Luxury leather accessories – C’est mon secret

C’est mon secret 

It’s one of those secrets that is passed by word of mouth: a tip shared by a friend over a coffee in a Parisian garden, early in the morning when tulips bend to listen and before the crowds make them stand to attention.  It’s one of those secrets that you really want to write down and broadcast, loudly, on the Internet.  One of those secrets that I’ve been seeking out: the kind that comes loaded with talent and that leads to serendipitous moments of understanding on the I love Made in France trail.

. P for Product, P for Personal, P for Personalized

The story’s founding block

130315_120333The story begins with a K but is pronounced S: C’est mon secret – like the snake that adorns its mistress’s purse.  For luck, because 2013, year of C’est mon secret, is also the year of the Snake.

Kristine Kirchner is a discrete adventuress, and C’est mon secret is her latest embarkment.  Although this particular story of hers has been building over time, since this Spring Kristine has been developing  her  new products with the great precision and speed that professional knowhow, matched with drive fueled by conviction and the kind of instinct that catches serendipity and folds it into coherence, can achieve.

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Kristine’s C’est mon secret story starts with a specific need: a French professional woman’s need to spare her back – with elegance.  She wanted a quality case to carry her computer and papers from meeting to meeting, and she was having a hard time finding the person to make it.  She did find, of course, a master in the art of working leather in France’s historical center for textile, leather and silk manufacturing: Lyons, her home town.

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Developing the product & building a team

Leather accessories hand made to order

Leather accessories hand made to order

Kristine’s briefcase was a success with all those who saw and touched it. When the opportunity arose, and with the encouragement of those who know her well, she decided to take her  adventure a step further and to develop a line of fine leather accessories that would suit the needs and standards of people like herself who seek to match practicality with an elegance of one’s own and irreproachable quality – Made in France.

The most important step had been made, Kristine had met the keystone artisan who could make the accessories, and gradually other professionals that would form the team to make her dreams come true were introduced.  Some of these are in, or stem from, her closest circle of connections and her family.

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Kristine’s brother, for instance, is a book-binder and he held the key to making her products distinctly personal and personalize-able.

A number of years ago Henri Kirchner bought an atelier in the old center of Lyons, and with it a collection of gilding irons – some of which are over 100 years old as they have been passed down with the atelier to each new acquirer.  Kristine’s great respect for her brother’s work, as well as her appreciation of these irons’ particularity, led her to involve Henri in her new project.

What more intimate and precious place to keep a secret, or share thoughts and moments, than a book? And what better way to personalize a treasured item to keep or to give than to have it gilded with a choice of rare and unique letters and images?

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. P for Promotion

As any entrepreneur will know, once the idea is formulated, and those who can fabricate it are found, the P of Promotion comes into play.  Again, a mix of serendipitous meetings and connections have allowed Kristine to build a talented team of collaborators: a photographer specialized in rendering leather at its finest, and a graphic designer who has creatively given C’est mon secret’s story visual coherence with discrete elegance.

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Yet an essential factor to promoting with coherence is having a good story to tell and to illustrate – and C’est mon Secret has one.

. Cathedrals – Notre Dame de Paris

Kristine has ingeniously found inspiration in Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and has created a story of her own that is as artfully crafted as the colorful stained-glass rosette of the cathedral.  

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The French title of the book is simply Notre Dame de Paris and as such suggests that the cathedral is the protagonist of the story more than Esmeralda, the bewitchingly beautiful dancing gypsy (see reference to exhibit Bohèmes), or Quasimodo the famed hunchback made deaf from bell-ringing.

Victor Hugo was passionate about architecture and the book that was successful with his contemporaries, is likely to have spurred a Gothic revival and cathedral-restoration frenzy in France that culminated with the efforts of Viollet le Duc towards the end of the 19th Century.

Hugo refers to the ideas that “printing will kill architecture” (This will kill that – Ceci tuera cela) and that “architecture is a great book of humanity” throughout the novel. Gutenberg‘s movable print (1450’s) brought about the vulgarization of ideas and language printed on paper at a time when cathedrals sprung up in Europe like the towers of Dubai.  These could also be seen as the frames for story-telling to a large public – sort of like a massive 3D comic-strip.

An analogy could be made between Hugo’s reflections, which set the genre for Emile Zola‘s later books addressing the socio-economic changes induced by the Industrial Revolution and that refer to mass advertising, and the influence of the digital revolution and social media on today’s story-telling to the masses.  I expect the novel may not be the vehicle of choice, though.

Gilding

Gilding

. The Serendipity trail

It just so happened that a week before meeting Kristine, I had walked by a place near Odéon, not far from where the story of my blog started, that I had made a mental note to visit.  This was the Musée-Librairie du Compagnonage.  Somewhere in the back of my mind I had registered that compagnons were linked to to cathedral-building and after our talk about Victor Hugo’s book, it made sense to go by.

As serendipity would have it, I had an enlightening conversation about the history and the spirit of Compagnonnage (an historic association of skilled artisans – original linked to building in the middle-ages) with the Compagnon who keeps the museum/bookstore, and other visitors. This man’s calm voice exuded the sort of quiet self confidence of one who is genuinely happy with his life’s work as carpenter and proud to be keeper of the stunning wood maquettes of staircases and roof-structures on show.

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He gently impressed the importance of teamwork in the tradition of the Compagnons du Devoir: no one gets left behind and all hands are on board to help others achieve their task.  It seems that young apprentices continue to knock on the Compagnon‘s door, maybe particularly in these times when unemployment runs high among the young, yet there is a dearth of skilled workers.

In my inquiry, he left me with a nugget: the name of an existing restaurant still run by the CompagnonsAux arts et sciences réunis in the 19th arrondissement, which I look forward to enjoying.  But the visit also left me with food for thought: I was keen to find out more.

The Fornay Library

I decided to renew my membership at the Bibilothèque Fornay to see what I could find there that would link what I had learned at the Musée du Compagnonnage with my blog quest on artisanship and entrepreneurship.  The Fornay Library specializes in the Decorative Arts; it is niched in the Marais, and right behind the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  The medieval building at 1, rue du Figuier (there really is a fig-tree there), was built between 1475 and 1519 by Tristan de Salazar (love that name) and was a private home to the illustrious.  It fit right into the times of Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris and Gutenberg, so into my story.

The Hotel de Sens was bought by the State at the time of the French Revolution and since then went through a rough time being used, amongst other things, as a laundry, a food-canning factory, or a hare-fur cutting factory (hare-skins make excellent glue) before being bought by the City of Paris in 1911.

Restoration of the building started in 1929 when a library named after the industrialist Samuel Aimé-Fornay in 1881, was transferred there from the neighboring Faubourg Saint-Antoine – a district where cabinet-makers traditionally grouped their workshops. The library had been established as a resource for illustrators, bronze workers and cabinet-makers thanks to Fornay’s bequeath.  Initial restoration lasted until 1961, although the building is still undergoing the last touches of an ambitious second round, surely using the skills of master craftsmen from the famous Compagnons du Devoir.

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I found what I was looking for: “Les Compagnons, ou l’amour de la belle ouvrage” by François Icher, an historian who works with the CNRS (national center for scientific research) and specializes in cathedral-building and the society that revolved around the building sites – very in-line with Hugo and Balzac.

The apprentice’s Tour de France

I was glad to have followed this trail as what I learned has brought coherence to much of what I have experienced since my own induction Tour de France, which also involved innumerable cathedrals – and adjacent cafés.  This was as a Smith College junior year abroad student in 1988 – back when many of the historic monuments that are bright and shiny today were covered in soot thick enough to date back to the dark ages.

What I learned from Mr. Icher, in particular, provided me with another layer of historical and social context that leads to the notion of ‘savoir faire‘ and France’s reputation for quality and innovation, but also included just enough of a tinge of secrecy, or, more accurately – discretion – to weave it into this story.

Distinguishing discretion from secrecy, and ceremony from hocus-pocus

Although compagnon translates into ‘companion’ in English, and might refer to the spirit of brotherhood or the fact that they most often travelled in pairs, the Compagnons du Devoir probably share enough history and spirit to be associated with Freemasons.  They don’t like to be associated with what the French call francs-massons though, as the latter’s reputation for funny handshakes suspected of covering insider business deals is  not in line with the spirit of sharing that Compagnons wish to promote.  I can relate to both as Smith, unlike many other American universities, prohibits Sororities, but also because my great-grandfather, an industrialist, was a Freemason – I’ve seen the apron.

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Either way, both Compagnons and Freemasons are rooted in the times of cathedral-building: they were masons and carpenters who passed on their skills, as well as their dedication to the accomplishment of a task, from master to apprentice.  Legend links the Compagnons to Salomon and the building of the Temple of Jerusalem.

A social network based on guiding principles

In France, these specialists organized themselves into groups representing various vocations and created a network and structure that allowed apprentices to perfect and broaden their skills by traveling from town to town (I wrote about chocolate maker Patrick Roger, Meilleur Ouvrier de France, for example, and our baker is a Compagnon who learned to make kouign-amann – the out-of-this-world butter and sugar puffed-pastry from Brittany – thanks to his Tour de France).

The Tour de France

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Through their network, aspiring Compagnons were hosted in hostels held by their order (cayennes) – much like houses on American college campuses.  Within their cayennes they found shelter, food, masters, work and social protection for themselves and their families.  Trainees and confirmed members, had to strictly adhere to some fundamental rules and principles.

Shrouded in humility, and in the spirit of openness and sharing, these principles which still apply today, mostly convey respect, honesty, assiduity and neutrality.  Apprenticeship, which started young (now 16) and lasted years (now 5) was concluded after presenting a chef d’oeuvre to demonstrate their acquired skill and ingenuity before they could officially be called a Compagnon du Devoir (some of these are exhibited in the Musée du Compagnonnage in Paris, though there are others such as in Tours).

I sense that there was a sort of schism between those who were called Master Artisans, contemporary of Marie-Antoinette let’s say, and who might have set up shop on rue Saint Honoré having paid dues of some kind for the label of Maître, and a Compagnon who would would have earned his colored ribbons (like Karate belts) doing the Tour de France.  The lines between artisan, craftsman and ‘ouvrier‘ in France are beginning to form in my mind, though they remain somewhat blurred.  Albeit, the structure of the Compagnonnage organization may arguably have been a reference for the foundation of some of modern France’s social and business structures.

Heritage that leads to innovation: a secret to longevity

The Compagnon‘s singing was almost reduced to silence during the Industrial Revolution when they were squeezed by labor unions as metal replaced wood for construction, and following the consecutive wars that decimated the male population.  If Compagnonnage still exists today it is due to a continuing ability to fold a centuries-old heritage into a process of continuing innovation.

Compagnions building the Eiffel Tower - Musée du Compagnionnage

Compagnions building the Eiffel Tower – Musée du Compagnionnage

Compagnons, for example, were entrusted with the colossal challenge (or crazy project) of building the Eiffel Tower for the 1889 World Fair to celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution.  It is likely thanks to their expertise that the iron (cathedral-like) tower, which at 312 meters was the tallest building in the world for 40 years, still stands and is the world’s most visited paid site – Notre Dame de Paris being the first most visited monument in France.

An intangible heritage of worldwide value

Today, French Compagnons train and are hired all around the world for their skills, particularly in restoration. The transmission methods and values that have produced the finest skills over centuries through Compagnonnage are recognized by UNESCO as an intangible heritage.  There are about 45 000 Compagnions du Devoir trained in stonework, woodwork, metalwork, leatherwork, textiles, and food.

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. P for Pouch – and a brand name

I digress, but serendipity will have its way, and the spirit of the Companions who built Notre Dame de Paris, among many other cathedrals in France and in Europe emerge from the book that is the inspiration to Kristine’s story.  Although her graphic designer has artfully hinted at the colorful stained glass window’s of Victor Hugo’s cathedral using the array of leather colors to chose from, the protagonist in Kristine’s story is not the edifice but Esmeralda’s goat Djali – the goat being a symbol of fidelity – or maybe its accessory.  For this intelligent goat who follows her mistress and performs tricks, carries a leather pouch at her neck.  The pouch holds a set of woodblock letters.  When Fleur de Lys, who is jealous of Esmeralda, asks what is in the pouch, Esmeralda’s answer is: “C’est mon secret.

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The pouch has also been adapted to one of C’est mon secret‘s specialties: belts.  Belts are made to measure and can be reversible thanks to a clever buckle, or double length to be wrapped and adorned with a travel pouch.  Like any of the items to select from, the two-tone belts can be made using the colors of one’s choice.

This choice is hinted at by the double stitching on each item that marks they are hand-made, and like the key-stone in a vaulted arch, this double stitch, the keystone to Kristine’s story, is picked up in C’est mon secret‘s logo: it’s the appostrophe after the C’.

Marjolaine's belt pouch

Marjolaine’s belt pouch

C’est mon secret really is multi-layered: the more time I spend with Kristine who kindly agreed to meet with me to tell me her story and to invite me to an event at the Hotel Concorde, where her purses are exhibited for sale, so that I could see how they are gilded.

People, attracted like bees to colorful flowers, raise an eyebrow at the price (they’re in fact excellent value for the quality and freedom of choice that we’re talking about) and keep the accessories in hand.  This is surely due to the quality of leather, goatskin or calfskin, that Kristine and the artisans she works with have selected that is of French origin and tanned in France. The French love the empirical, but my celtic genes may forgive a hint of the mysterious: it seems that something magical happens at touch … it’s as though the softness and weight of the leather transfers, and voices (quite empirically) tone down to almost the murmur of a secret.

I have to admit that I gave in and walked away with a tassle and a small pouch that I had gilded with a very French-looking rooster.  It now holds my I Love Made in France visiting cards.  Like what the French call a ‘doudou’, I keep my blue purse at hand to remind me of my choices – somehow its reassuring.  The envelope is already among my very small collection of cherished objects.

Cherished objects

Cherished objects

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. P for Points of Sale

All the ingredients are there … but it’s hard to describe with words, or even cathedrals, what you can really only feel.  C’est mon secret items can be ordered and an e-store is soon to be launched.  Items are also available at the Hotel Concorde Montparnasse and at TAJ, the Made in France specialty store that also opened last Spring and is conveniently located between the Louvre, Palais Royal and Opéra.  TAJ makes a point of selecting products Made in France that are affordable.  It’s a great place to stop by for ‘a little something’ to give or to take home.

Eiffel tower umbrella available at TAJ

Eiffel tower umbrella available at TAJ

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An edge to heritage – Made in France

An edge to heritage

Although Spring did not truly manifest itself until last week in Paris, the sap has been rising for I Love Made in FRance thanks to a number of exhibits, a conference, a trade fair and numerous encounters with people who are passionate about the French expertise they commercialize.  There’s a ‘Made in France’ buzz in the air.

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. Entrepreneurship & Enterprise

On the business and entrepreneurship side – Made in France – I attended ‘Osons la France‘ (something like: “France, let’s dare”), a conference organized by Aude de Thuin, as well as the ‘Made in France‘ trade fair that rallied manufacturers in the luxury textile and couture industry.

Also, I had the real pleasure to speak with inspiring shop and gallery owners who share their passion and expertise through their commercial enterprise.  These include François Hénin of Parfums Jovoy (Place Vendôme) where rare perfumes are found; Cyril Ermel of IBU gallery (Palais Royal) that exhibits contemporary French jewelers as well as photography and design furniture; Near the Louvre, Beatrice Le Chevalier has just opened TAJ, a store that specializes in products Made in France; and a charming salesman and young artist (I forgot to ask his name – eeek) at Arty Dandy (Carrousel du Louvre and St Germain) who walked me through the Made in France items that are priviledged in this concept store.  I had a weakness for A Piece of Chic scarves, Made in Lyons, France.

. Exhibits of Luxury

Shelter from foul weather and any related mood was found in a number of the season’s fine and colorful exhibits: “Mannequin, Le Corps de la Mode” (Model, the Body of Fashion), the Galliera Museum’s exhibit at Les Docks; ‘Paris Haute Couture‘ at Paris’ City Hall (free admission!); the Maison Baccarat and its exhibit “Taillé sur Mersure” (Cut to Measure), as well as its fun and delicious restaurant Cristal; The Musée Maillol’s exhibit featuring Murano glass, from the late Middle-Ages to today.  Italy, OK, but in line with the history of crystal manufacturing in France.

Though any of these visits and events would deserve a whole blog to themselves, right now I’ll have to group, be succinct and hope to get back to some.

. What’s new for I Love Made in FRance

I Love Made in FRance is bourgeoning also: it now has a Twitter account and I have found that its Facebook page is a good place to spontaneously jot down ideas (I’d be grateful for some likes here so that I can access the stats page ;-))

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. Setting an example with a tug of encouragement 

Osons la France!

Recession, record-high unemployment – particularly for the young – closing factories, bullies who put down French workers in an international arena, talent jumping the boat … crumbs, the list of reasons for wondering how, and if, we’ll make it – individually and collectively – are abundantly reported.  There is however, also, a vibrant France that needs to find a voice.

I’d been looking forward to the ‘Osons la France’ conference as I particularly wanted to see Aude de Thuin, the founder of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society.  I am, after all, a ‘Smithie‘ and I wanted to see this mover-and-shaker who has been bringing women on stage to give them the opportunity to emanate their power to influence for change in so many domains.  It also seemed that we were oddly on the same wavelength when I heard she was launching ‘Osons la France’ a while back.

Espace Pierre Cardin

Espace Pierre Cardin

April 5 was another grim day (we’ve had 4 months of this … maybe 5) and as I slid into a seat at the Pierre Cardin conference centre, leaving a comfortable space between my neighbors (it was early by Parisian rhythms and there were enough seats), I was frankly wondering if I would make it through the day (the program announced 24 hours non-stop with live transmission from the US overnight): would I be inspired to act and interact, or was this a warm fuzzies forum?

Well, I didn’t have to think about it for long because Bernard Reybier, of SIEL Bleu, had us out of our seats stretching, breathing, swinging about arm-in-arm and laughing in no time.  Now that approach was a first for me, and certainly a cultural breakthrough.  I was set for the day, not only physically but also because Bernard was an example of those to follow: an engaging person with conviction and vision; one whose ambitions to contribute towards society have also led to development overseas and to success in a new sector.  He was an example, yes, but he also left an indelible trace.

There were a number of these examples: men, women, very young and ageless.  I am sure that such success stories can be found around the world.  So why this, now, here?  Claudia Senik: Economist, mesurer l’économie du bonheur (measuring the economy of happiness) explained how research shows that the French people feel more unhappy than their counterparts of equivalent socio-economic backgrounds abroad – and not because they are in France: this would be a cultural phenomenon that is also transmissible and exportable.

Stéphane Distinguin, founder of faberNovel innovation agency, mentioned that at a recent conference with a group of young people they had mentioned a poll which reflected that 75% of French youth feel that France does not take young people’s creativity into consideration, and that 80% believe that France “does less well than elsewhere.” Yet he also mentions that Silicon Valley businesses are very proud to have a French engineer in their teams.

It is difficult to digest that a country that is so rich and diverse, that has a stable democracy, excellent schools, engineers and creatives, should constantly hear and project doom and gloom all around.  I, for one, have been hearing this for over 20 years. Even when the overall economy was relatively good.  Is this false modesty?

After all, this is a culture where the eccentric is frowned upon, and one where money is linked to the elite, and by extension to those who got their heads lopped off.  Yet an entrepreneur is by definition a risk-taker and eccentric. Mr. Norbert Alter, sociology professor at Dauphine University, drew an attractive portrait of the entrepreneur as one whose difference serves to be an asset – not only to personal and  company success, but also to others.

It seemed to me that here was a call for politicians to change their tune (Sophie Pedder, The Economist), and for entrepreneurs to take up the challenge not only to defy convention in France, but also to take their produce or service to market at wider shores.  Simplistically: not to be afraid, because the French are appreciated for their talent, and French products are appreciated for their quality be it in the US, in Russia or in Japan.  Jean-Baptiste Rudelle of Criteo gave a very insightful description of his experience internationalizing his highly successful digital service.

Philippe Hayat100 000 entrepreneurs, presented his initiative to reach out to kids in school to give them an understanding of what entrepreneurship is.  Emmanuel Mignot, founder of Télétech, talked about achieving his end-of-career objective to revolutionize the sector he works in while improving his service.  He’s created the ‘Google of Dijon’ to the extent that locals are eager to work there (it’s a customer services call center – not the sort of place where people generally dream of working.)

Turning the tables was a recurrent theme (Myriam Maestroni, Economies d’Enérgies – Energy saving … 2.0; Nathalie Andrieux*, Médiapost Communication) as was innovation, and I think that that is one of France’s great strengths: it has a heritage that is a valuable asset, and it also has the talent and skills, through its engineers and highly trained specialists, in many domains (thanks to the education system that is sometimes mis-understood by foreigners, like myself) to bring new solutions.

Christian Monjou, Professor at Oxford & ENS – Osons oser (Lets date to dare) expressed this with artful oration and insightful analysis, but also infused the pertinence of daring, competition, innovation and success using Matisse and Picasso to illustrate his points.

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*Nathalie Andrieux also showed enormous courage by introducing the foundation she has created in memory of her son Mikhy to an audience for the first time.  Please support pain-relief for children in hospitals with Les Amis de Mikhy (Facebook).

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. Creative solutions ‘Made in France’

The question of heritage and innovation was manifest at the ‘Made in France’ trade fair at the Carrousel du Louvre a week later.  The fair represents textile and leather manufacturers for luxury ready-to-wear and couture.

I had the pleasure of talking with a number of representatives from industries that were mostly small to mid-size and of varying structures: family owned, cooperative, individual, networked. I was interested in the company history and heritage as much as their products, but also in some of the solutions that they have found to stay competitive.   There is some good news on the ground.

When walking around, I was drawn to a small stand exhibiting luscious cashmere knit and the sort of patterns and yarn that I have only seen in Italy – and hand made by skilled artisans.  When talking with Francis Planell-Carrio, R&D manager, I learned how La Maille au Personnel, located in the Tarn region near Toulouse, almost closed a few years ago.  Though a number of employees lost their jobs, and machines were sold, some were able to create a corporation.

Today, the co-op has managed to reverse loss into gain. Also, to complement their confection services, they have launched a product line under their own brand, La Maille au Naturel, and design layette items and throws using Mérinos wool that has not been treated with noxious products and that is eco-friendly, affordable … and sold online.

I also talked to representatives of the Alter-Tex network around Lyons in the Rhône Alpes region, the traditional textile (silk in particular) weaving centre of France.  The initiative here is to create a network that embraces sustainable development, not only because it makes sense, or is required, but also because the label adds value and is a differentiator in a tight market.  I did ask some spiky questions like: “How do you compete with, lets say, the Italians in the Modena district?” Competition is tough, but what one person said was that their edge was the capacity to propose technical solutions (invent) along with their know-how to meet their clients needs.

I think this is key, and it echos what was said at ‘Osons la France’: this capacity to bring creative and technical solutions tailored to clients’ needs is France’s distinguishing asset.  In my mind this capacity is built on heritage, education (early specialization), a willingness to cooperate, associate and affiliate, and sophistication – which is cultural: good is not good enough!

Also present were the elite of the elite in the world of savoir-faire: the EPV – Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant.  I didn’t get to all the stands but had the pleasure of talking with Séverina Lartigue who creates silk flowers in Lisieux, Normandy.

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Other representatives of EPV’s that I was able to talk with briefly, and hope to get back to, were Artmetal Framex which specializes in metal-work of all kinds including buttons, costume jewelry and furniture adornments, and the Duvelleroy fan-makers since 1827: eco-friendly (natural air-conditionning), engineered to-the-max, and highly creative (development of a line of limited-edition fans such as for the 160th anniversary of Le Bon Marché).  They have an upcoming exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in May.

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. Vehicles of Luxury in Paris’ docklands

Les Docs - architects Dominique Jakob and Brenda MacFarlane

Les Docs – architects Dominique Jakob and Brenda MacFarlane

There were three reasons for going to see this exhibit ‘Mannequin, le Corps de la Mode‘: 1/ I’d never visited ‘the green squiggly’: Les Docks  2/ Les Docks houses the Institut Français de la Mode (French Institute of Fashion) 3/ It was Fashion Week and it seemed appropriate.

. The uprise of the East – of Paris

It’s true, I was traveling east beyond a comfort zone which seems to draw its invisible line just beyond the Institut du Monde Arabe, by French architect Jean Nouvel, and the now gorgeous Jardin des Plantes.  And that might be the 4th reason why I was going: to re-discover this neck of Paris that has been steadily transforming over the past 20 years.

Back in 1988/89 when I was doing my Junior Year Abroad with Smith College, the Institut du Monde Arabe had just been inaugurated and it’s ‘aperture’ windows were (and still are) a mark of innovation.  Adjacent, the now stunning Jardins des Plantes was almost wasteland.  In ’93, and further up the river, I photographed the Rue Watt before it was destroyed to renovate the area around the Très Grande Biliothèque (National Library), and went to the Mills that were squatted by artists (nice blog – in French – on industrial architecture in Paris) and that have since been re-habilitated as a university.  Paris’ first fully automated metro, line 14, now runs from Saint Lazare through the Bercy quarter which holds the Cinémathèque Française (Frank Gehry) niched in the Parc de Bercy and adjacent to the animated Bercy Village, Cour Saint Emilion (former wine stocks of Paris).

. Dockland development 

A new footbridge also links these two recent activity poles, and along the way, on the left bank, are the Docks.  The lime-green latice-work that nets the distinctive building covers a 1907 concrete structure that was once a store-house.  It now houses the French Institute for Fashion and a number of galleries, shops, cafés and rooftop nightclub.

Frankly, it wasn’t a very comfortable journey to the Docks: it was cold; the walk through and from the grim Gare d’Austerliz seemed long; the coffee-shop that I desperately needed was closed, as it seemed were the commercial venues; there were not many people so the riverbank and the location seemed bleak; and on the way back, the bus was re-routed so I walked across Bercy bridge to catch the 14 at the Gare de Lyon: not much fun either.  I mean, that’s a lot of footwork and not much to chew on along the way.

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That said, there was there was food for thought at the exhibit.  I didn’t walk around thinking: “wow this is a statement.” Maybe that’s because there is something quite disturbing about the progression that unfolds between fashion and the model: the support on which an idea is built (either wicker-frame, wood, textile or human), that becomes a communication vehicle to take that creation to market.  Like in many good stories, the model becomes master.

The main actors in this production are of course the craftsmen/women (couturiers), the illustrators then photographers (interesting reversal of roles related to new technologies) and fianlly the models themselves.  From a dummy to the anonymous to an ideal and then a fantasy.  Over the course of 120 photographs there are a number of tipping points, and I guess that was why I left thinking there would be a number of essays to write.  This said, the website summary (in French) is very to the point!

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. Extraordinary creations for and by extraordinary people 

Right at the heart of Paris, the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) hosts another homage to France’s luxury business: the exhibit Paris Haute Couture.  Like with the ‘Models’ exhibit above, a focus was made on a less visible, yet essential, artery of Haute Couture: it’s artisans.  The experienced hands that make that dream of creation come true are brought to the forefront at the introduction of the exhibit where a number of photographs of the ateliers that fed into the illustrious fashion houses are shown.  Today, Lesage is one of the leading 6 remaining embroidery ateliers.  There were 40 of them in 1950.

. Figures that are listed on the Ville de Paris website are astounding:

1873 Worth employs 1 200 people in his ateliers.
1925 At The Decorative Arts Exhibition, 75 couture establishments are represented.
1930 To save costs, the 400 models that constitute a collection are reduced to 100.  An estimated 350 000 people and 150 000 artisans (embroiders, glove-makers, lace, jewels…) are employed by the industry.
1935 Chanel employs 4 000 people who make 28 000 models a year.
1945 6 April, the ‘Journal Officiel’ publishes regulations for couture establishments who must  “present in Paris, each Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter season, at dates fixed by the Chamber of Paris haute couture syndicates, a collection of at least 75 models”.
1953 Couture employs 150 000 people of which 6 799 in haute couture, spread over 59 enterprises which produce about 90 000 models.
1973 Haute couture employs 3 120 workers spread over 25 establishments producing 30 000 items all together (HALF over 20 years! ).
1990 Haute couture employs 928 workers (1/3 of ’73 figures! Less than the number of people employed in Worth’s ateliers in 1873 – granted: 100 years later …).
1994 Young designers can present 25 models per season.
2001 A designer is no longer obliged to have an atelier…

We’ve come a long way since 1873 and I’m really very glad not to have to wear all those layers even if it does seem, nowadays, virtually impossible to find a shirt with sleeves.  When economy meets ready-to-wear fashion bends …  Of course, haute couture is not designed for the common of mortals.  The detail, the texture, the fantasy, the guttsy-ness   (or eccentricity) and the humor expressed in many of these creations, and in those who ordered and wore them, really did capture my awe.

GANTS SCHIAPARELLI

A big bravo also to all those people who have kept these creations alive, and again to the Galliera museum which is now under re-construction.  I cannot imagine the resources deployed to bring this free exhibit to the public.  As the exhibit’s commissioner, Olivier Saillard, says in the interview above, the collection is to couture what the Egyptian wing of the Louvre is to Antiquities.

*Reference: The City of Paris articles on the exhibit are really very complete with information.  The articles are in French, but slide-shows and photographs are worth visusalising. Photographs are not allowed within the exhibit.

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Tailored light: Maison Baccarat

A Baccarat heart of glass was featured as one of my cherished belongings in February.  This led me to some research and also to the steps of the Maison Baccarat.  I was truly wowed and delighted.

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First, the place itself.  The Maison Baccarat was the home of Marie Laure de Noailles, patron of the arts (incubators of innovation), eccentric socialite and poet herself who, with her husband Charles, also built the modernist Villa Noailles and gardens, in the South of France near Hyères.  The Villa Noailles is now known also for its annual fashion and photography event.

The Parisian house that looks onto Place des Etats Unis, was built by the Vicomtesse’s grandfather, Maurice Bischoffsheim.  The Noailles had employed modernist designer Jean-Michel Franck to introduce a modern feel to their home, and though his work was destroyed by owners in the ’80s, Baccarat invited another French contemporary designer, Philippe Starck, to bring the house into the 21st century.

Homage is paid to the Noailles, the surrealist artists they were patrons of, and to poetry, by the use of dramatic setting: holographic projections, sound, sculpture and lighting – but also to the grandeur they represented both in wealth and in standing (she was a descendent of the Marquis de Sade through her mother and her father was a wealthy banker, he was equally descendent of a long lineage of French aristocracy).  The majestic crystal displays that Baccarat created were destined for their circles.

As one passes the Baccarat-red coach-door (Baccarat created its famous red  in 1847 thanks to the use of gold mixed with pewter) one is welcomed under the carriage shelter by two flaming fireplaces, sheathed in mirrored crystal.  From here we are led into a dark hall that gives the impression that we’ve landed in Alice’s Wonderland ‘Through the Looking Glass”: two huge amphoras are animated by etherial milky holograms and voice invite us to progress towards majestic stairs lit by a monumental chandelier.

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Ground floor reception rooms are now a show-room for the Baccarat table-ware.  Further on, a room showcases Baccarat jewelry.  Baccarat’s “Créole” earrings created in 1991 were so successful that that Anne-Claire Taittinger, the company’s President, decided to develop this branch which in only 10 years reached 20% of Baccarat’s sales.  The “Les Précieux” line, which combines crystal and precious stones was launched in 2001.

Ms. Taittinger has decidedly brought Baccarat into the modern era where it belongs, and has successfully provided the company with the means to maintain its heritage but also to continue innovating.  To this end, like other luxury creators, Baccarat continues to push its creative boundaries and technique by editing limited collections with contemporary designers and artists.

Moving up to the first floor, we are introduced into the original ballroom paneled in XVIII century Italian-style motifs.  The ballroom hosts a video which gives a real feel for the work and skill that goes into making each piece of Baccarat crystal.  I can’t find that particular video online, as it gives the minimum number of hours and skilled hands and eyes that are needed to make just one glass.  Many! But this one does evoke the contrast between those burly glass blowers by their kilns, and the finesse and visual lightness of the final product that reflects a magical, skilled, transformation. It takes many many years to train any of these artisans.

A room tented in paintings by French artist Gérard Garouste called ‘l’Alchimie’: a theme on the 4 elements, Water, Earth, Air and Fire, provided a magical rendering of what the documentary had impressed. Under this tent, limited series by designers Ettore Scottsass, Jaime Hayon, Marcel Wanders, Patricia Urquiola and Thomas Bastide are presented for their creative use of various cutting techniques.

This is the introduction to the exhibit “Taillé sur Mesure” (Cut to Measure) which continues in the next room. Four vitrines hold pieces that illustrate a certain type of cut: Purety of Line, Ornement, Diamond Cut, and the lacework of the “taille riche.”  Every piece is exceptional, from those created for Tsars to those created by contemporary designers.

My favorite is the Harcourt glass created in 1841.  The simplicity of its lines and proportions promise to take nothing away from the wine which it will cradle, while adding only weight and enhancing its color.

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. Cling, Cling! Baccarat restaurant ‘Cristal’

Luckily, this iconic glass dresses the tables of the Cristal restaurant.  It’s a funny place where, in contrast to the paneled ball-room next door, the walls bear bricks in a sort of neo-Pompadour style. A private dining annex sports a black crystal chandelier by Philippe Starck – the use of black being a first for Baccarat who was at the forefront of color-use (red, blue, green) in crystal-making in the mid 1800s.  The chandelier required 130 hours work (Lesage, above, challenges that with a dress that took 1000 hours to embroider and was never used because it couldn’t fit through the door of the train it was advertising!)

Most importantly, the food and wine were delicious (‘orchestrated by’ – a first for me – the Michelin starred chef Guy Martin), service was discreet and the atmosphere, at lunch, was subdued: it was a memorably pleasant moment.

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. Murano at Musée Maillol

For those interested in the history of glass making, the Musée Maillol is hosting an exhibit called ‘Murano’.  It is definitely a good complement to the Maison Baccarat – maybe even good to start here.  Photographs are not permitted, unfortunately as I was non-plused by the catalogue pictures.  But there are a couple of good videos interviews with the exhibition curator, Patrizia Nitti, in English (good summary and visuals) and in French (longer).

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Phew – if you made it to the end of the post you deserve a coffee at Café Verlet, right opposite Astier de Villatte – where else?

Out of this world chez Café Verlet

Out of this world chez Café Verlet

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Perfume – Artisanship to industry, and back – Made in France

The month of May 2013  for I Love Made in France was about as varied as a Spring garden and covered sectors including #perfumery, #electric automobiles and #car sharing, #fan making, and #luxury leather goods – all new to me.

The month included a trip to the international perfume poll at Grasses (Grasse in French, like Lyons and Lyon) where I also discovered a nearby glass-manufacturing hub at Biot; a phone conversation with Autolib’ CEO Morald Chibout to talk about the car-sharing success here in Paris; the launch of the Duvelleroy fans exhibit at the Bibliothèque des Arts Décoratifs (Louvre), a subsequent visit to the Fans Museum (amazing) and to the exhibit of a collection to be sold at the Drouot auction house.

Each of these stories has been fascinating and born of true passion.  Some stories are very old, and family-owned.  Others are completely new in concept and in practice; many mix heritage and innovation with great success.  I found in this adventure that perfume leather and fans are a traditional trio and that will have to be a future topic.

Perfume

. Perfume – from royal courts to industry and back

fas Nicolas de Larmessin Suite of Fanciful costumes Parfumeur

As anyone who has travelled through France will know, the country’s topography – from ocean to sea; from jagged to rounded volcanic mountains; through precipitous gorges or voluptuous valleys – is so beautifully diverse that I can’t imagine tiring of it.

French gardens are known for their structure, yet I was traipsed through English gardens by my garden-loving family as a child and have an inclination for these.  The hills of Grasses behind Cannes, at this time of year, reminded me of that luxuriant wildness, and I can understand why the Vicomte de Noailles chose the back-hills of Grasses to create his English garden at the Villa Noailles.

Grasses was the highlight of my month as this had been pinpointed as the spearhead of French perfume-making when I launched on this adventure following a chance meeting with François Hénin, owner of Jovoy the perfume brand, and also the Embassy of rare fragrances in Paris.

. Jovoy – the perfume embassy in Paris

I was at Jovoy on a mission to find out about Trudon candles – which they carry and I hadn’t found the flagship store in Saint Germain.  Why Trudon candles?  Well my brother had given one to my mother and said that they were Made in France, and had been around since 1643: I should check them out.

When I popped by Jovoy on a cold rainy Saturday in March, I didn’t really know what I was going to discover, other than more candles.  Walking into the loft or atelier-like space at 4, rue de Castiglione, right between the Place Vendôme and the Tuilleries gardens, I realized I was in terra incognita.  A gentleman came to my rescue.

This neophyte told him my purpose but then thought why not ask about perfumes Made in France in the broader sense? He very kindly told me about the eponymous perfume Jovoy, sold in the early 1900’s at the shop that was located place Vendôme, and that had been a smash hit among ‘cocottes’ – often mistresses.  The brand was bought in 2010 and revived with a contemporary spin.

He handed me a copy of the magazine Notes on Notes: the 1st issue published by Jovoy and fresh off the press.  Moreover, he took the time to tick off from a list of perfumers those that are Made in France (I have shared these on the I Love Made in France Facebook page).  This gentleman was as knowledgeable and generous as he was courteous.  When I asked if I could eventually come back for more information, I was extended a card with an amiable “any time”.  It wasn’t until I got home that I realized I had been talking to the owner himself.

It turns out that François Hénin is really a man of his times and a true expert.  Having finished business school, he lived in Vietnam for a number of years where he completed his military service with a mission “to examine the olfactory heritage of Vietnam by opening a distillation plant close to the Chinese boarder.  The end goal was to identify natural captives for high-end perfumery”.  For four years Mr. Hénin worked for Argeville scouring Asia for aromas, perfumes and ingredients for local industries.  Talk about going to the source!

Considering the circumstances, I felt that the least I could do was my homework.  I have read each page of Notes on Notes, in French and in English, a few times: the magazine, which reviews a number of contemporary perfumes, artists and concepts such as ‘Haute Parfumerie” (bespoke perfumes) is a mine of information both for the novice like myself, but surely also to the connoisseur eager to know of what’s new in the select world of perfume.  Like perfumes that please, I was getting hooked to the subject, so I went back for more.

. Good reading beyond Patrick Suskind’s Perfume

The Jovoy store also has a selection of books among its select perfumes in inviting bottles and delicate candles.  In my enthusiasm, I wanted to acquire all the references – technical and not so technical – but settled for what seemed fitting: one which would provide historical context and one with a contemporary edge.

Jean-Louis Fargeon, parfumeur de Marie-Antoinette

 Jean-Lous Fargeon, parfumeur de Marie-Antoinette was really the right introduction.  The author, Elisabeth de Feydeau, is an historian and perfume expert.  She also produces a line of perfumed candles called Arty Fragrance which reflects her close ties with Versailles where she acts as consultant for events and concepts such as La Cour des Senteurs – which I am eager to visit.

The book describes the passage of a young artisan, Jean-Louis Fargeot, from the region around Marseilles, who decides to make a break and head to Paris.  Thanks to his studies, to the knowledge gleaned from his father’s trade and some financial support, he is able to secure a training position in a shop near rue Saint Honoré which he then buys.  One client is the Duchess du Barry, the King’s mistress.  Thanks to his work du Barry introduces him to the young Marie-Antoinette who admits him into the circle of artisans that provide her with the latest extravagances, including perfumed gloves for riding.

As this queen in particular set the fashion for the court and for France, Fargeon had reached the pinnacle of success.  Fargeon’s talent and determination led him to create a small factory outside of Paris and to innovate in the procedures of extraction and distillation that were a first step into the modern world of perfumery.  He also exported to the young US – an initiative that surely saved his head at the Revolution.

51zgM3W6FZL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-51,22_AA300_SH20_OU08_The Perfume Lover, by Denyse Beaulieu, is like snuff from the box in comparison.  A New York Times review of the book employs the word ‘racy’ which I thought was pretty accurate.  But I could relate to the story-line as it had been suggested to me: for years I have been trying to find a perfume that I have once smelled.  It’s an impossible quest which starts with an incapacity to describe it with words.  Wine-lovers will understand the complexity of the language used to describe scents.

Ms. Beaulieu artfully weaves her story about how a very personal adventure from the past seduces one of the top noses in Paris, Bertrand Duchaufour, to create a new perfume.  The path she takes leads her (and us) through her initiation into the world of perfume and gives the reader an unusual step-by-step description of how a perfume is composed today.

Ms Beaulieu is not shy of grinding down to the nitty gritty of scent based on her experience as well as on tremendous research on the perfume market today.  She gives insight into fabrication technique and marketing history and shapes a true context to modern and contemporary perfumery and artists.  She is a critic as only a lover can be, and a well-written story-teller.

. Grasse(s) International Perfume Museum

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So much information was really quite bewildering.  From here, I needed something tangible and concrete.  The International Perfume Museum at Grasses seemed to be a good place to start.  According to Jean-Pierre Leleux, the Mayor of Grasses, today the perfume activity in Grasses’ region represents 50% of the national perfume economy and 8 to 9% of the global economy in the sector.

. MIP – Musée International du Parfum

The museum is worth the trip.

Fragonard was born in Grasses, and as I have experienced before, visiting an artist’s home-town explains so much about his style.  Here, the steps leading up to the MIP were dripping with wisteria and roses despite the rain that had put our anticipated May-flowers on freeze.

The author at Café des Musées, Grasses

The author at Café des Musées, Grasses

We were quite happy to be sheltered by this stunning new museum and equally delighted to have a super lunch at the small restaurant at its feet: Le café des Musées (best to book a table as it’s tiny).  The café is also a hyphen between two other unusual museums: the textile museum and the Fragonnard museum and factory.

The Musée International du Parfum or MIP (International perfume museum) was founded in 1986 but has recently been redesigned. In 2008, doors were re-opened to a space three times the volume of the former museum to exhibit a vast collection of 3000 items (from a total collection of 50 000 objects).  Its objective is to “conserve and exhibit its collections, and to provide equal access to culture for all.” The exhibits are designed to illustrate perfume’s various forms: fumes, liquids, solids and uses: communicate, seduce and heal.  And although there is an historical path with artifacts dating back to earliest ages, this is an interactive place that includes all the means that a modern museum has to transmit to a contemporary public including multimedia, tactile spaces, and collaboration with artists and people who are active in the field.

. Fragonnard

Although other big names in commercial perfumes such as L’Occitane, are present, Fragonnard is the most centrally located.

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Blogaversary – rue de Bourbon le Château, Paris 6

Blogaversary n° 1

Rue de Bourbon le Château, Paris Saint-Germain-des-Près

It’s I Love Made in FRance’s blogaversary n°1!  I celebrated by going back to the source: Galerie Salon and again found fun and inspiration in an eclectic selection of objets d’art, both old and new, that are displayed with the enticing nonchalance of a cabinet de curiosités-cum-quincaillerie de luxe.

I also visited neighbors on rue de Bourbon le Château: chocolate-makers Henri Le Roux and the perfume-makers at Le Labo (a whiff of what’s to come) – Made in France!

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. Galerie Salon: An eclectic selection of new and old

I was fortunate to talk with one of the gallery’s co-owners, Stéphane Boraz, about some of the paintings exhibited, luxury products in France, and why I was there. Mr. & Mrs. Boraz started dealing in antiques 15 years ago in the Marché Paul Bert flea market and they continue to show work that they like: antiques or contemporary creations.  Maybe with a note of regret, international clients seem more interested in the French brands than in the international artists that are also presented, though half of clients are antiques collectors. All, however, are sensitive to the spirit of the shop – like me.

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Among the collection of paintings and oddities that caught my eye when I visited mid-February was an early 20th century Swiss cow-hide back-pack, that weighs a ton but is so beautifully made that it becomes an object that is just nice to look at, handle and talk about; and a pile of small, colorful, evocative paintings on paper stood nonchalantly in a corner.  In their naïve style, these paintings by Armand Goupil could be exhibited at the Halles Saint Pierre: I imagined them framed as a collection, or left, just as they are, on my mantlepiece mixed with the non-sense, family birthday and post cards, photos, pictures etc that I cumulate and pick up at a whim.

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I was also amused by a collection of dolls’ eyes with the little weights that allow the eyes to open and close.  It made me think of a song and as I was refreshing my memory at home, I cruised into this music video of Michel Polnareff singing “La poupée qui dit non” (The doll who says no).  The song was a smash hit in France when it came out in 1966, and believe it or not (wikipedia is my source) Jimmy Page played the guitar on the recording (listen carefully – he’s there).  I thought the setting of the clip befits the Galerie Salon ambiance in a way.

Another great French singer, Georges Brassens, was the singer I was initially thinking of because of the closing eyes, and I can’t help but share “Je me suis fait tout petit …” I’ve never liked dolls much – find them spooky – and the feminist in me has a hard time with the association in both songs, but I’m sure a Parisienne can handle two crafty artists.

By contrast, dolls (and other items including children’s clothes) Made in France by Happy to See You based on the West Coast in Sables d’Olonne, reflect a delightful age of innocence, purity (including organic textiles) and simplicity.  I also congratulate the concept behind Les Habits Neufs (Nice) where textiles are re-used to make bags, cushions, jackets … using traditional crafts.  Some of these can also be purchased through Galerie Salon’s online store.

. A silver lining to every cloud

I fell in love with at least 2 still-life paintings and the series of peculiar oil sketches on paper, but finally settled on walking out with a gift to myself of symbolic nature.

There's a silver lining to every cloud

There’s a silver lining to every cloud

The company Macon & Lescouy (Made in France) edits and produces these little broaches and iron-on patches that are hand made, though I cannot confirm at this point that these particular broaches are Made in France.  Employing an embroidery technique that is used for military uniforms these editors have developed a collection of quirky little images: gold mustaches, skeletons, bats, apples, a rock group (I called them the Beetles), a heart that could come out of an 19th century illustrated medical manual.

My photos really do not render how exquisite these tiny wearable objects are – and it’s, again, the delicate execution of a quirky idea that I enjoy so much and that I find in most of the objects selected by the owners of Galerie Salon who clearly have a sense of esthetic and an eye for artisanship in luxury.  Check out their Facebook page if you can’t get over there right away!

. Back to the roots and into the future

So what was so important about that silver lining?  I think that a blogaversary is the right moment to reflect on how this all came about and why, and where do I want to go with it?

One thing is certain: I love what I’m doing.  I haven’t had so much satisfaction and fun in how I spend my working hours in years … and I’ve worked in some pretty fab places with some pretty fab people.  But really, there is little more satisfying than to follow a conviction, to indulge in one’s own ‘taste’, to be open to bewilderment and discovery, and to meet people who are passionate about what they do and create.  I’m am so full of admiration.

As for where I’m going: well, I am finding that despite my ambition to focus on the new, I am inevitably drawn into the past.  It’s one step forward and a leap of three centuries back before crossing the puddle again.  I’ve always liked that game though, and I do try to reel forward.  I’ll be going to the Osons La France conference in a couple of weeks, and will try to get into an upcoming Made in France trade show to share what’s up.  Perfume, crystal and haute couture (thanks to a number of exhibits on now) are my focus right now – to give you an idea of what’s in the pipeline.

Thanks to those who have taken the time to share their passion, and also to those whose encouragement is wind to my sails.

. Some following up: Astier de Villatte & S.A.I.G printers

I thought you might enjoy this ‘Making Of’ video for Astier de Villatte.  Acutally, there are two videoss, one is of the printer owner at S.A.I.G. at La Haie les Roses (outskirts of Paris and literally means ‘the hedge with roses’).  Hats off to those who persist in making beautiful books – the writers, the editors and the printers.

Astier de Villatte

Astier de Villatte from studiohomme on Vimeo.

S.A.I.G printers

L’imprimerie typographique SAIG par FranceGraphique

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Cherished objects, Made in France

Love, Baccarat

Love, Baccarat

Valentine’s day gives me the opportunity to share one of my very favorite objects.  It’s a cherished one given to me by my husband about 10 years ago, and it’s one that I never tire of thanks to the simplicity of its design: its proportion (it sits nicely in the palm of my hand), its color (I’m very picky about red), its weight, and to what it evokes to me: rich, mysterious, bold, solid, reflective, singular, deep & transparent.

. Baccarat

And it’s Made in France! This is a Baccarat classic and I learned a lot while looking up the company history which dates back to 1775 in a town called Baccarat in the Lorraine (North East) region of France.  Baccarat’s first commission for royalty was for Louis XVIII of France in 1823 and its crystal has continued to illumine the halls and tables of the illustrious around the world.  Baccarat is the first to produce colored crystal in France (1839) – notably its famous red.  Innovation and design have been at the heart of the company’s development through today.  Designer Philippe Starck introduced the Darkside black crystal collection in 2005.

The company’s website is really very nicely done and complete with a history timeline and a beautiful film showing the crystal being worked by skilled artisans.

. Spring, and a little story

What I love most about Valentine’s day is that it announces Spring.  I start measuring the size of leaf buds, watching tree bark change color, monitoring for crocuses and observing birds.  This slight obsession goes back to a Valentine’s day when I first moved to Paris years ago.  It was my first year in a lovely studio that over-looked the roofs of Paris and I had planted huge terra-cotta pots with spring flowers, including primroses.

Valentine’s day must have landed on a week-end because what I recall was being awoken – too early – by a cacophony of birdsong.  Upon drawing the curtains in flash of fury to see what the fuss was about: I heard a last twirp and a flutter and to my dismay saw that the birds had eaten every one of my beautiful primroses.  Dumbfounded, I resigned to coffee and an early start.

Later that day I heard a radio host talk about the history of Valentine’s day and why it symbolizes love.  I retained that Valentine’s day marks the beginning of the mating season for birds in this neck of the woods.  Well, the story suited me fine, and maybe there’s some kind of birdie aphrodisiac in primroses, but since that day I start looking and listening for those birds that announce Spring as of February 14, and I don’t plant primroses.

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Sales in Paris, a clean slate

A new season …

Galleries Lafayette, Sales!  Jean-Paul Goude's Parisienne :-)

Galeries Lafayette, Sales! Jean-Paul Goude’s Parisienne

. Au Bonheur des Dames, Emile Zola

The Sales started in Paris on Wednesday 9th of January and close 8am, February 12 (sales are regulated in France and are limited to two 5-week periods – Winter and Summer – with an additional 2 ‘floating’ weeks to be set by the vendor and declared beforehand with local authorities). Like many rituals in France, there is an art to ‘doing the sales’ here; this year, I took that art to experiencing department store hysteria vicariously through Emile Zola’s 1883 novel Au Bonheur des Dames (Ladies’ Delight).

. The birth of department stores

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Le Printemps, boulevard Hausmann, Paris

I have mentioned a certain fascination with Paris around the 1870’s, born of a fluke visit to a shop which led me to discover Astier de Villate and La Commune.  The period these contemporary brands evoke coincides with two other books that I read last summer about people who had created art collections at the turn of the twentieth century: The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, and journalist Anne Sinclair’s account of her grandfather Paul Rosenberg’s collection in 21 rue La Boétie.  These authors’ ancestors were neighbors in the new bourgeois quarters just under the park Monceau – a stone-throw away from the Opéra – which is the focus of Zola’s attention in Au Bonheur des Dames.

In his novel, Zola describes in extraordinary detail the birth of a department store as we know it today, and of the socio-enconomic impact these palaces had on smaller establishments, and on women’s lives.  Subsequently Zola also describes the development of merchandizing, marketing, credit, stock management, delivery and returns – to name but a few of the branches of today’s mass-commerce.

The architect Baron Haussmann, hired by Napoleon III in 1853, contributed greatly to the city’s modernization at the time Zola’s Octave Mouret’s ambition for his Au Bonheur des Dames store revs up like a locomotive.  I understand that the work on the city’s boulevards lasted 18 years and that the speed of transformation is still a record-breaker by today’s standards, certainly in Europe.  Photography was also developing and one chronicler, Charles Marville, was recruited to record the Old Paris before destruction (about 500 pictures) as well as a number of construction sites (including the Bois de Boulogne and avenues such as Opéra below).

Marville, Avenue de l'Opéra

Zola describes the construction around the Opéra – where he situates the department store on rue du Mogador – in remarkable detail as small retailers watched on even at night when huge lights were introduced to make a 24 hour shift possible (electricity was introduced in the 1880’s in Paris – there are anachronisms in the book which is otherwise meticulously researched).

To the east, the Avenue du 4 Septembre opened to the Bourse (stock exchange, and now a digital entrepreneurship hub); and to the west, Rue de la Paix led to Place Vendôme – which is now home to the Ritz (1898) and mostly to luxury jewelers.  This concentration of wealth surely also reflected growing trade in a colonial empire (the sector remains the banking and insurance nerve of Paris) and not by co-incidence, some of France’s leading journals such as Les Echos or Le Figaro are headquartered here.  I even saw a plaque commemorating the International Herald Tribune (The Paris Herald, 1887) which was launched in Paris on the corner of Rue de la Paix and Avenue de l’Opéra.  As such, Opéra was the ideal location for the birth of a department store in modern Paris.

The cost of Napoleon III’s re-invention during what is referred to as the Second Empire, was huge, and criticized, though it paved the way for urban design and engineering that gives Paris – and other cities in France – a degree of comfort that is, in my opinion, difficult to relinquish even today.

. The decline of SME’s and artisans

Indeed, at a time when international trade was booming Zola describes the world being imported into France.  There are descriptions of every kind of carpet imaginable, as well as textiles and furniture that were brought in for decor and sold to bourgeois housewives at unbeatable prices.  A great focus is textile, which was one of France’s core industries, and silk in particular (another great book reference to the industry of the period is ‘Silk‘ by Alessandro Baricco).  As the tentacular monster store grows, surrounding small family-owned shops and detailers physically shake and watch helplessly as the carpet is taken from under their feet.

Though as Paris groaned, a middle class was also born.

Closed shop with bonnets, rue Mogador.

. La Parisienne rises from the dust

As some were rushing to the sales, a large number of others, myself included, thronged to see the exhibit ‘Les Impressionnistes et la Mode‘ at the Musée d’Orsay.  The timing could not have been more à propos as this exhibit was the materialization of Zola’s book.  In vitrines we were shown period magazines that advertised ready-to-wear dresses, the dresses themselves, perfume jars, gloves, bonnets, shoes and lingerie (high engineering) that were worn by the bourgeois ladies painted by their contemporary painters.

'Les Impressionnistes et la Mode' exhibit at the Musée d'Orsay

‘Les Impressionnistes et la Mode’ exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay

The desire to give a true feel to the period was reflected not only by the curation of artefacts, but also in the architecture of the exhibit which brought us through remarkably conserved morning dresses, to day dresses, theatre and evening wear, but also to a bottleneck in the tiny rooms exhibiting lingerie and accessories.  From this boudoir of sorts, the visitor was liberated into an airy room with tweeting birds and fake grass: a setting for Monet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe.  Some did not appreciate this fiction and scenography though I found it successful.  Having been stuffed with Impressionism ad-nauseum as a student, the airiness was refreshing and amusing … which in my books holds valuable kudos.

Nor could the exhibit have been more ideally situated than in the Orsay Museum, a converted railway station from the end of that period that illustrates so well how modern Paris had become (finished in 1900 – it was the first electrified urban rail terminal in the world).

. Bohemians quiver in the name of liberty

Two other exhibits kept me away from the sales thanks to their pertinence of period.  The first was ‘Bohémes‘ at the Grand Palais (3D visit) – another steel and glass architectural feat built for the 1900 Universal Exposition.

For some reason I was expecting a small exhibit of obscure references dug out from the dregs of the Musée d’Orsay.  I was very wrong and really impressed.  Like Les Impressionnistes et la Mode, this exhibit was huge and very cleverly curated, orchestrated and theatrically set.  The first drawing which illustrated the introduction of gypsies into artists’ references was by Leonardo da Vinci. From here, we were led through history until the period that I have focussed on when artists seeking freedom from classical standards took to the country and to travel, namely to Spain, where they identified with gypsy freedom of movement and musical expression.

Illustration showing gypsies (I used to have a bag like that); Exhibit Les Bohèmes, Grand Palais, Paris

Engraving showing gypsies (I used to have a bag like that); Exhibit Les Bohèmes, Grand Palais, Paris

An analogy is also made to poverty and we are led into the reconstruction of an artist’s atelier (often grim).  By this time, Montmartre had become a reference point for artists away from the commercial bustle down the hill.  There were advantages: until 1863, Montmartre was considered a suburb and as such was exempt from the Parisian tax on wine – hence the cabarets.

Cabaret Lapin Agile insignia

Cabaret Lapin Agile insignia

After the terrible events of 1870, the boulevard between Place de Clichy and Place Blanche attracted a mix of citizens seeking distraction and entertainment at cabarets such as the Moulin Rouge.  It’s at places like these that the young salespeople at the Bonheur des Dames would surely come to spend their money on wine, absynthe, food and courtship.

. The Salon

IMG_3199

Right in front of the Moulin Rouge is Place Blanche. I mistakenly thought that the junction had been named after the painter, or maybe his father, a doctor, who had held a reputed spa that catered to the wealthy mentally unstable on the heights of Montmartre.  This artist was the subject of the last exhibit that that kept me from the sales: Du Côté de Jacques-Emile Blanche, Un Salon à la Belle Epoque at the Foundation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent.

In reality the Place Blanche, and rue Blanche (which practically leads to the Galeries Laffayette back door), was named after the white powder left by gypsum excavation under Montmartre.  Gypsum was used to make plaster of Paris which was required (by law) to cover façades of wood-structured buildings to prevent fires in the city.

The exhibit serves as the ideal transition to draw this article to a conclusion  while leaving openings for articles to come.  Jacques-Emile Blanche was considered a dilettante artist by his contemporaries, though I think that his experiments in style truly reflect the junction of the Belle Epoque period he painted in.  He also painted intellectuals and artists of his period (his friends) and some of his portraits, Proust included, are stunning, even moving.  Blanche’s work gains meaning when seen as a whole, though I can understand how if seen individually they might reap criticism.  Jane Roberts’ ‘catalogue raisonné’ really does the artist’s work justice.

Again, the venue, an hotel particulier in what was considered the chic neighborhood of his time, around the Place de l’Alma, on rue Marceau, gave true ambiance for the collection.  Walking around the salons gave the feeling of a bourgeois interior, and salon.  The exhibit decided me to read Proust’s Du Coté de Chez Swann, Swann being a character who was apparently inspired by the ancestor who collected Edmund de Waal’s netsuke, but also because it seems that Proust’s reflective style might issue from a need within the frenetic period that he evolved in.  In line with the personalities mentioned thus far, Bergé and Saint Laurent also epitomize the modern art collector.

It seems fitting to close with Yves Saint Laurent’s Parisienne.  I am also delighted to see that YSL’s & Bergés shared passion for Morocco and ethnic artisanship has been remembered by the Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent Foundation’s inauguration in Marakkech of the Berber Museum in 2011.  I can’t wait to visit again.

YSL tailleur se llamarà

. Industrial revolution : Digital revolution

I’m harboring an analogy between the industrial revolution that bread the wild development that Zola involves us in through his book and the digital revolution that we are living today. Although Napoleon III is still viewed by many with circumspection, he was passionate about progress and implemented it with ruthless gusto.  I can’t help thinking that Paris has not evolved much since – and to make a few huge leaps, that the digital revolution that we are experiencing is an extension of this earlier revolution.

Zola’s Bonheur des Dames makes me think of Tony Hseih’s, “Delivering Happiness” about merchandizing in the digital age; maybe Hseih’s title is not a co-incidence.  As the wheel turns, and as department stores such as Galeries Lafayette introduce online shopping, there is an opportunity that didn’t exist in Zola’s time for artisans (in France and around the world) to stake a place as actors in the global market.  It seems like a reverse revolution to me: there may be a silver lining to globalization – thanks to the internet.  Well, this is my hope and the raison d’être of this blog.

Now that the sales are over and the new season has been brought in, I’ll be checking in on a few artisans that I’ve visited and hope to focus on these in following posts.  In March, I’ll be going to Grasses – a haven for perfume in France.

. References & thanks

As the department store of the Rive Gauche, Le Bon Marché, celebrated its 160th anniversary, the Franco/German culture TV channel Arte aired a well-produced romanced documentary based on Au Bonheur des Dames.  The film can be purchased online or viewed as a series, and is well worth watching.

Thanks to my friend and fashion-blogger Florence at Flairs for sharing great references.

Le Bon Marché, 160 years in 2012

Le Bon Marché, 160 years in 2012

Posted in Books, Business Development, Culture, Exhibits, Heritage & innovation, History, Industrial revolution : .com, Luxury, Paris, Shops | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

2013

Wishing you the wings of inspiration to create.

Wishing you the wings of inspiration to create!  Illustration by Juliet G. Mills

Posted in Christmas 2012 | Tagged | 2 Comments