On the Fringes of a Linen Binge in Paris, Home of Tablecloth Couture


I don't care much about jewelry or perfume or shoes. Linen is my passion, which I indulged on a window-shopping trip to Paris in May. To me and those like me, Paris means D. Porthault, a linen heaven of a shop that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis favored.

My formal indoctrination into the society of luxury linen really began in New York, when I wandered into Leron, a small shop on Madison Avenue that sells mostly custom-made, creme-de-la-creme tablecloths, napkins, hankies, sheets, blankets and duvets--hand-embroidered finery of linen, voile and satin that would take your breath away.

"You have to think of fine linen like couture," said Carolina Donadio, vice president for merchandise at Leron. Those who care about linens will pay $3,000 for a set of superbly hand-embroidered, hand-constructed sheets.

I knew before I left for Paris that I could admire but not afford the linens I would see. Still, I wanted to do it right, so I e-mailed Suzy Gershman, author of "Born to Shop Paris" (Macmillan, 1997) and other guidebooks for traveling merchandise mavens.

"Ahhhh, a woman after my own heart," she responded, then advised me about the French system of bed sizes. (There are seven, though Parisian salespeople usually know how to convert them into our king, queen, full and twin sizes.) The French seem disinterested in coordinated sets, though you can usually get matched duvet covers, shams and top sheets.

If I wanted a bargain, she said, I should head to La Samaritaine department store or the textile town of Lille in the north of France. But if I just wanted to see linen that would give me goose bumps, I should go to Olivier Desforges, Yves Delorme and Porthault.

Olivier Desforges has five stores in Paris. I went to the one on the Rue de Raspail, near the Left Bank church of St. Sulpice, where I found stylish, not terribly expensive linen, some pretty and countrified, some vaguely inspired by the textiles of India and Indonesia. There was more color and pattern coordination than I expected: nighties, robes, towels and toiletry bags for French families who want to look alike in the bed and bath. And there was a sale on the blue-printed Lobelia Nattier bed linen design. Had I been in the mood to buy, I'd have come home with a Lobelia Nattier duvet cover that would fit a queen bed for $63, originally priced at $90.

On the way to my next stop, Yves Delorme, I passed Le Rideau de Paris, a luscious little shop on the Rue du Bac full of quilts from Provence. The saleswoman there pulled one beauty after another from the high shelves and spread them out with a flourish. I think she knew I couldn't spend $1,714 on a blue and lilac quilt printed in a rare 17th century pattern called Pierre de Roussard. But she treated me graciously, like a connoisseur.

Yves Delorme is known in the U.S. as Palais Royal, for the dignified building near the Louvre where its parent company, Tis-sages Fremaux, was once headquartered. (On July 14 the Palais Royal name will change to Yves Delorme at all U.S. Tissages Fremaux outlets.) Delorme is a popular French designer whose bed linen styles are a little pricier than those of Desforges, bearing such romantic names as Cottage Garden, Out of Africa and In the French Quarter. The narrow shop in the Palais Royal has high ceilings and an Old World air. Again, I didn't buy anything, but I came away with a Delorme catalog for 2001 in the form of eight pretty note cards, each with a beautifully dressed bed on the cover.

And then there's Porthault. I've grown crazy enough about linen to think this is one of the dreamiest places in Paris, in a two-story shop across the street from the elegant Hotel Plaza Athenee. When I was there, the street-front windows displayed tablecloths with embroidered vegetables and china to match. Inside, there's a framed photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis with Madeleine Porthault, who helped the former first lady choose linen for the White House. And when you find something to buy, a saleswoman writes up the sale, hands you a slip of paper and directs you to a small window, where you pay.

Of course, everywhere I looked I could find things to buy: funny little cocktail napkins for about $20 each, delicate pillow shams for a divan at $75 and up and a four-piece set of Rve de Jour sheets for $1,350.

Just to prove I wasn't riffraff, I asked a saleswoman whether she had any linens with broderie anglaise --white-on-white cutwork embroidery. She disappeared into a back room and came out with a small, serious-looking man holding a stack of lace shams.

"I'm sorry, Madame, broderie anglaise is too special. We don't have it in the store. Could I show you these?" he asked.

I left Porthault thinking that French linen people are quite nice, if you show a little interest.

I also left carrying a lovely blue bag containing a tiny voile hankie, with the facade of Notre Dame embroidered in pink--a gift for my mother. I kept the bag.

Boutique Yves Delorme, 153 Rue St. Honore, 75001 Paris, telephone/fax 011-33-1-42-96-10-44, Internet http://www.yvesdelorme.com.

D. Porthault, 18 Avenue Montaigne, 75008 Paris, tel. 011-33-1-47-20-75-25, fax 011-33-1-40-70-09-26, http://www.dporthault.fr.

Le Rideau de Paris, 32 Rue du Bac, 75007 Paris, tel. 011-33-1-42-61-18-56, fax 011-33-1-40-15-63-54, http://www.le-boutis.com/boutique.fr.htm.

Olivier Desforges, 26 Rue de Raspail, 75008 Paris, tel./fax 011-33-1-45-49-19-37, http://www.olivierdesforges.fr.

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