Excerpt from my Paris journal for March 22:
Day 2 – Tuesday, March 22
Getting up this morning was quite arduous. Actually, the problem was that I couldn’t sleep past 4am, so I tossed and turned for an hour, then fell asleep again and snored like a lumberjack for a while.
Our morning destination was the Musee D’Orsay, to see the Rousseau exhibit as well as other impressionists. We used the metro to get there and saw Paris rush hour commuting – jam-packed trains! Fortunately we were able to skip a few trains to get on some that were less crowded.
We emerged at Solferino and did what the Parisians refer to as “window-licking” at a boulangerie and patisserie. I’ve never seen meat so lovingly arranged with roses as decoration – say “I love you” with meat! There was some kind of demonstration about to begin, with people dressed in surgical robes parading past, holding signs that we couldn’t quite make out. We asked one protestor what it was about and could only make out that they didn’t want to be treated or paid like pigeons. Well, who can blame them, right?
The lineup for the Musee D’Orsay was quite daunting at first sight but it moved fairly quickly. It was about 5 degrees and a bit windy but there was sunshine and interesting people to watch. We were there at 10am and inside by 10:20am. Simon is NOT a lineups person.
The Musee D’Orsay is an impressively beautiful building. It’s an old train station made over into an airy art museum with little “compartments” for each of the galleries. There was quite a crowd around the famous exhibits like Van Gogh’s Starry Night (pretty darn beautiful – loved the deep blues). I felt a bit overwhelmed with the camera and sketch book, trying to capture ideas and images, while keeping an eye on Simon who was quickly bored. Giving him a camera to use helped amuse him for a while but the old Sony camera gives up the ghost every so often, causing frustration. There were some limited attempts at art education (“this is what Orientalism is about”) so maybe when he’s older, some of it will have stuck in his head.
What I noticed about the art is that I much prefer art styles which have bold colours and outlines, like Toulouse-Lautrec’s work, and Picasso’s stuff (not much Picasso at the D’Orsay but it appealed to me). Henri Rouseeau’s work in the feature exhibition appealed to me as well, for it’s naïveté in interpreting shapes, faces, etc. He painted with bold interpretations. It didn’t have the delicacy of the impressionists like Monet and Degas. There was depth even though he didn’t try to paint with perspective to give the effect of dimensionality. Apparently my vocabulary for writing about art is fairly limited, so I’ll leave it there. I did have lots of ideas for fashion which were inspired by the Rousseau exhibit, although nothing that would really be right in my own wardrobe. I can see now why Project Runway gets designers to go see art to be inspired to create fashion. Ideas were popping up for looks that I don’t even know if I can find fabric for – ahh for a trip to Mood!
After the Musee D’Orsay, our plan was to go up to Place Madeline and find lunch. We rode the L’Open Tour bus across the Seine and got off at Place Concorde, then walked up the road past Maxim’s which was of course waaaaay out of budget. There weren’t any affordable lunch places around there, and Simon’s foot was bugging him no end. Artos suggested that he take Simon back to the hotel for lunch and a nap, leaving me to my desire to visit the Chanel headquarters at 31 Rue le Cambon. Great idea.
After orienting myself on a map, I began picking streets that I expected would get me the Chanel place and fashion district. I popped into a little hole-in-the-wall discount fashion place and found it full of Le Crap Tombe Avant Le Lorry. A few doors down was a juice bar/organic food place packed with Les tres chic persons. I picked out an orzo salad and ordered a “Mango Mama” juice, which came to 11 Euro. Eating like a chic Parisian is tres chere. I people-watched while I ate and tried to figure out whether Paris has made the slightest effort towards waste diversion (no, everything goes in Le trash, even in a trendy organic place like that).
Moving on to my big adventure… 31 Rue de Cambon. It’s a very quiet one-way street with a few other tiny boutiques, but mostly offices. It’s very peaceful. You could walk right past the Chanel location and hardly notice it if you weren’t looking. At first I stood across the street and took pictures looking upwards towards the top of the five-story building, where the workrooms are. Then I decided to be bold and go inside. It is, after all, still a store – just without all the storefront merchandising of a high street shop.
Ahhh here I must pause and begin reliving the memory. I don’t want to miss a single detail or get it wrong in the retelling. When I came in, the two security guards at the door welcomed me. Straight ahead, there is the beginning of the shops – more on that later. I turned right, where through a gap in the wall I could see … The staircase. The guard on my right beckoned me through. There it was! Coco Chanel’s famous staircase. Mirrors line the wall along the stairs, and it widens at the bottom with a delicate flare. It’s not at all like a grand staircase you’d find in a hotel or fancy mansion. It is simply a beautiful, feminine, warm and welcoming entrance to a home. As I stared up at it, the security man watching me greeted me. I wish I had an on-board camera in my mind for what unfolded here, as I can hardly believe my luck.
We started out with the man, whose name I don’t actually remember (not sure he told me), offering to take my photo at the bottom of the stairs. I just had my camera with me for pictures. I thought it would be a quick snapshot and on I’d go to the shop. He wanted to get me in just the right spot, though. I pretended I was Coco Chanel coming down to greet the press. He showed me on the picture how the mirrors on the wall turn the opening of the staircase at roof level into a heart shape – the staircase is the heart of Chanel! He asked if I knew where the staircase led, which is of course to Coco Chanel’s apartments, now used by Karl Lagerfeld as his offices. From there, I said, we go up to Les ateliers, the workrooms where the haute collection is made and the pret a porter collections designed for the shows. I guess this bit of knowledge on my part revealed I wasn’t just your regular kind of tourist. That’s when he stepped up the stairs and beckoned me to follow him.
Sometime before this point, he had asked me where I was from, and upon learning I was Canadian, he complimented me on our Prime Minister (thanks Justin! Way to create opportunities for Canadians to live their dreams!). My friend is Kurdish, he tells me, and is so grateful that Canadians have sent troops to fight ISIS. I didn’t have the heart to tell him we were not all united behind that war, because he was so gracious about it. He also complimented my hair colour. He said he came to Paris 22 years ago to find work, and had begun as a security guard here and was now head of security for the building. Uhh wow! Good person to meet!
So, back to the staircase… Up we went to a pristine and sun-filled room with white couches and white-and-black decor. It was welcoming and warm rather than stark as you might expect from a white and black decorating scheme. This is the place where Chanel’s couture customers come to see the collection in private shows. Through a hallway to the right, there is another smaller chamber with a sitting room and mirrors. Hanging in cabinets leading to that chamber is the current haute couture collection.
There it was… Amazing, glowing, soft. The garments were hanging behind glass, but my friend opened the doors and pointed out the hand-beading. Hundreds of hours go into each of these garments, every seam worked by hand, even the trims and beads prepared for Chanel by exclusive specialists in their trades, in the buildings around this district. The fabrics of the jackets, made by Linton Tweeds in the UK exclusively for Chanel, showed gleaming silver and gold threads woven through the wool. My friend opened each cabinet to show me the work on the various garments, and then invited me to touch the beading on one of them – glass beads, not plastic, each hand-assembled in rosettes before being stitched onto the sleeve. I just about died right there, really. We took a few pictures of me dying of ecstasy in front of the haute collection, as well as sitting in the chambre privee, scanning the look-book which contains images of the entire collection. As my friend said, this is where princes sit to watch their princesses try on clothes. He even joked “would you like to try one on?” But I am absolutely certain he didn’t mean it. (Besides, they don’t make Chanel samples in a size 16). Sounds in the nearby rooms made us wrap up our visit and go back downstairs, but not without taking some pictures of me descending the staircase as if, you know, I was just going out for a coffee and planning to come back again later.
On the way down the stairs I gushed about being so inspired and excited by the visit. I said I was a beginning designer, and he seemed interested so I pulled out my sketchbook and showed him some of my better sketches (the ones with colour added). He was very nice and encouraging, which was kind. I figured I’d better stop before I completely embarrassed myself so I invited him to visit Canada at his next opportunity, and said farewell.
Floating on a cushion of dreams, I walked through the boutique taking mental note of the Chanel trademarks, the interlinked C’s and the gold lions which are a motif throughout Chanel. There were shoes, handbags, sunglasses, scarves, and of course perfumes. At the back of the store there were three rooms where the Spring Pret a Porter collection is displayed. People were sitting on low couches with private shopping attendants guiding them through catalogues. I floated around each room taking note of the amazing details and beautiful fabrics. One simple white shell top had the price tag poking out so I looked… 1,870 Euro! I touched one of the dark blue Chanel jackets to feel the softness of the fabric, and how light it felt, quilted to the lining. No stiff interfacings here!
Wanting just one thing to savour from my visit, I went into the cosmetics area and was relieved to find there was something within my price range, loosely – a lipstick is a mere 34 Euro! Huzzah! I chose a colour fairly close to what I normally wear, and a very sweet and gracious salesperson put it together for sale with me. Buying a lipstick at Chanel involves adding your name to their customer register, so I am now in the Chanel customer list! It comes with a sample of Chanel Mademoiselle perfume, and various bags from the tiny one for the lipstick to a larger handbag-sized bag for the purchase to be carried in. A separate room contains the cashier, who offered that I could pay for the purchase in Canadian dollars (no, I didn’t calculate the exchange rate – brain was not functioning analytically). I got a separate sample of the Rue de Cambon perfume and all of it packed up in gracious, smiling, lovely service. I walked out of the shop feeling like I was in a dream.
Have to leave things here to get ready for the train to Barcelona… To be continued, including my experience with fabric shopping in Montmartre!