his own, slept his way to the top, possibly because by now we know he’s fucked his way to the bottom (or what many people would consider a decent in-between), something it took France years to face. Little has been made of the fact the Trierweiler-Hollande affair allegedly started when he was still with Segolène Royale, while Royale was running for President, and that the Parti Socialiste he was leading likely didn’t support her as much as it should have as a consequence of their unraveling marriage, hindering her presidential hopes and propelling him towards his.

France’s position towards public figure mistresses, like so many things, is inherited from its monarchy days. Kings had (multiple) mistresses and popular psyche started considering infidelity as a proof of power, integrating it into culture. Le Roi a fait battre tambour, a 1750 song still on the French literary curriculum, tells the story of a king who gathers “all the ladies of his kingdom” and chooses a marquis’ wife for her beauty. As a reward, the sovereign names him “a handsome Marshall of France”. At the end of the song, the queen “has a bouquet made/Of beautiful lilies/And the scent of this bouquet/Causes the Marquise to die”.

A few regime changes on, we’re still judging women according to a homemaker or temptress dichotomy and Trierweiler has been cast as the latter. Yet nothing she’s done means she deserves to be called a skank or a harlot over dinner by people who have never met her and whose opinion is based on a few newspaper articles and the fact she isn’t married to Hollande. Poor morality by lack of marriage certificate seems to be her crime. In years of yore, the public opinion trial she’s been undergoing since May would have ended up at the stake.

I’ve written in the past about how stupid I thought Trierweiler supporting left-wing candidate Olivier Falorni over Royale during an election was. She’d chosen to express her opinion over a national issue on the most public of forums, Twitter, and I had no problem writing up my thoughts on the matter. I am however in no way entitled to judge her private life and what goes on in her bedroom. Magazines and dailies have been publishing articles on the subject under the self-fulfilling pretense that it is in the public interest and might affect the presidency (a similar argument was used to justify the publication of half-naked pictures of the duchess of Cambridge). If it does, it’s not Trierweiler’s sexuality that should be judged, but Hollande’s inability to separate the personal from the professional and the presidential.

France is facing its bigot demons at the moment, between an unmarried President and the possibility of a law allowing same-sex marriage. This is the 21st century in a country whose culture has been feasting over libertinage for centuries, yet for a still-too-significant and vocal part of the French population, when it comes to sex, we’ll stone the adulterous woman and take nothing less than a blessed union between a man and a woman, thank you very much.

Posted at 5:08pm and tagged with: france, politics,.

If Vogue is talking about it, it’s definitely a trend. In its August issue, the magazine is picking up on the growing size of the French community in London and its possible growth following François Hollande’s election.

This type of article comes back cyclically, supported by a combination of anti-European feeling, fascination for French ways and any French news affecting Britain in some way (unless you’re the Daily Mail, in which case the threat of a French invasion always sells).

As writer Kathleen Baird-Murray points out, the strength of the London French community is nothing knew. On my second day in London as a scared, 17 year-old coming to a big city and a big school, I was immediately told by the French lycée headmaster that South Kensington was dubbed  “the frog valley” because of the number of French citizens living there.

Hollande’s elections and his threat of higher taxes, is the first reason Baird-Murray gives for the number of French people living in the UK, followed by professional relocation (diplomats, French companies executives), appreciating London’s “more tolerant environment”, the British attitude to success and failure and the entrepreneurial opportunities.

Baird-Murray doesn’t mention the most recent advantage: with the current exchange rate, if you’re paid in pounds, your euros go further. With the Eurostar, and direct flights to most big French cities available at decent prices, the French go back often to stock up on food, pharmaceuticals and clothes, especially during the sales periods. Why wouldn’t they? A £160 Maje skirt costs £125 in Paris, a £69.50 Petit Bateau jumper £55. Even with bank charges, you win.

Posted at 10:12am and tagged with: france, politics, Vogue,.