Arriving at the café to meet my writing group my first clue that something unusual was going on should have been how busy the area was. Our meeting point was on a quiet corner, off the tourist path and far from popular attractions, yet there were cars and people everywhere. Expensive black and silver cars surrounded the statue in the small square across the street, while the sidewalks were bustling with fashionably dressed women cloaked in furs and teetering on heels of extraordinary height. A surprising number of people with big cameras scurried about these women stopping them now and again to take a photo. However, it wasn’t until I noticed someone sporting a glittering ‘H’ at the entrance to a well-guarded building that the lightbulb finally came on: Hermés was hosting an event. My hand instinctively reached to check my hair and adjust my scarf.
I had completely forgotten about Fashion Week. I live my life in jeans and pay little attention to haute couture. I recognize Louis Vuitton because I recently visited an exhibition at the Grand Palais and fell in love with his luggage and purses. Beyond that my knowledge is limited. In fact, I was initially anxious about moving to Paris given its reputation as ‘the’ city of fashion, beauty and, by extension, beautifully dressed women. I’d meant to become a little more fashion savvy before moving but, as yet, hadn’t gotten around to it.
Fortunately though, within a short time of arriving in Paris I realized that on a day-to-day basis the French seemed to dress as ‘normally’ as I do. I learned to have a few nice pieces for wearing out in the evening, but on a daily basis I could dress comfortably and not stand out, particularly after purchasing a number of the requisite stylish scarves. In fact, I was even beginning to feel like I fit in, at least from a fashion perspective.
And so it was with some confidence that I’d headed out to meet my writing group. I had assessed the event – a casual class, in a quiet, out of the way café, during the down time between work and dinner. I’d come to the conclusion there was no need to dress up. One might say that I’d even been a bit cocky. Not only was I wearing jeans and a comfortable old sweater, I’d simply run some water through my hair and given it a good shake in lieu of an actual washing. And now here I was in the middle of a Fashion Week “event”.
How could I have forgotten? Fashion Week: the semi-annual event when the large fashion houses present their seasonal collections to the world. Fashion Week: a weeklong fashion party that takes over much of central Paris including, it would appear, even this out of the way café.
While the crowd waited for access to the Hermés event a number of them had wandered inside the café for an apero. From the vantage of our table I glanced around the room. Across from me was a pair of long legged blonds in designer jeans sporting the crazy high boots I’d seen outside.
A stylish young couple stood at the bar sipping their drinks: he in cashmere, she wearing dark, round ‘Harry Potter’ glasses and a coat made from something white and furry, her red penny loafers providing a brilliant contrast.
There was no doubt about it, the regular afternoon crowd at the café had been replaced and I was now sitting among the fashionable and beautiful. I suddenly wished I’d reconsidered my own fashion choices that evening.
The scene both inside and outside the café reminded me that Paris does indeed have a long and cherished relationship with fashion. In fact, the modern concept of fashion came of age here in the 1700’s under Louis XIV. At that time though the idea of showing fashions was limited to clients of the ‘haute couture’ – or ‘high fashion’ houses – actually interested in making purchases. These clients were invited to the designer’s atelier (design salon) and were shown mannequins dressed in the pieces that were of particular interest.
The concept of a ‘fashion parade’ emerged in the 1800’s as these haute couture houses grew. A designer would group a collection of pieces together. Live models would then sport the designs and form a line to present the collection to a select invited group of prized customers. An exclusive party followed. For the most part each designer worked independently and would show his fashions on his own terms and timing.
As the fashion industry grew the French worried about being able to protect their designs and high fashion houses. To this end ‘La Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture’ was created in the mid-1800’s. This group defined what constitutes a ‘couture’ house and set strict criteria for membership. In the mid 1940’s the Syndicale decreed that, in order to meet their criteria, an haute couture house must now present a collection of a minimum of 35 runs each season of both daytime and evening wear to the Paris press. Fashion Week was born. In the early 1970’s separate categories were added for designers of ‘Ready to Wear’ and ‘Men’s Wear’ fashions. These categories, together with ‘Haute Couture’, comprise Fashion Week as we know it today.
Fashion Week in Paris rounds out a series of major international events including those in New York, London and Milan. It brings celebrities and the ‘who’s who’ of the fashion world to Paris twice a year. This week’s event featured close to 100 different shows and parties. This is the time when we all get to find out what will be ‘in’ and ‘out’ for the coming season as retailers place their orders months in advance. After all, Fashion Week isn’t just shows and parties, it’s big business for the fashion industry.
Judging by the size of the crowds around Paris, Fashion Week is also extremely popular among ‘regular’ people. Whether it’s to get a glimpse of a celebrity or to check out the latest fashions to determine if anything in their wardrobe will remain ‘in’ for next season, Parisians turned out in droves at Fashion Week events. They flocked to the streets and sidewalks around event venues while social media was alive with comments, reviews and photos of the new “must have” pieces. In fact, a couple of days after my writing group I was in a city bus that got ‘stuck’ in the middle of a crowd waiting outside a large Fashion Week event near the Louvre. The entire road had been shut down and a red carpet rolled out for the models and celebrities. We sat, waited and no one complained.
My experiences this past week have shown me that Paris really is a city of fashion. In fact, if I really want to fit in the time has come to step up my Fashion I.Q. – before the next Fashion Week rolls around. I’m going to do some research and start learning more about what’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’. I need to buy some fashion magazines and pay closer attention to what others are wearing. And I definitely need to learn the names of the haute couture houses! Better yet, maybe I should head out right now and do a little shopping…purely for educational purposes of course. But first I think I’ll go wash my hair.