Posted on The Paris Blog yesterday:

The two extremes of Parisian style for women of a certain age were displayed across the aisle from each other the subway this morning.


It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that many Americans who have never been to France are intrigued by this country, and those who have been here and loved it often feel a longing for anything French. And for those Americans who live in Paris, it’s like having their cake and eat it too.

Elizabeth Bard feeds on this francophile nostalgia in her memoir of her courtship and marriage to her French husband. Bard is a journalist from New York and her husband is a computer science PhD from Brittany. It is a “paralel love affair” in Bard’s words, one with France and the other with her husband. She peppers her narrative with food descriptions and anecdotes à la Julia Child and topping it with her own refreshing sense of humor.

“Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes” is fast, light read just in time for summer. Pack it in your picnic basket to enjoy on the beach or in the shade along the Seine. And perhaps there will even be a film adaptation come fall?

Would you pass the Evian, please?

“Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes”
by Elizabeth Bard
336 pages

This spring, under the aegis of former fashion model and French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the Petit Palais museum in Paris put on the first posthumous retrospective of Yves Saint Laurent’s career with an exhibition of over 300 garments. To commemorate this event, a most distinguished work of art of a book called simply “YSL” was published to deconstruct the iconic designer while conserving his essence through interviews, essays, and photos.

In it, Pierre Bergé recounts his first meeting with Saint Laurent and the beginning of their relationship and business collaboration until the designer’s death in 2008. Bergé explained how YSL wanted his designs to have social relevance like those of the great fashion innovators Madeleine Vionnet, Coco Chanel, and Elsa Schiaparelli who preceded him. He disliked Balenciaga who he felt was a pure technician who made haute couture only for the upper classes. When he took over as Christian Dior’s creative director, he killed off Dior’s signature lady-like look with his debut collection featuring trapeze shaped dresses.

Saint Laurent was a talented individual with a strong temperament and character, in addition to an iron will to get what he wanted. He was plagued by severe depression and addicted to alcohol and drugs, which astonishingly contributed to his most beautiful and succesful collections. He was charismatic and made into an icon despite himself. He lived his life as a recluse, a celebrity who hid himself because of his inordinate shyness, which he deemed to be a major character flaw.

The book gives a faithful timeline of Saint Laurent’s life and work from his childhood to maturity, with milestones covering his grooming period as Dior’s heir to the start of his own haute couture house, his ready-to-wear collection “Rive Gauche,” and his perfume “Opium.”

Photos and essays reveal the revolutionary elements that were cornerstones of the YSL style. The pea jacket (caban), a sailor’s work jacket with a feminine twist; the tunic, which lengthened the silhouette and concealed the hips; the trench coat, adapted from garments worn by officers in the trenches of World War II; the tuxedo (le smoking) that upturned evening dressing conventions; the safari jacket (la saharienne), a staple in men’s wardrobe as characterized by Ernest Hemingway which blended perfectly into the social and political tumult of 1968 and blurred the distinction between masculine and feminine; and finally the trouser suit which empowered women by placing them on the same sartorial footing as men.

In his design, Saint Laurent focused on the body, gesture, and style. Worn on women, YSL clothes are free-flowing and always falling from the shoulder. The material is draped over the body and held together by pins at precise foldings. His aim was to make the garment skim over the body and barely touches it. A journalist once asked the designer how he could justify the very high price for a simple Rive Gauche jacket. Saint Laurent replied, “For ze cut!”

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy models this wedding dress calles "Doves", a tribute to Georges Brach, from 1988. This dress is on show at the retrospective. (Page 326 in "YSL")

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy models this wedding dress called "Doves", a tribute to Georges Brach, from 1988. This dress is on show at the retrospective. (Page 326 in "YSL")

Bound in a black hard cover with three primary colors for the designer’s initials,the book “YSL” comprises 388 glossy pages of archive photos, personal albums, design sketches, celebrity models and muses, colorful fabrics, as well as the details of the 307 outfits featured in the exhibition. It is an enduring joy to behold long after the show is over.

388 pages
Available for online order in French and English

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

This sentence is the preface to “A Moveable Feast”, a slim volume of Ernest Hemingway’s memoirs of his beginning years as a young writer in Paris between 1921 and 1925 and published in 1964 after his death.

In keeping with his renowned brevity, the vignettes and anecdotes in this work capture the environment and mood of American writers in Paris between the two world wars, or the “lost generation” as Gertrude Stein termed them. This famous phrase, which was subsequently taken up to describe the expatriate literary circle, was a remark Stein made in a conversation about the repair troubles she had with her Ford Model T. The garage shop owner had berated his mechanic, who had served in the war, as being incompetent and said to him, “You are all a genération perdue.”

“That’s all you are. That’s what you all are,” Miss Stein said. “All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”
“Really?” I said.
“You are,” she insisted. “You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death.”
“Was the young mechanic drunk?” I asked.
“Of course not.”
“The boy’s patron was probably drunk by 11 o’clock in the the morning,” I said. That’s why he makes such lovely phrases.”
“Don’t argue with me Hemingway,” Miss Stein said. “You’re all a lost generation, exactly as the garage keeper said.”
Then as I was getting up to the Closerie des Lilas with the light on my old friend, the statue of Marshal Ney with his sword out and the shadows of the trees behind him and what a fiasco he’d made of Waterloo, I thought that all generations were lost by something and always had been.
I thought of what a warm and affectionate friend Miss Stein had been and will always do my best to serve her. But the hell with her lost-generation talk and all the dirty, easy labels. When I got home, I said to my wife, “Gertrude is nice, anyway.”

“But she does talk a lot of rot sometimes.”

Thus the phrase made its inelegant entrance into the lore of American literature and stayed. But Gertrude Stein did not always talk rot. The most valuable instruction she gave to Hemingway was not to write anything that is inaccrochable (unhangable). “That means it is like a picture that a painter paints and then he cannot hang it when he has a show and nobody will buy it because they cannot hang it either.”

Hemingway imbibed copiously, wrote with great discipline and went to the race track as assiduously when money was flush. He was friends with Ezra Pound, whom he deemed a noble and generous and disinterested writer who admitted to have never read the “Rooshians” (Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoi) and advised Hemingway to stick with the French. “You’ve got a lot to learn from the French.” Hemingway thought that until he read Stendahl’s “The Chartreuse de Parme,” he had never read of war except in Tolstoi, and that wonderful account on Waterloo was an accidental piece in a very dull book. Tolstoi’s “War and Peace,” on the other hand, “made the writing of Stephen Crane on the Civil War seem like the brilliant imagining of a sick boy who had never seen war but had only read the battles and chronicles.”

For a student of literature, it is sometimes vindicating to hear the greats’ criticisms of each other’s works. Gertrude Stein thought Aldous Huxley’s writing was “inflated trash, written by a dead, dead man.” Hemingway himself couldn’t read D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love” even though he liked “Sons and Lovers”. Stein dismissed Lawrence with contempt: “He’s impossible. He’s pathetic and preposterous. He writes like a sick man.”

Hemingway recalls in detail the streets and places and watering holes and eateries he frequented as well as his impressions of his contemporaries. Ford Maddox Ford who was unkempt and had bad breath, the poor poet Evan Shipman who didn’t dress warmly enough for late fall. F. Scott Fitzgerald was between handsome and pretty, in love with Zelda and discombobulated by her. She once asked Hemingway, “Ernest, don’t you think Al Jolson is greater than Jesus?” It was then that everyone realized that [Fitzgerald] would not write anything more that was good (after The Great Gatsby) until after he knew that Zelda was insane.

For a mere 126 pages, this work is a gem of fond recollections of people and places that Hemingway assembles like actors on a stage and gives readers front row seats.

“There was never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed… Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

A Moveable Feast
by Ernest Hemingway
126 pages

Even for those only remotely interested in fashion, the names of Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld must surely conjure a ring of Parisian chic. The former, YSL, had over the course of his 40+ year career as couturier, produced a legacy of classics such as the trapeze dress, the safari jacket, the Mondrian shift and the iconic “le smoking”. The latter, KL, is the eccentric Chanel designer with the white hair in a ponytail, dark sunglasses, and fingerless leather gloves omnipresent in the media and high society scene.

Both men debuted in the fashion world at the same time when they shared the stage at the awards for the prestigious International Wool Secretariat fashion design competition, where YSL took 1st place in the dress category and KL in the coat category. The year was 1954; YSL was 18 years old, and Lagerfeld 21.

Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld were similar and yet very different. Both were foreign to Paris — YSL was a French native of Algeria, while Lagerfeld was an expatriate German national. Both were were prolific designers and driven by a shared aesthete to clothe the female form. In the beginning they were good friends who relished in the fun and folly in the post-war French capital, working to excel in their art by day and partying and wooing models together by night.

From friends, they progressively became rivals. Perhaps this was inevitable given the intense competetiveness in the fashion world. When Christian Dior died in 1957, YSL became the house’s creative director, a glorious feat for a 21-year old. Lagerfeld, on the other hand, worked for the house of Balmain for a few unremarkable years and then struck out as a free-lancer for other designers, most notably Chloé and Fendi. As it turned out, the fundamental difference between the two men was that YSL cared about fame and glory and aesthetics, while Lagerfeld cared for self-image and money. Ultimately, the schism was complete as they diverged into two separate camps hermetically sealed off by their entourage, with the exception of one Swann-inspired minion named Jacques de Bascher who clung on to both men but died of AIDS at an early age.

Read superficially, this can be a simplistic analysis. But Alicia Drake’s book The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris goes beyond detailing the life and work of these two icons of design. She documents the generational repercussions of the socially tumultuous decades of 60s, the libertine and unrepressed 70s, and the AIDS-ravaged 80s. More than a biography of the two famous designers, it is a commentary on society at large, viewed through the microcosm of the fashion world. Her intelligent and thoughtful juxtaposition of the two men, backed by in-depth interviews and archive research over 5 years, sheds light not only on their characters and temperaments, but also the core motivation and inner drive of each.

YSL was a manic-depressive who could sketch brilliant designs for entire collections over several weeks, fuelled by nothing more than cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs, then collapse into a period of intense emptiness and emptiness. When he left Dior to start his own couture house in 1961, he had the moral and practical assistance of his life partner Pierre Bergé, who shouldered the quotidian demands of life to allow YSL to concentrate on his couture work. It was Bergé who rescued and cared for YSL through his constant battles against depression and addiction. Until the end of his life, YSL inhabited his own imaginary world where beauty reigned in a romantic past, much like the cherished memories of Proust.

Lagerfeld’s teutonic background never allowed him the luxury of being tended to. He did everything himself — his free-lance contracts, licenses, public relations, advertising, marketing, and money management, in addition to designing for Chanel and other labels. At his apex, Lagerfeld designed up to 8 collections a year. He amassed great wealth, made and broke friendships, cultivated a self-image to go with the current trend. He does not smoke, drink, take drugs or indulge in promiscuity. He is a rock, a survivor in the high-casualty world of international fashion.

Yves Saint Laurent died in 2008 from a brain tumor. He had officially retired from fashion in 2002 when his creativity was no longer in tempo with rapidly evolving trends. But Karl Lagerfeld kept marching along with the times, inventing and reinventing himself, each time better than the last and without any sign of ever stopping. Dorian Gray himself probably couldn’t outdo him.

Lagerfeld did not attend Saint Laurent’s lavish funeral with heads of state and celebrities. Perhaps he was off somewhere alone, away from the flash bulbs, to mourn a friend, an arch rival, or a decadent era, without actually having to confront mortality himself?

The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius, and Glorious Excess in 1970’s Paris
by Alicia Drake
432 pages

From blurb:

In the 1970s, Paris fashion exploded like a champagne bottle left out in the sun. Amid sequins and longing, celebrities and aspirants flocked to the heart of chic, and Paris became a hothouse of revelry, intrigue, and searing ambition. At the center of it all were fashion’s most beloved luminaries – Yves Saint Laurent, the reclusive enfant terrible, and Karl Lagerfeld, the flamboyant freelancer with a talent for reinvention – and they divided Paris into two fabulous halves. Their enduring rivalry is chronicled in this dazzling exposé of an era: of social ambitions, shared obsessions, and the mesmerizing quest for beauty.

Yes, I admit I missed it — the Feast of the Macaron Day last week, to announce the burgeoning Spring. It was on March 20th and I was elsewhere, no doubt shopping in some department store.

This lovely Macaron day tradition was instilled five years ago at the initiative of Pierre Hermé, a French pastry chef formerly of Ladurée fame who invited you to taste free macarons in his Parisian shops or any of the participating Relais Desserts boutiques in support of rare illnesses.

Charitable causes aside, it is a little heaven to bite into a lovely, bright macaron – and there is every color in the spectrum of a rainbow. Past that crunchy shell of meringue, you are met with a downy softness like smooth velvet that explodes into an exuberance of flavor – be it sensual chocolate, light lemon, tangy raspeberry, heady vanilla, or exotic jasmine. It is the perfect pastry companion for an espresso, a cup of tea, or a flute of champagne. Or just by itself, followed by another, and another.

The macaron came into vogue in France about a decade ago when its appearance in restaurants and on dinner tables were de rigueur. With the years, they evolved into myriad sizes and shapes from little hearts to the double-decker version and even to the size of a cheeseburger, and available to epicureans all over the world. Flavors can range from the most traditional chocolate to exotic like rose petals, green tea, and ketchup (!).

But what exactly is a macaron?

What it’s not is a macaroon (with two ‘oo’s) made of egg whites, sugar and shredded dried coconut baked into a soft peaked mound.

The macaron at hand (with one “o”) is a small cookie the size of a half dollar consisting of crunchy egg white meringue, almond powder and sugar exterior and soft cream filled interior. Its origins are obscure and contested. The macaron appeared in Europe in the Middle Age where it would diversify and find new shapes and flavors. Its simplest form can be traced back to Italy during the Renaissance, according to “Larousse Gastronomique,” an encyclopedia of food, wine, cookery, and culture which suggested that this little pastry, also known as a monk’s navel, was invented in 791 in a convent near Cormery in the Loire region.

Filled with jams, spices, liqueurs, this crunchy soft cookie would come to be known as the Parisien macaron or “Gerbet” starting in the 1880s in the neighborhood of Belleville in Paris. It was made popular in the Latin quarter by the now defunct salon de thé Pons, as well as by the Ladurée house, which introduced the concept of “macarons season” corresponding to fragrances that are available only for the limited season. Ladurée also takes credit for the double-decker macaron variety.

Ladurée features a permanent collection of flavors to suit your tastes: chocolates – dark, bitter chocolate – vanilla – coffee – rose petals – pistachios – raspberry – violet cassis – caramel with salted butter – red fruits – orange water – licorice – lemon – coconut – icy mint – almonds – spices & dried fruit – chestnuts – praline – mocha…

So readers, what would be your pick for the day?

Pierre Hermé, 72 rue Bonaparte
La Durée, Boulevard des Champs Elysées

This past Valentine’s day weekend, when my friends Judith from Chicago and Daphne from New York made a quick jaunt to Paris, we decided to have a girls’ night out. To be near them, I booked a hotel room in downtown Paris. I just wanted a place to bunk for the night and the Best Western at Notre-Dame de Lorette offered a convenient place as well the required standards of a well-known chain.

One thing that makes or breaks a trip, along with your budget, is the price of a hotel room. In Paris, a decent hotel room in a central location can cost between 150 to 300 Euros (US $200-$460). My single room at the BW Lorette amounted to a modest 98 Euros (US $130) for one night.

Located in the bourgeois-bohemian ( bobo*) 9th district, the BW Lorette is a brand new renovation that retained the building’s old architecture while infusing it with a romantic freshness. Judith, Daphne and I had stumbled around a bit to find it because I had made us get off at the wrong Métro station with my usual lack of orientation. Once there (at the right Métro station, St. Georges), Daphne immediately recognized the tony neighborhood where she used to babysit as a student in Paris.

After I checked in, we got a free tour of the hotel because Judith had inadvertently pressed the wrong elevator button which took us to the basement. This turned out to be the hotel’s breakfast room, carved out of an ancient cellar with stone vaulted ceilings. The flooring was chateau-grade tiles covered with warm accented oriental rugs. Tables and chairs were light and modern to optimize space and avoid rustic overkill. Mirrors, prints, and undiscernable period paintings graced the stone walls for a pleasing effect.

My room had a courtyard view. It was small but had a relatively spacious bathroom which assuaged my feminine side. Both were bright and clean and equipped with all the amenities of a multi-star hotel. Plus no stinginess with soap and shampoo.

So if you ever need to pop into Paris for a short business trip or plan a family vacation, you may want to consider this chic Best Western. It’s an easy Métro ride (provided you don’t get lost) to the famous department stores Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, Stock Exchange, Opéra Garnier, Saint Madeleine church, and the iconic Louvre, among many other Parisian attractions.

Best Western
36, Rue Notre Dame De Lorette, Paris, 75009, France
Phone: 33 1 42 85 18 81
Fax: 33 1 42 81 32 19

(*) The “bobo” species is generally found in Paris (more specifically in the wealthy 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 9th arrondissement [district] or in the gentrified 10th, 11th, 14th or 20th); cultivates a seemingly laid-back way of life; fully clad in Hermès, Chanel and Rykiel, he/she tries very hard nonetheless to look scruffy; listens to Thomas Fersen while drinking absinthe… If you don’t believe me, see Wikipedia a more substantiated definition of the bourgeois/bohemian – in French, of course.

Photos from the hotel website: