My roadmap out of lockdown includes a wardrobe rethink and all routes lead to Paris. That’s right, I’m saying adieu to bland athleisure and plus jamais to baggy joggers because I’m sick of looking like I’ve just rolled out of bed – and I don’t mean in the manner of a New Wave sex kitten à la Jean Seberg or Anna Karina.
I mean Waynetta Slob style, with matted hair and mismatched socks. Lack of sleep and early-morning rises ready for home-schooling didn’t exactly inspire chic dressing, but one silver lining came courtesy of Call My Agent, the brilliant French Netflix comedy about a top talent agency in Paris. Having recently binge-watched all four series, I’ve decided that I need to inject my closet with some joie de vivre, items that exude a more polished Left Bank style.
For those who haven’t seen the show, it features of cavalcade of celebrity cameos, including appearances from Cécile de France, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Isabelle Huppert – actresses whose off-duty look epitomises that perfectly undone/impossibly chic cross-channel charm.
Arguably, it’s one of the programme’s lead characters, ballsy agent Andréa Martel (played by Camille Cottin), who carries off this sartorial nonchalance with the sharpest expertise. She has that ineffable French “thing” – a casualness that maintains a certain hauteur at all times; a sophistication that embraces imperfection with an elegant air kiss.
“Please don’t say it’s down to that je ne sais quoi,” implores Vanda Heng-Vong, who along with her sister Val, founded Aimé, a landmark boutique in London’s Notting Hill that has been a purveyor of fashion à la française since 1999. In fact, the French-Cambodian sisters were the first UK retailers to introduce cult label Isabel Marant to our shores, a brand they still carry today, along with Officine Générale, which started life in trendy Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Forbidden from using the usual throwaway Gallicism, I ask my friends to describe the look I’m after. “It seems effortless, but actually French style is simple but considered,” explains Val, who is wearing vintage blue Levi’s with a perfectly tucked-in blue striped shirt accented by a pretty ruffled collar – a springtime release from the sisters’ new own-branded Aimé label.
“For us, great style is about elevated design and careful attention to detail. Quality of craftsmanship is paramount, but so is the way you roll up your sleeves, what socks you choose to wear, what nail polish… it’s about how everything fits together,” says Vanda, who has accessorised her own Aimé look – a long toffee-coloured wool skirt and a soft cream ribbed jumper – with an Hermès scarf neatly twisted round her neck and a pair of red chequered Vans.
“Really, the way we approach style is less about building a look, but a form of careful elimination. We avoid anything that is overworked, too fussy or loud that may upset the balance,” she adds.
We discuss our favourite French style icons of all time, among them Anouk Aimée, Françoise Hardy, Catherine Deneuve, Inès de la Fressange, Caroline de Maigret and Lou Doillon, although the conversation keeps circling back to the latter’s mother, the British actress, singer and perennial fashion muse Jane Birkin, whose louche dress sense has been a reference for generations of fashion lovers since the 1960s.
At the age of 74, Birkin’s still got it, too: this February, the honorary Frenchwoman accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Victoires de la Musique ceremony in the French capital, wearing a simple black velvet trouser suit with an unbuttoned cream silk shirt and pristine white plimsolls. With signature tousled hair, she looked effortlessly cool. Indeed, it’s this timeless, cross-generational, androgynous look mixed with a hint of gamine seduction (yes, application even to septuagenarians) that encapsulates quintessential Parisian chic.
Former model, Chanel muse and all-round symbol of cool Parisian style Inès de la Fressange tells me she found her fashion groove at a young age, inspired by her own Franco-English connection: “As a child, I attended a boy’s boarding school in Folkestone, because my parents wanted me to learn English. I was the only girl there. This is maybe why I have embraced masculine style so much. I love tweeds, Shetland knits, rain macs, Savile Row tailoring and all the looks I used to see on Carnaby Street in the 1960s. So you see, Parisian style is Jane Birkin, but it is also influenced by Kent, castles and hippies.” And according to her, there are certain rules that make life a little easier for dilettantes like me. “Choose only quality items; mix new with vintage; never wear more than three colours at once; don’t overdo the accessories; and, finally, don’t fixate on looking sexy. Sensual is best,” advises the eternally chic 63-year-old. In the latest campaign for her long-running Uniqlo collection she wears a cream-coloured rain mac – the one button fastened at the waist where the belt is tied in a perfect loop. You see, I’m beginning to notice that stylish tinkering.
If there is a magic formula you could say that it’s been youthfully refreshed by 26-year-old Paris It girl Jeanne Damas, an actress and multi-hyphenate who is often compared to a young Jane Birkin. Such is Damas’s popularity – 1.4 million followers on Instagram and counting – that she has built a business around her “look ultra stylée” as the French press have called it, with her clothing line Rouje, described as “a breezy Parisian attitude” replete with dainty floral dresses, ribbon-tie blouses and waist-skimming cardigans. Damas’s aesthetic is too coquettish for me – at the age of 44, I’m not sure I should be “breezily” skipping around like some sort of French soubrette, although I have been known to do so if I’ve been at the merlot. What I’m after is grown-up elegance with a frisson of mischief as intimated by de la Fressange.
It’s not just about clothes, of course. French women are known for their barely there make-up and luminous skin. As Jean Cocteau wisely said, “Style is a simple way of saying complicated things”, so maybe the solution is to keep the ingredients as pure as possible.
It’s a sentiment echoed by the impeccably well-groomed Victoire de Taillac who, along with her husband Ramdane Touhami, owns luxury French beauty brand Officine Universelle Buly. “Like fashion, I think French beauty is all about not trying too hard,” she says. “That’s why make-up is always minimal – it’s about picking what best enhances your style and personality. For example, for Andréa in Call My Agent, it’s about her hair, while her [on-screen colleague] Arlette is a lipstick lady. In the end, a good skincare routine is far more popular than any kind of camouflage.”
I’m not sure if I’m ready to bin my bulging make-up bag quite yet – I still need the warpaint to lift my sun-deprived complexion. I also know that so-called French style isn’t just about zhooshing up an outfit with the flip of a cuff or the tuck of a chemise, it’s down to attitude and flair that’s perhaps impossible to fudge. But quel dommage if I don’t at least explore new territories.
So far, I’ve invested in some classic French staples by Aimé (Val’s frilled shirt) and Loulou Studio, great for loose tailoring like Andréa Martel’s work uniform. I’ve also discovered Bourrienne, a new label based in the 10th arrondissement of Paris aimed at discerning shirt lovers: there are 21 styles, all white. There’s a little je ne sais quoi (oops) in every design, apparently inspired by Les Incroyables et Les Merveilleuses, a rebellious youth group that expressed protest through flamboyant dress during the French Revolution – really, you can’t say vive la France better than that.