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Fashion in Paris

Throughout my entire rather unfashionable life, I have somehow known that Paris is supposed to be the centre of the fashion universe. But where would you start if you decided to dress like a fashionable Parisian? What do those people who live in the city and love its fashionable image wear?

Well, until a few days ago, my only advice would have been to ask someone else other than me. Until a few days ago, I was the fashion ignoramus. Whilst not pretending to be an expert after my brief excursion into the world of fabric taste, I can at least lay claim to a modicum of knowledge about the Autumnal ins and outs of the Parisian fashion scene. Trust me at your own peril as I feel I should let you know that these words, or indeed any words that I ever write, will almost certainly never appear in Vogue or be used a style guide by, well, anyone with sense.

I was asked to write an article on what is fashionable in Paris and I will admit that I had absolutely no idea where to start looking. I do not shop in places that get excited about the latest designer creation. Now though I had to start looking at precisely those stores. I had to understand the notion of there being clothes for different seasons and get my head round the alien concept of paying €200 for a top. I mean, you are half way to a decent stereo with that money.

I had a cursory glance at a couple of guidebooks before I set out and they confirmed that Paris was indeed a fashionable place. One book went as far as to say that Paris is a 'sublime place to shop', even if you cannot afford anything. Forget Sacré Coeur, Notre Dame and the Louvre and become a lèche-vitrine (window-licker) was effectively this book's advice. Slightly apprehensive, I set off for Bon Marché. Situated in Rue de Sèvres in the 7th district, Bon Marché is Paris' oldest department store, clothing the locals since 1852. Before entering I became a little suspicious that this expanse of Parisian fashion may be guilty of an inherent lie. Were the clothes really going to be the good value that the name suggests? Intrigued, I entered the building primed for some serious window-licking, excited about the prospect of a sublime experience. I was determined to know what was 'in'.

This desire however would certainly not lead to any purchasing action on my behalf. A browse through male fashion revealed designers offering subtle variations on the suit and a couple of bright pullovers. I decided that women's clothes would be more of more interest (to look at, not to wear), and therefore I set off to the first floor and started to soak up the trends of the city. Which for autumn will be shades of brown in a retro style. There we go. I have summed up everything that I saw, everything that Parisians will be wearing in a couple of weeks in one sentence. That is not a criticism, just a fact. Almost all the designers that I saw seemed to have decided that brown is, to coin an overused phrase, the new black and that the 1960s and 70s are a great marker for style. Whatever their level of eccentricity, most of the designers featured in Bon Marché seem to want the women who buy their clothes to be camouflaged this autumn. Which is no bad thing.

The first label that I shall attempt to describe is Marc Jacobs. A label certainly befitting the autumnal colours retro description, Marc Jacobs clothing seemed to me to pull off the unique trick of being incredibly fashionable, stylish and practical! Practicality may seem to be an old person's clothing concern, but the tops and trousers (predominantly corduroy incidentally) could be worn by people who want to look dapper without looking like fashion victims. Actually if I was to be honest, Marc Jacobs, the first label that I looked at, was also my favourite. The designs are youthful and subtle, yet exciting (as are I discovered, label-dropping time, T-Beauty tops). I would love to be able to tell you that the young and chic do buy Marc Jacobs, however the boutique was devoid of customers. I am sure that this was not a sign of quality.

Feeling good about the fashion world, I moved on to Tara Jarmon. Whom I am not a great fan of. Eccentric, flamboyant and over the top are three ways of describing Tara's output. Again the browns and the retro feel were evident, as were frills, crinkles and an abundance of mauve. Without knowing anything about Tara Jarmon, I would guess that the founder was either of a hippy persuasion or believed that everyone should wear clothes of a hippy persuasion. Either way, I suggest that Tara Jarmon is the label for those who admire Marc Jacobs' colours and styles, but desire added frills. And mauve.

Whilst on the subject of the eccentric, flamboyant and over the top I cannot help but move onto Jean-Paul Gaultier. I had heard of this man and knew him to be all of the above. The red velvet hangers served as an indication of the possible style of the clothes and I will try my best to describe what I saw. The tops are a cacophony of material and colour. There may a patch of paisley material over the left breast area, however the patch of gold underneath certainly generates diversity. A man clearly playing by his own rules, Jean-Paul Gaultier has ignored my autumnal style guide and has instead placed pieces of worn out carpet on tops costing a good €200. I was intrigued as to who would possibly buy this and therefore lurked suspiciously within the neighbouring (and disappointingly tame) Vivienne Westwood compound spying on Gaultier's customers. I was initially bemused by the modestly dressed, yet undoubtedly stylish women running their hands through the patterned 1960s curtain tops. That they moved on was somewhat of a relief to my embryonic fashion mind. I was not yet ready to understand why anyone would be interested in a violent battle between the forces of gold, green, red, black and purple being fought on a floral patterned piece of lace.

A visit to the equally remarkable Christian Lacroix revealed the customers who are interested in creations of Gaultier's ilk. Women with designer dogs, snakeskin print suits, ornate sunglasses nestled on top of their heads in their 60s or 70s will not be camouflaged this autumn. I am not surprised when an assistant explained to me that the youth of Paris buy Gaultier's jeans, not tops and shirts. They are left to the women in the twilight of their lives that can turn heads in the street.

My next port of call was the Galeries Lafayette in the bustling Boulevard Haussmann. A much larger store than Bon Marché, the Galeries Lafayette is literally crammed full of shoppers and intrigued lèche-vitrine tourists. Housed within the splendid building, with the 'too-nice-for-a-shop' dome, are a huge variety of labels. More so than Bon Marché, there are more high street labels: Naf Naf, Morgan and Kookai for instance demand a large floor space. However my attention was grabbed by the promise of an area on the first floor devoted entirely to creative designers. I saw more Jean-Paul Gaultier, some John Galliano and a host of Japanese names such as Yohji Yomomoto and Junya Watanabe. Judging by the hoards of Japanese tourists clearly visiting to marvel not shop, it appeared as if a strange symbiotic relationship had developed. The Galeries Lafayette would promote Japanese designers in return for Japanese tour operators including the shop in all city tours.

But what of the clothes? I do not believe that I will be wearing much John Galliano this autumn. However, I do not believe that many Parisians will either. The simple and uninitiated (i.e. me) would call Galliano's clothes similar to, yet brighter than Jean-Paul Gaultier. The clothes on display veered so far away from the Parisian autumn style that I seriously believe such displays are more for tourists rather than buyers. Salvador Dali and Yoko Ono conceptions raise the old issue of there being a fine line between genius and insanity. Judging by the people who perused the clothes as if they were paintings and then skulked away bemused, similar questions could be asked of a Mr. Galliano.

So what can I tell you about what is trendy in Paris as the nights draw in and autumn approaches? I can tell you that amongst the more conservative designers, chic I guess, there is a definite tendency for subdued colour, uncomplicated pattern, retro styles and corduroys. This was apparent in a wide range of designers, catering for both the young and the old. Designers such as Bon Marché's exclusive label Saint-Germain des Pres, who purport to showcase the styles of the season, Alain Manoukian, for the middle aged woman, and many others had all created clothes cut from a similar cloth. However, being a novice in the fashion world, am I to be trusted? Should everyone that reads this and wishes to appear fashionable in Paris rush out and buy autumnal coloured 70s get-up? Well, I'll leave that to your discretion. However I would like you to trust me on one thing. In a youth section of Bon Marché, there is a label that shall remain nameless that has tapped into the new trend for old sports t-shirts. Emblazoned in slogans such as 'YMCA Soccer', 'Yale Championship 1988' or 'The Terry Smith Rally Championship, Wichita, USA 1981', these t-shirts sell for €8 in Student Unions throughout the world. Just adding some sequins to the logos and placing these old t-shirts in a famous department store does not warrant a 25 times mark up to €210. It is examples such as this one that renders it true that whilst Paris may know fashion, they certainly know how to charge for it.

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