This time last year, I had the great fortune of travelling to Paris to write and photograph a book that my publisher described as "a creative guide for professionals". Entitled Paris: A Guide to the City's Creative Heart, it was intended to be a beautifully illustrated book to the city’s most creative and inspirational destinations. The design was to take the form of an old-fashioned photo album or scrapbook, complete with evocative photography, hand-drawn maps, whimsical ephemera and other gorgeous passementerie. "Paris through design-tinted glasses", my editor called it.
Meandering through the most creative parts of this aesthetically rich city was a wonderful experience because it reminded me of why I love Paris so much. It's a place that's full of delightful secrets. Like a French woman who plays her hand very close to her Chanel-scented chest, Paris likes to keep her best bits to herself. Just when you think you've seen it all, when you think you know its quartiers and streets and sights like the back of your French trenchcoat, it goes and surprises you all over again. That's the best thing about it. It's a city designed to be discovered in a manner that the French call par hazard – meaning "by chance", or as a delightful encounter.
And so I’d like to take you on a tour of secret Paris, done through excerpts of this book, and written over a series of posts on this blog. I do hope you'll enjoy it. I also hope you’ll be inspired to seek out your own 'Secret Paris' one day.
The Museum of Decorative Arts (Musée des Arts Décoratifs)
Many design aficionados head here straight off the plane and it’s easy to see why. It’s a treasure trove of fabulousness, from fashion to interior design. One of the most beautiful permanent exhibits is Jeanne Lanvin’s reconstructed apartment, including her sweet boudoir, chambre de coucher and salle de bain all designed for her for her apartment at 16 Rue Barbet-de-Jouy. (The black-and-white bathroom, pictured above, is one to file away in the inspiration files.) However, it’s the bookstore that’s the real draw. A vast space full of carefully curated design, fashion, art and architecture books, it’s so appealing that sometimes I don’t even bother entering the museum. 107 Rue de Rivoli. www.lesartsdecoratifs.fr
Gallignani is a terribly handsome store. Its interior is so distinguished it’s almost intimidating to be in. But don’t let the gentleman’s library atmosphere put you off: this place is a great spot to find beautiful books in both French and English editions, particularly art, fashion and photography titles. There’s a great display of architecture and interior design magazines too, including the latest issues from America and the UK. 224 Rue de Rivoli, 75001. Justine Picardi recently launched the reprint of her Chanel book here – with none other than Karl Lagerfeld as her escort. www.galignani.com
Ah, Merci. How many superlatives can I use about Merci? I walked for miles to find this store and said “Merci, merci!” when I finally did. It is a concept store but it’s about as far, both geographically and aesthetically, as you can get from Colette, which I find to be a little too minimalist, pretentious and silly. (Oh, did I say that out loud?). It’s one part second-hand bookstore/café, one part interior design store, one part craft market and one part fashion emporium. (The rest of the parts are simply made up of gorgeousness in all its forms.) It includes an Annick Goutal laboratory to create your own fragrance, an old-fashioned haberdashery shop stocking buttons, ribbons and zippers and a flower shop by Christian Tortu. The architecture and interior are defined by an aesthetic simplicity that balances elegance with playfulness. As a concept, it’s so different, and so beautiful, it’s difficult to know where to look first. It even offers a bookshelf-lined cafe to sit and rest your feet in. Merci, how can I thank you? www.merci-merci.com
Marais House Located in Rue de Turenne, this amazing bed and breakfast, which was featured in Architectural Digest, is contained within four floors of a fantastically flamboyant interior. With huge fireplaces, wall-to-wall opulence and the overall feel of an aristocratic palazzo, it’s a rather special place to stay–and not that expensive for the riches offered within. Book well in advance–it’s adored by the Aesthetic Set. www.maraishouse.com
DeyrolleDeyrolle has been variously described as “whimsical”, “fantastical”, “magical”, and “surreal”. I prefer to describe it as a Lewis Carollesque tea party for naturalists, botanists and amateur entomologists. It is, without a doubt, one of the most unusual and beguiling stores in Paris, if not the world. Located in a 19th-century Beaux Art building on Rue du Bac, it’s the kind of heavily atmospheric, slightly cluttered and utterly nostalgic establishment that hasn't changed for centuries. To describe it as a taxidermy shop hardly does it justice. It’s a veritable cabinet des curiosités; a wunderkammer of Mother Nature’s most glorious creations. There are ancient wooden cases full of butterflies and insects, shells and botanical specimens, stuffed lions, ostriches, zebras, monkeys, elephants, polar bears, and birds galore. It's really a museum masquerading as a store. Even if you’re an avid animal lover or have an issue with mounted butterflies (as I sometimes do), you’ll still see the value (and magic) in this fabled purveyor of natural history. Truly enchanting. You won’t be able to resist. www.deyrolle.fr
The Hermés MuseumFew people know this but there is a secret museum located on the upper floor of Hermés' headquarters on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. (Pictured above and top; top image via Architectural Digest.) Unfortunately, it's not open to the general public. You either have to be invited, or write a letter to the manager and request a visit. However, I have heard of journalists and fashion insiders being allowed access. It may be worth the effort; apparently it's a treasure trove of fascinating pieces. I'm going to attempt a visit on my next trip. There's an article from Architectural Digest complete with images here: www.architecturaldigest.com/resources/travels/archive/adtravels_article_092005
The Fabric Stores of the Northern ArrondissementsI've recently re-discovered the 2nd, 9th and the 18th (Montmartre) parts of Paris. I've also discovered they're all about some serious passementerie. Now passementerie, if you haven’t come across the word (and let’s not mispronounce it as “piss-ementerie”, which could be something else altogether), is one of the blog world’s favourite new sayings, along with brocante. Basically, brocante refers to antique or vintage shops, or fairs, while mercerie is a draper's or haberdashery store, and passementerie encompasses grosgrain ribbons, buttons, trims and myriad other gorgeous things. (An armoire, meanwhile, is what you buy for a ridiculous price from the St Ouen markets and drag home to store it all in, and a chaise longue (not a chaise lorenge, as my partner calls it), is what you pass out on after you’d had a big day at the Puces!) Anyhow, I've discovered that some of the best fabric stores in the world are located in Montmartre. Who would have thought? To find them, simply wander along and around the Place Saint-Pierre in Montmartre, (at the base of the famous steps), which is where they're all clustered. And leave yourself plenty of time – you'll be in the street for hours!