“This ribbon is very couture,” Marie-Noëlle Demay said to me, gripping a grosgrain ribbon between her elegant fingers, demonstrating how it was sewn into a blouse to avoid the indignity of a skin-adjacent zipper. “And so are these pleats.” She motioned to the different stitches, some visible, some hidden, that transformed a simple white blouse into something special. “I think this size is for you.”
It was, and I wanted it.
We were in the Left Bank showroom of Maison Rabih Kayrouz, a French design house that was awarded “haute couture” status last year by the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, joining such famous names as Chanel and Dior on the twice-yearly couture calendar. There, we observed the teams that produce the designs and samples for the ready-to-wear and couture collections. I tried on multiple dresses before settling on the sculpted top in white cotton, with all the couture details.
I was in Paris earlier this year on a brief solo vacation, and Demay was my shopping Sherpa. It was off-season, making hotel rooms and plane tickets cheap, and extending my budget of a few thousand dollars for some French-girl chic. But how to find the help I needed to get me out of my comfort zone of black, black and more black? There were multiple websites from Parisians providing style-coaching and shopping tours, but I wanted someone who really knew her way around the showrooms and ateliers of Paris.
Eventually, through a friend, I found Demay, who had served as editor in chief of Marie Claire’s flagship French magazine for 15 years. When she’s not consulting for luxury brands or writing novels about Karl Lagerfeld, Demay has a bespoke business escorting fashion enthusiasts around Paris. While some seek her out for private visits to fashion archives or consultations with perfumiers, I just wanted to go shopping.
A month before my trip, Demay and I exchanged emails (in English — she’s fluent) in which I outlined my priorities: to explore lesser-known brands and to broaden my style choices to include some actual color. A week later, she sent me a long list of possibilities, which I winnowed to four, since I had booked her only for an afternoon.
Demay met me at my hotel, looking chic in a trim belted coat. Our first stop was Stouls, whose specialty is washable leather. There, the founder, Aurélia Stouls, guided me away from the straight-leg version of her leggings toward the skinny ones, and she pointed out the colors — including a gorgeous forest green — that were new for 2019. Next stop was Barrie, a Scottish cashmere manufacturer that was purchased by Chanel in 2012 and had just hired a new artistic director. The sweaters were frisky to the eye yet soft to the touch. With Demay’s coaxing, I acquired a logo sweater in electric blue, along with a multicolored V-neck.
Paule Ka was nearby on Rue Saint-Honoré. The flagship store carried a greater assortment than the capsule collections I’d seen at Bloomingdale’s. The well-priced clothes that had looked prim and pretty on the website were dynamic in person. From a bold zebra-striped skirt to an emerald green shirtdress, my wardrobe was becoming less funereal.
The showroom of Alexandre Vauthier had been on my shortlist, only Paris Fashion Week had wiped out its inventory. Demay had come armed with Vauthier’s catalog, so we visited a store where I could try on his work for size and style. Celine Dion, Beyoncé and Rihanna wear his clothes, so I was curious to see if they’d work for me. One of Vauthier’s leather blazers was tempting, with its bold gold buttons and linebacker shoulders. Wearing it, I felt ready to crush anyone in my path, and who doesn’t want a garment that inspires that kind of confidence? Unfortunately, I had run out of space and money. Fortunately, I could order it later, if the mood struck.
Thanks to my fast-moving afternoon with Demay, I had satisfied all my style goals. My look had been freshened and my rut had been escaped. The afternoon had been an education in French chic, one that will inform my eye going forward.