We love them. We hate them. We really wish we could tie scarves like them. French women have this seemingly innate style that makes them...
NEW YORK — We love them. We hate them. We really wish we could tie scarves like them.
French women have this seemingly innate style that makes them the object of envy of their American counterparts who buy the same labels — sometimes even the same outfit — but are surprised when they aren’t instantly transformed into Catherine Deneuve.
Plenty of products marketed in the U.S. tap into this envy: Bourjois cosmetics introduced makeup kits called Lessons in Effortless French Chic; the little black dress that has become a staple of the American wardrobe is inspired by versions created decades ago by Coco Chanel and Hubert de Givenchy; and Mireille Guiliano spun the French woman’s love affair with red wine and cheese into best-selling books.
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But you can’t bottle “je ne sais quoi.”
“The French look is effortless,” says “Chic in Paris” author Susan Tabak. “They are not slaves to their hair, not their makeup, not their clothes. They play with fashion and have more fun.”
French women also assess their assets and make the most of them. What they don’t do is follow trends.
“The style seems very off the cuff,” says Bourjois spokeswoman Celine Kaplan, a Parisienne-turned-New Yorker. “We don’t have yet the ‘celebrity’ culture, so fashion and style isn’t dictated by celebrities who sometimes don’t have the right taste levels.”
Instead, French women take a few cues from fashion professionals but are even more likely to trust their own instincts, Kaplan says.
“French women don’t try to look like anyone else other than themselves,” says Frenchwoman Nathalie Rykiel, daughter of designer Sonya Rykiel. “They know who they are and make the most of what they have. Allure, to them, is more about a statement than physical beauty.”
Tabak contrasts that with American women who see a Prada ad and then mimic it. “There’s nothing wrong with that but you see yourself coming and going a lot.”
A legacy of style
The fashion icons revered in France are hardly flavors-of-the-week. The short list includes legendary late designer Coco Chanel, and actresses Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin — for whom the much-coveted Hermès bag is named. From the younger generation there are Birkin’s daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg, Vanessa Paradis and Audrey Tautou.
You’d be hard-pressed to find women wearing skinny pants just because they’ve been labeled a must-have item, Kaplan says, and no one does a head-to-toe look of a particular season or a particular designer. “You mix and match, you go vintage.”
True, they have their beloved pricey labels, such as Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior, but since they buy things that match their personal style, they get a lot of mileage out of their most expensive pieces. And for everything else, they have more choices when it comes to fast-fashion stores. “There are more brands that are less expensive — mini Zaras and H&Ms of the world. You get really great finds that aren’t costly,” Kaplan notes.
Spending habits, however, aren’t the great divide. It’s attitude.
“A Parisienne tries to look ‘soignee,’ pulled together. She wears what flatters, is street smart and does not buy beyond her means,” says author Guiliano, who also contributed to the new book “Parisienne,” a centurylong celebration of French women published by Flammarion.
Guiliano, who in addition to writing “French Women Don’t Get Fat” and “French Women for All Seasons” also is a longtime executive at luxury goods company LVMH, says French women can be stubborn and don’t like anyone advising them about their appearance.
“Stylish French women know their own ‘brand’ DNA and work it,” she writes in an e-mail to The AP. “Ever wonder about all those carrot-haired women on the streets of Paris? It’s part of their brand identity, and it did not cost much to build.”
Conversely, Americans, even in the luxury market, go after the “it” item, observes Amy Tara Koch, style and beauty editor for the iVillage Web site. In fact, she adds, Americans wonder why the French make such a point of shunning it.
“American people are put off with the [French] superiority. They ask, ‘Why is this woman with an accent thumbing her nose at my rhinestone jeans?’ ” Koch says. “But the Parisians pride themselves at elegance and they do think it’s gauche to wear sneakers or shorts in the city, even if that’s the trend.”
She adds, “The word ‘schlub’ is not translatable in French.”
What’s the scarf trick?
A Frenchwoman’s wardrobe is built around classic silhouettes with chic investment-piece accessories, such as an alligator bag or an Hermès scarf, she says.
Ah, the scarf.
Almost everyone interviewed for this story used the scarf as a metaphor for French style. It transforms everyday clothes into a chic outfit, while at the same time seems a casual afterthought added just as a woman was dashing out the door.
“I feel like such a moron in a scarf,” says Koch. “I like large shawls — I collect them — but the French have their scarves.”
A French woman starts wearing scarves young and, therefore, isn’t afraid of them, says Robin Adelman, director of the main floor at the Madison Avenue Hermès store. Scarves often are given as gifts for a girl’s 18th birthday and she looks as if she was born to wear them, Adelman says.
“Scarves are part of their wardrobe, as much a part of their wardrobe as an American woman putting on a T-shirt. … Don’t treat it like such a serious thing,” she says.
What the French do take seriously, though, is their grooming.
If Americans have a skin-care routine, the French have a beauty ritual, says Beth DiNardo, general manager of the U.S. branch of Paris-based cosmetics company Darphin. “The French are focused more on skin care than cosmetics, and will spend money on the best skin-care products,” she says. “French women are less interested in the camouflage of makeup after their skin-care ritual. They use makeup more as an accent.”
DiNardo says they approach the ritual as a pleasurable experience instead of a necessity.
Speaking to a group of American reporters in New York earlier this year to launch her family’s namesake fragrance, Rykiel arrived at the 9 a.m. meeting wearing a dramatic black dress and bright red lips — a look one would expect for an evening event in Manhattan.
A French woman, according to Rykiel, wants to ask the mirror who is the fairest of them all — and be confident that it will answer she is.
“The French life is slower and more glamorous,” says iVillage’s Koch. “French women believe in taking their time in the pursuit of beauty — whether it’s their garden, home, food preparation. The way that they go to the market that day, set the table, find the perfect wine, they do it in fashion and beauty, too.”