Sitting at a table full of French fashion journalists, I was not about to let this opportunity slip away. I took a healthy gulp of champagne and leaned over to the stunning brunette sitting next to me.
"Um, I was wondering," I started. "Can you recommend a good place to go shopping?"
She took a moment to size me up.
"What kind of shopping are you looking for? Clothes?"
Her astute observation stung a bit, but I simply nodded. She took my reporter's notebook and jotted down "Place des Victoires to Rue Etienne-Marcel." And this is where my love affair with Paris truly begins.
Last fall, on my fourth visit to Paris, I realized that there was an important part of the city that I was completely missing. After the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and hourly stops for pain au chocolat, there is really only one thing left to do in the French capital. No, not stand in line behind oddly coiffed German tour groups at the Louvre. It's shopping.
My problem, brought on by a combination of laziness and financial incompetence, was that I only knew of one place to shop in Paris -- the Champs-Elysées. Each trip to Paris, I would start at the Häagen-Dazs Cafe, and feeling optimistic from the sugar rush provided by a large cone of dulce de leche and a few newly purchased Francoise Hardy CDs, I would stroll down the grand boulevard in a daze looking for the kind of clothes that I would see around the city -- beautifully crafted jackets and skinny trousers.
The problem is that the Champs-Elysées is designed for people like me -- schlubs who don't know any better. Ditto for the stretch of tackiness known as rue de Rivoli. As I later found out, Parisians avoid these streets like ant-infested jars of Nutella. Armed with my "Rue Etienne-Marcel," scrap of paper (a life-altering note I keep carefully tucked away between my passport and Social Security card), I located the Place des Victoires roundabout.
Holy mother of Edith Piaf, the shopping gods smile upon me at last. Surrounded by the kind of boutiques I never saw near Notre Dame, I'm hopeful that I'll no longer look like I've just stepped out of a dressing room at Monoprix, essentially the French version of
At my first stop, an Italian chain called Energie, I try on a pair of over priced, skinny jeans while a flirty sales clerk convinces me that they look "fan-taaas-tique." Needless to say, I buy them and wear them the rest of the trip. This is followed by brunch at a nearby cafe simply called Etienne Marcel. I feel like I'm dining in the middle of a 1970s modern art exhibition. This is the city I have been searching for.
Armed with my new knowledge, I plot an indulgent return trip to Paris the following month for the sole purpose of shopping. This time I enlist experts. DJ Thierry Salah , who spins on Saturday nights at the mammoth Paris nightclub Le Cab, agrees to help me out in the Etienne Marcel district. He explains that Etienne Marcel only recently evolved into a neighborhood of hip boutiques. In a previous life, it was chock-a-block with restaurant supply shops.
I soon realize that Salah is a true shopaholic. He seems to know nearly every clerk, or has at least dated their fashion model sister. When I start eyeing another pair of jeans at Energie, he tells me he knows the manager of another shop and can score me a discount. I bid "au revior" to my flirty sales clerk and "bonjour" to the discount.
Salah and his social zealousness is an extreme case, but his behavior in the shops is something that many more Americans should be emulating. French custom dictates that when you walk into a store, you greet the clerk. Don't avoid eye contact or shrink behind the canned duck display. Chat them up. When you leave, you should also say "au revior," throw in a "merci" or two if the shopkeeper has assisted you. If a clerk addresses you, she is not simply trying to sell you soap, she's practicing good manners.
Etienne Marcel is lined with funky, multi-label shops such as Planisphere and Kabuki, where a mix of designers are shown. Closer to Les Halles, the stores skew even younger. Espace Kiliwatch feels like a disorderly punk thrift shop. It's a combination of new and used clothes, with an emphasis on military surplus. Nearby, designer Tim Bargeot's shop looks like it was lifted directly out of 1960s London. The Teddy Smith Gallery looks like it supplies the wardrobe for the patrons of Etienne Marcel. We visit a record shop where I listen to the best bootleg version of "Xanadu" I've ever encountered. If Catherine Deneuve appeared at that moment and asked me to join her for chocolat chaud, I could have died a happy man on the spot.
Our final stop is Japanese designer Yojhi Yamamoto's boutique. I'm contemplating a pair of gloves (they're the least expensive item in the store), when I see the man himself. Yamamoto is in the store giving advice on clothing displays. I take this as a sign from the shopping gods, and splurge on the gloves.
I bid farewell to Salah, and catch up with him much later that night at La Cab, where he's spinning Phil Collins's "Sussudio" and other ' 80s atrocities to a young crowd that is loving it.
Before we part, he suggests I spend time shopping on rue de la Roquette, rue de Rennes, and, most importantly, he tells me I should stop at Le Bon Marche.
"Don't waste your time at Galerie Lafayettes," he says over the din of Phil Collins. "If you want a world-class Paris department store and food shop, just go to Le Bon Marche."
Le Bon Marche is the antithesis of the mammoth Galerie Lafayettes -- it is orderly, calm, and stocked with designers such as Balenciaga, Stella McCartney, Jil Sander, and Jean Paul Gaultier. Across the street from the department store is Bon Marche's bustling La Grande Epicerie, a mammoth food market. Upstairs from La Grande Epicerie is the futuristic Delicabar, a restaurant where I order a Caesar salad that looks more like modern art than greens.
Once I started exploring, I spent days getting lost on small streets looking in stores that sold skull-shaped candles and metal trays covered with images of menacing squirrels. In Saint-Germain-des-Pres, there were outrageously high-end children's boutiques and incredible furniture and kitchen design shops.
Paris is a city where shopping is not something you do because you have to, you do it because you love it. The experience is equally about inspiration. Even though I'm not planning to make a purchase at Jean Charles de Castelbajac's boutique, I feel incredibly happy just to see that someone on the planet makes gowns out of old parachutes.
I am proud to say that a small portion of my Paris shopping epiphany was self-tutored. My hotel is located on the incredibly fashionable rue Saint-Honor é and I quickly realized I was in a high-end shopping haven. Next to my hotel was Miu Miu, and within spitting distance were shops such as the tres fran çais ceramics of Astier de Villatte, plus Goyard , Versace , and Escada.
What makes this area more appealing as a high-end shopping district than the famed Avenue Montaigne are stores like Colette . When Colette opened 10 years ago, it was a revolution. The multi-level store sells top designers, but there are also skateboards, CDs, and DVDs. It's a store that sells a lifestyle. Sadly, I can't afford the entire lifestyle, but I can afford a DVD of commercials from the 1970s and a very cool looking box of gum.
After amazing hot chocolate at Jean-Paul Hevin Chocolatier, I meet up with Marie Moatti, a fashion publicist who is eager to show me her neighborhood. Moatti takes me to the tiny streets between rue Saint-Honor é and the ultra-posh Place Vendome. The district, once home to dusty bars and butcher shops, is experiencing a renaissance. My favorite shop in the area is called Egle Bespoke, which makes custom men's shirts in 2,500 fabrics. Co-owner Philippe Le Blan says they will soon start making made-to-measure jeans from Japanese denim.
Later that night over mojitos at Pershing Hall Lounge , I try to figure out why, despite my limited purchases, I no longer feel like the gangly American who has just stepped out of the dressing room at Monoprix. The answer, found between the ice and mint leaves at the bottom of the glass, is that I wasn't looking for well-tailored shirts to bring home, I was looking for an authentic experience. Once away from the Gap and Disney Store on the Champs-Elysees, I finally realized that shopping isn't always about commerce.
Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com