Sunday, July 29, 2018

Secrets de la Parisienne: An Afternoon of Couture in the City of Light

Institut Guerlain, 68 Av. des Champs-Élysées. The flagship of this venerable Parisian parfumer has a boutique on the ground floor and a beauty salon on the upper level. (Photo: Parfumista)

The final round of the Paris ready-to-wear shows concluded just as the daffodils were beginning to show off their sunny bonnets in the gardens dotting the City of Light, but spring could already be felt in the bias-cut dresses and peekaboo slips trimmed in frothy lace which flooded over the catwalk, a harbinger of the feminine power surge to come. But today is my day off reporting on the shows. Prêt-à-porter is giving way to prêt-a-primper as I leave the congested tents near the Eiffel Tower to uncover the beauty mystique of la parisienne, that fascinating creature all other women around the world always want to emulate. Clothes aren’t the only tools in her arsenal of seduction. There’s perfume, lipstick and (oh, my) pressed powder, too. I am determined to uncover all her secrets.

It is raining (when does it not in Paris?) and I run through puddles to find shelter amid the grandeur of the Guerlain building on the Champs-Élysées. This is my first stop. Within minutes, I am inhaling perfumes with such evocative names as Mitsouko, Vol de Nuit and Eau de Cologne Impériale. Each is an olfactory swoon through history: Mitsouko, created in 1919, was the perfume of the flappers; Vol de Nuit is named for the 1931 book by Saint-Exupéry. Eau de Cologne Impériale earned the company its royal crest in 1853 when Aimé Guerlain created the scent for Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III.

I enjoy the narrative pull of these little vials, and as I wave them one by one under my nose, in a Proustian moment, I am catapulted back in time faster than I would be in an afternoon spent poking through ancient objets at the nearby Louvre. But a museum this is not. Though a historic site – the building is Hausmannian – Guerlain pampers women like it has since 1828, the year the doors opened on this venerable institut de beauté. The facade was updated in 1939, when Giacometti created stucco medallions for a prewar renovation project. At the same time, Jean-Michel Franck designed the modernist kidney-shaped tables inside, still used today for manicures in a carpeted room overlooking the bustling Champs below. Guerlain is the only big name in Paris couture to survive on the gilded avenue. Previous tenants such as Chanel, Carven, Hermès, Balenciaga, Scherrer, Dior and Givenchy long ago moved away, leaving Guerlain behind to remind tourists of the long Parisian tradition of luxury. What is the secret behind Guerlain's longevity?

I discover the answer to that question after succumbing to the expert hands of an aesthetician named Odette who gives me a two-hour pedicure. The white-robed miracle worker unfurls a folding case of surgical-like instruments on a towel next to the reclining chair that has me suspended in the air. She is silent and serious, occasionally addressing me as "Madam" when asking if the pressure is too much. A bliss-inducing foot massage, lubricated by creams containing plant extracts, makes it nearly impossible for me to answer. I close my eyes. Contentment is a universal language that needs no words.

Alexandre de Paris, 3 Av. Matignon. The couture of coiffeur – very haute and still a mecca for the rich and famous. (Photo: Le Salon)

From beauty as ageless artifact, I move to a world where beauty is seduction: the hair salon. Coiffeurs are as familiar in Paris as cafés: there's practically one on every corner. Paris women pay regularly to have their hair washed and blow-dried. Called a brushing, such services are relatively quick and affordable. For just $40, you get an intimate view of Parisian life as it lines up to sit, pettily pouting, in front of large mirrors reflecting also the hairy forearms of stylists with the names like Jean-Paul and Jean-Marc. But the biggest name in the Parisian coiffeur universe is Alexandre – as in Alexandre de Paris, late hairdresser to the Parisian elite. Alexandre was so famous he didn’t need a last name. He clipped the locks of Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor (during her Cleopatra days), Hollywood royalty who earned him the nickname Alexandre the Great.

Before passing away in 2008, Alexandre remained an icon whose golden touch was reserved for the haute couture shows and his most special clients. No one would ever think of booking an appointment with the master unless they were royalty themselves. But while Alexandre is gone, his salon still exists, located where it has always been, on the rue de Matignon. As the website declares in expressive cable French, everyday there is like a show. It’s worth a visit, even to inhale the atmosphere. But beware the fumes. The cloying smell of sticky hair spray is the first sign that this is the beauty world equivalent of the ancien régime. Several VIP rooms, including one called the Sphinx, are where the roots of the rich and famous are discreetly touched up and slicked down. Stick around the reception area long enough and you might see the new breed of movie star – Jodie Foster, Victoria Abril and Sophie Marceau – running in behind the cover of a Hermes scarf for le brushing, which is what the French call a blowout.

I need le brushing too, but today I am at Alexandre mostly to ogle because I can't really afford the nearly $200 it costs to get a styling here. For that service, I walk in the direction of the nearest Jean-Claude Biguine – Paris's fast-food equivalent of a hair salon and just as ubiquitous – where I am in and out of the chair within 20 minutes and under 30 euros, looking marvelous, darling, simply marvelous – and with money left over to buy myself a kir. Cheers.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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