This month, we set two very stylish Irish ladies the task of discussing this age old debate: is the class french style ultra-chic, or ultra-safe?
Profession: Fashion Designer
France is probably the most stylish place on the planet, so it’s hardly news that French women are incredibly – well- French. And beautiful. And iconic. Think Brigitte Bardot, Vanessa Paradis (my childhood crush), or the risqué former editor-in-chief of French Vogue, Carine Roitfeld. Add to the mix actors like Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marion Cotillard, and it seems a certain “understatement” is the modus operandi of our French icons. But as the current editor-in-chief of French Vogue, and general all-round fox, Emmanuelle Alt, said recently, “You cannot seduce with the same weapon all your life.” At school, I lived in the art room, and it shaped my thought processes and my creative expectations – neither of which were ever straightforward or linear. My interest has always been in the fragmented, and in more eclectic style references. I like surprises, and I like to shake things up. As a designer, I live off (and for) new ideas, new thinking, new ways of viewing design.
When I Googled “French style”, I was confronted with image after image of “effortlessly chic ensembles” – yawn! ThThe Parisian chic look is an overused style cliché and a lazy reference point. Women like Alt (as insanely stylish, successful, current and cool as she is) just don’t get my creative juices flowing. She professes not to care much about her clothes and says she doesn’t make a special effort even for Paris Fashion Week’s front row. “I don’t want to be an image,” Alt insists. She and others like her must be totally bemused by the whole idea of what they represent, because when asked about their style, most French women tend to shrug their beautiful shoulders and say, “I just don’t try too hard” or “I like to keep it simple”. Coco Chanel is famous for saying women should remove one piece of jewellery before leaving the house, but I don’t prescribe to this idea. I don’t want to “crack the code” of chic dressing. Give me eclecticism and personality any day! Give me imperfections! I don’t want to be told by a fashion editor or blogger to wear a Breton top or a white shirt and flat shoes in summer. I’m so incredibly bored with black and neutrals as the clichéd answer to the “perfect”wardrobe. I guess deep down I’m chasing the same ideals as Alt. I don’t want to be “an image”, and I won’t be depending on seducing with the same secret weapon every season.
When I was a wide- eyed young ingenue, I spent a formative year in Paris. My love of fashion had cemented itself early with a childhood obsession with Jeanne Beker, host of Fashion Television and an enthusiastic stint as a shop girl in Dublin’s most sophisticated boutiques. Transported from 1980s Dublin to Paris at the height of the supermodel era, I marvelled at Parisian womankind and the whirl of international luxury. I was fascinated by the formula of French chic, fine- tuned over decades, moving slowly like a polar cap through the generations. Grandmother, mother and daughter could gaily walk together arm in arm, all cheekbones, good knees and cashmere, each bringing their own take on, effectively, the same outfit. Classicism and correctness were the order of the day. And there was a comfort in that for Parisian society. It placed you. It marked your social status. The code was BCBG, or bon-chic, bon-genre. The literal translation is good style, good attitude. I became acutely aware that in my homeland, our attitude to style was a bit like throwing mud at the wall to see what stuck. There were no rules, no stylistic mores on which to build a formula for success. The analytical me loved the Parisian idea that if you stuck to the plan, it would be right. But the wild child in me had questions. But not for long. French style may be a polar cap, but the ice cap, since those early days, has got progressively cooler. As traditional values and women’s roles changed, Parisian women grew in stature and embraced an attitude of sexuality, charged by an inherent knowledge of the foundations of looking good.
The basics were still in place – a well- cut blazer, a high quality knit, slim-fit legs and a slash of printed silk. But the hair became a little tousled, the neckline lower, the eyes more heavily kohled. Modern day icons like Carine Roitfeld and Charlotte Gainsbourg have become beacons for the woman who has lived a little. A confident, sensual backlash to the contoured armies of oversharers. The rule is this: as with everything in life, build competence with the basics before you go off piste. Forget the pejorative connotations. Good style, good attitude sounds good to me.
Read this feature and more in the August issue of IMAGE Magazine which is on shelves now.