My love of all things French was established many years ago with my first taste of the most perfect pain au chocolat. As weekends across the Channel followed, I tried eagerly to capture that much sought after quality with which the French seem unfairly blessed. What makes the likes of Lou Doillon and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy stand out among the throngs of fashionistas who have the most coveted stylists on speed dial? The seemingly effortless way in which these women wear a blouse, slim-fitting trousers and a pair of ballerinas and still make the style pages leaves the rest of us in awe and, dare I say, envy.
French style is less about hip, seasonal trends, which one tends to associate with fashion. The underlying characteristics of Parisian style are conservative and classic, at least in comparison with what can be seen on the streets of New York City and London. This bourgeois approach to dressing is on-point in France and, although other countries may deem it bland, it is the ultimate inspiration for style aficionados around the globe. Barely-there hemlines, exposed midriffs and neon coloured pieces, common in other fashion capitals, are nowhere to be seen. Instead, discreet, sensual and feminine silhouettes are geared towards women en masse, making most labels as accessible to a 20-something as to a 50-something. Frumpy simply doesn’t exist here and nor should it. Ultimately, this timelessness is one of key factors in the fashion world’s adoration of Parisian style and the success of many French brands, particularly in the foreign market.
Inès de la Fressange has gone from Chanel muse to best-selling author with her much celebrated book Parisian Chic. Ensuring both the book’s success and worldwide accessibility, the English edition was launched at the same time, and promptly sold out on both sides of the Atlantic. As the influx of fashionable French labels continues, it is easy to think that a few separates purchased each season will suddenly turn you into a Parisienne. Few seem aware that most of these brands have been around for years, and dissecting French style is about much more than shopping; it involves awareness of the French mentality. As with the art of cooking, when it comes to shopping for clothes, quality and simplicity are vital. The French believe in taking care of themselves, and investing in good staples can only aid this, n’est-ce pas?
Take Carven, for example. Resurrected by Guillaume Henry, the former creative director at Givenchy, this brand has gone from being virtually unknown outside France to being worn by not only every fashion editor worth mentioning, but also the stylish woman with a moderate budget. The average person might not have 1900€ to spend on a coat from Chloé, but they want an investment piece to transcend the seasons. With 550€ to spend, a trip to Carven, where the quality equals that of the main design houses, is well worth it.
The continued success of French brands such as Comptoir de Cotonniers, Repetto, Vanessa Bruno and Isabel Marant is quite simple: they have filled a void between the major fashion houses and high street names, and given many shoppers their first taste of quality. Though all these brands are synonymous with French style, all are rather different: Isabel Marant is for the smart-casual approach whereas Vanessa Bruno is somewhat more focused on tailoring and has a wonderful ability to incorporate this into wearable garments. The indefinable and unique style associated with these designers has everybody rushing to buy their clothes in order to imitate the French look.
If there is only one thing we learn from the French, it is the delicate art of accessorising. We must ensure that our accessories do not clash or overpower us, but work in harmony with our skin tone and clothing, so choose carefully. A bold cuff or exquisite dangling earrings modernise a simple neutral outfit, and give a touch of glamour. The French have a way of making the most simple item the most elegant thing you’ve ever seen. The silk scarf, the most admired of which is from Hermès, looks smart when simply tied around your neck, but to change the mood of your ensemble and highlight a toned waistline, why not use it as a belt. For a more contemporary yet luxe look, you could tied it to your handbag as all the ladies do in Paris.
So, the secret to the Parisian look is simplicity. Don’t let the magazines fool you; logos do not mean luxury. Go for good quality, versatile, investment pieces which will stand the test of time and slowly build up a wardrobe of which a French woman would be proud.
Main image by Sophie Griotto.