London: the capital of new, daring, electric fashion. And yet, the kooky sibling of the ‘big four’ seems to have lost this distinction to simplicity, dark, greyish tones and notably smaller sizes. Cue in the French.
Those residing under a rock for the last few years may be unaware of the revolutionary winds sweeping across the Channel and onto the UK retail scene. The mid-range brands lining Paris’s Rue Saint Honore have decided to expand their frontiers, and export their shop assistants (bearing attitudes yet to thaw since leaving Gare du Nord). Maje, Les Kooples, Sandro, Claudie Pierlot, Zadig & Voltaire, Comptoir des Cottonniers, and Etes Vous, to name but a few, are luring in London’s stylish; and their bank accounts.
What’s more, the media were recently fixated with Isabel Marant’s collaboration with H&M, and so were its consumers, with her trim physique and promotion of under-stated elegance. Cigarette trousers have replaced garish leggings and even hair-cuts seem neater and less ‘bed-head’. The luxury, high-end image embraced by these brands is continued aesthetically inside the stores, with beautiful furniture and bespoke customer service. Presentation is everything. Let’s face it. London’s 90s grunge, be it rusty or luxe, is giving way to a new era of French despotic chic, with experimental dressing fast becoming serious faux pas. Detail is found solely in fabric, cut or buttons; moins, c’est plus!
Change or suffer. You laugh.
But so will the polished newcomers who tread the tightrope between Russian ‘glam’ and British ‘ironic boho’. These new code-makers, while supposedly elevating standards, usher in an era of stifled creativity. It will set painfully narrow parameters for designers to play with. While you may argue that London’s creative pulse still beats; for the moment, we must get our heads round this commercial conquest, with serious social repercussions.
How would I know? I learned the hard way…
Ascertaining the French dress-code when living in Paris, far from osmosis, was more the product of a series of insults. An eclectic collection from Topshop, charity shops, American Apparel and vintage stores made my wardrobe resemble a dressing up box fit for Freddie Mercury’s house parties. I loved it, truly. I had no brand affinity or even intrigue and quantity exceeded quality on all levels.
I liked to think I dressed ‘differently’, like every other British teenager in the UK. My petite, alluring French flatmate would routinely throw a Burberry trench over our table after work, drop a Chanel quilted bag and filthy Louboutins par terre, all while lighting a cigarette and complaining about her latest amour with fiercely stereotypical indulgence. Her devotion to brands and dusky tones was at severe odds with my magpie shopping impulse.
Casting a sharp eye over my wardrobe through clouds of smoke, most of my Anglo-offerings were dismissed. Like Poirot, her formal inspection ended with a statement that the crime was embellished, ridden with detail and generally unlawful. The only items Eloise would ever borrow were clothes bought in Paris or a few numbers passed down from the previous generations. She gently advised me (nb: the French take great plaisir in offering uncivilised Westerners advice) to substitute my British shopping and drinking habits with one rule: “Quality Not Quantity”. I was made to believe that French girls eat fresh produce or more delicate portions and demonstrate this transferrable, native skill in their dressing. Yes, the two enjoy a symbiotic relationship and, yes, I could sympathise; feeling like an overweight import in the boutiques I dared to explore. However, I would soon learn that this food and fashion relationship commanded their lifestyle and fuelled a fanatical resolve to stay thin.
The best example I can offer of this ‘Parisian psyche’ came one cold, grim February morning after the school run. The French woman, whose kids I au-paired, cracked. She confided in me about her dolls-house existence and the pressure to keep up appearances amongst her Parisian posse. Hair ‘brushings’ before the school-gate were a regular affair and the middle child was the butt of most jokes about too much gateau. In peculiar role-reversal, I gently suggested a communal hands-up. Her clique could share their dusty Lindt Christmas gifts from their au-pairs and stories about their badly behaved children. This would never happen.
French dressing, or more precisely, Parisian dressing, is very much a manifestation of their cultural identity. Like in any other city, it is the uniform of time and space, a socio-political and economic expression. Contrary to the bohemian, spontaneous, artistic Paris that the films depict, the place is curiously medieval. Image, social status, and strict etiquette dictate the way they conduct themselves and give preconceptions of British social stratification a serious run for their money. Their lives are like an animated luxury lifestyle magazine: you’re either a member or you’re really not; and don’t worry, there are infinite screening opportunities to weed you out!
Far from inspiring confidence, these rigid standards of acceptability fuel that perennial sting of inadequacy. And people wonder why Parisian girls can be mean!
Regrettably though, I am by no means above the epidemic that I am exposing and British creativity can also come at a great price (Jodi Marsh). My reservations were not enough to stop me salivating at glossy Sandro ads or from pouting at the bathroom scales. I too channel insecurity and clothes envy into shopping sprees. What is ultimately important though is to get our heads around the cultural facts. The French avoid fun-fashion in the British sense, where the ridiculous can be pretty eccentric from time-to-time. For the French, having fun with fashion comes with a huge social risk they are not willing to take …something we Brits are good at, not being afraid to make a prat out of ourselves…and each other. Our self-deprecating humour or any sense of humility is (as a generalisation) lost on our European neighbours. Take it as you like.
Digest the situation, and your salads.