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Eight rules for mastering effortless French style this winter

Charlotte Gainsbourg
Charlotte Gainsbourg
Charlotte Gainsbourg
French style muse Charlotte Gainsbourg - Getty

Clothing designer Vanessa Bruno is explaining the tenets of French style.

“We are looking at women who are always dressing more or less the same way because they know what works well for them,” she says. “She has this kind of stylish thing going on that makes you think she’s just thrown on her outfit at the last minute…’

Although I’m only speaking to her via a laptop screen, it’s obvious that, with her just-messy-enough platinum crop and slouchy knit, she exudes just the kind of “je ne sais quoi” which she keeps mentioning as our conversation goes on.

Ever since founding her eponymous label in 1992, Bruno – now in her 50s – has been creating the quintessential Parisian chic wardrobe and has traced the rest of the world’s growing obsession with how to look more French. Besides following her own well-honed instincts as the daughter of a Danish model mother and Italian fashion businessman father who grew up in Paris, she cites Catherine Deneuve and Jane Birkin (an honorary French woman despite being a born and bred Londoner) as her ultimate examples of great Gallic – and more specifically Parisian – style.

Vanessa Bruno
Vanessa Bruno founded her eponymous label in 1992, and has been bringing Parisian chic to the world ever since - Anna-Marie Janssen

“If we look at Catherine Deneuve, she’s pretty much always wearing the same clothes, and usually they’re Yves Saint Laurent. Even though she’s English, Jane Birkin’s got the French style because when she was young, she wore the jeans, white blouses and white sneakers,” Bruno muses.

“A French girl doesn’t switch and suddenly do Hollywood glamour. She’s not Lady Gaga changing the way she dresses all the time. When they know their body, they will have certain clothes they will keep on and on wearing.” It’s a reassuringly simple philosophy to sum up a seemingly impenetrable formula.

While Bruno hates to sound judgmental, there’s just a whiff of exasperation in her voice when she describes the dress-up parade which descends on Paris during fashion week.

jane birkin
'Even though she’s English, Jane Birkin’s got French style,' says Bruno - Getty

“I live in the Marais and during fashion week it’s just so funny that people try so hard putting themselves into an outfit. And I’m like, ‘Oh my God’,” she confides, shaking her head and swooshing her hair across her face. “At the same time, I love it because I find it funny. They’re trying to be daring and you can see they’re trying to find a certain personality so I don’t judge it. For me, style is really being comfortable with yourself and not wearing stuff because it’s the fashion of the moment.”

So how to be more Bruno than fashion victim? Here are her eight rules…

1. Choose outfits that make you feel sublime

Naturally, Bruno chooses a French term which evokes exactly how so many of us would like to feel in our clothes. “You need sublime in your life,” she says. “It’s how you create a wardrobe where you feel stylish, but at the same time, comfortable, and have a certain easiness. You should have pieces which you take from your wardrobe and you know that you cherish them.”

This may sound easier to say than to do, but use the pieces which already inspire you and interrogate what it is that works about each one: do you always get compliments when you wear it? Does it make you feel especially confident? Or is it a great anchor around which to build a look, like a navy polo neck knit? “When I say sublime, it means you have a certain presence,” Bruno concludes.

2. Great trousers are the foundation of all good outfits

You’re probably more likely to see an impeccably dressed Parisian wearing a look built around a great pair of trousers than anything else. “I think it’s very important that you have a base of good trousers or jeans,” Bruno says. “You can wear them with a shirt, a sweater, a jacket or with a coat, whatever… This is a je ne sais quoi outfit so it’s very important that you find those well-cut styles.”

vanessa bruno
'This is a je ne sais quoi outfit so it’s very important that you find those well-cut styles,' advises Bruno - Vanessa Bruno

3. Wear these unexpected colours in winter

The best known French women are synonymous with black or, at a stretch, neutral shades but Bruno insists it doesn’t always have to be “navy blah blah blah”.

vanessa bruno
Bruno: 'I really wanted to stand up for a very beautiful and light colour palette in my new collection' - Vanessa Bruno

“I really wanted to stand up for a very beautiful and light colour palette in my new collection,” she explains. “I love this cosiness but doing it with a very light colour, like white or baby blue, is really nice because it lightens your skin and the energy around you.” On that note, she advocates trying white jeans instead of dark blues in the depths of the dark and cold months.

4. Bags should be practical above all else

Bags are a cornerstone of Bruno’s label and her attitude here has the same practicality-first sensibility, which somehow ends up looking fabulously nonchalant too. “I never thought about bags just for their aesthetic aspects,” she confirms. “I’m always judging, why should I have this? Is it useful? How do I wear it? How does this stand when I put it on the table?”

Bags are a cornerstone of Bruno’s label
Bags are a cornerstone of Bruno’s label - Vanessa Bruno

5. The effortless way to look chic during party season

If you’re feeling flustered about styling out the festive season, Bruno’s solution is pleasingly simple; “I try to have a beautiful, colourful dress, maybe in fuschia or blue. It’s just calm and you arrive with one colour, one message – basta! (she slaps down her hand to add emphasis to her point, here). And I will put on beautiful jewellery.”

6. Keep make-up to a minimum, but cheat on hair colour

Even when she’s out for the evening, Bruno, a former model, keeps make-up to an absolute minimum. Semaphoring nonchalance is far more important than reaching for perfection or meeting unrealistic and very un-French beauty standards.

Maintaining a flattering hair colour is a priority for looking polished, though. “Now I cheat a little bit, a little bit of colouring because I would say I’m more grey than blonde,” she notes. “I always followed the advice to keep the hair colour you had before puberty, that’s the best colour for you and if you look at the skin, its colour doesn’t really change.”

7. Be more British

Bruno has a fondness for British style which she’s formed from regular trips to London for vintage shopping. “I do think English women have a certain sophistication that French women don’t have,’ she confesses (I can’t be the only one who feels a little bit proud about this).

“I’ve seen so many great women wear my stuff and the way they mix it always makes me think, ‘Wow, I love it’.” She’s been scouring Portobello since she was 16 and the influences are evident in the designs of her tweedy, mannish jackets and louche blouses.

Vanessa Bruno
'I do think English women have a certain sophistication that French women don’t have,’ says Bruno - Vanessa Bruno

8. The ageless blouse will suit anyone

“The shirt is very important, I love shirts,” Bruno enthuses. “Silky shirts are a beautiful cut, a bit more sensual and shows a little bit more of your body.” But her passion really lies with what she calls a 19th-century blouse – the relaxed, boho designs which epitomise laid-back glamour.

Vanessa Bruno Bijou blouse
Bijou blouse, Vanessa Bruno - Vanessa Bruno

“Those blouses are loved by my clients of all ages, you will have everyone from the 20-year-old to the 60-year-old who will keep buying the shirts. It’s not a trend anymore, they just buy it because it’s beautiful, it’s feminine and it’s cool.” You don’t get more Parisian than that.

French style muses

Jane Birkin
Jane Birkin - Getty
Catherine Deneuve
Catherine Deneuve - Getty
Ines de la Fressange
Ines de la Fressange - Getty
Carine Roitfeld
Carine Roitfeld - Getty
Isabelle Huppert
Isabelle Huppert - Getty
Vanessa Paradis
Vanessa Paradis - Getty
Emmanuelle Alt
Emmanuelle Alt - Getty

Five French buys to try now

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Cardigan, £175, AgnesB.co.uk; Red skirt, £299, uk.claudiepierlot.com; Leather mules, £265, uk.rouje.com

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Striped shirt, £120, Balzac-Paris.com; Tweed bag, £185.40, uk.sandro-paris.com