The most touristed city in the world, Paris’s great allure still lies in her quiet, undiscovered corners. A city for flâneurs, once off the beaten path the city’s secrets gradually unfold and her hidden streets are enjoyed one by one. Take the Rue Madame. Just off the shopping thoroughfare of rue Vieux Columbier – a continuation of boutique-jammed Rue Saint-Sulpice – and parallel to the Jardin du Luxembourg, this quiet, residential street isn’t what you’d call a ‘destination’.
However, that’s now changing, thanks to the arrival last May of the svelte French fashion label Maison Kitsuné. Not that the street was lacking in great shopping – nestled among its purveyors of antique clocks and expensive watches are a charming 19th-century bookstore, a couple of chic neighbourhood cafés, a pâtisserie and a florist shop whose blossoms spill out over the street. Rue Madame has also long been home to two other deeply Parisian fashion boutiques: Jamin Puech and APC.
Handbag designer Benoît Jamin’s popularity with Parisians, and stylish iconoclasts the world over, makes sense as his label, Jamin Puech, resists the whims and diktats of fashion while remaining totally fashionable.
The bags are so idiosyncratic and versatile that you can imagine one on the arm of ‘Earth goddess’ types in flowing layers just as easily as at the side of dedicated minimalists. These are accessories that, like works of art, make a statement.
Although the bags are handmade in small editions, mostly in France, designer Benoît Jamin goes where the artisans are: if he needs embroidery, beading or sequins he’ll head to India; if it’s straw he’s after, off to Madagascar. What never changes is the bags’ quality, imagination and lasting power. Each season, the label introduces a range of unique styles – like ‘Courchevel’, a sleek buckled bag in faux crocodile (€525); ‘Franconia’, a sequin-encrusted evening bag whose shoulder strap is dusted in 18-carat gold (€325), or ‘Rosalinda’, a perforated python tote sporting a grid work of leather flowers strewn with brass grommets (€1,225). Puech even riffs on the ‘Birkin’ bag, in the form of an elegantly buckled model in lustrous pricked marigold (olive, chestnut or ivory) leather.
A few perennial favourites return each season, like the classic patchwork-leather tote in updated hues and materials, and various colourfully crocheted models.
Of the label’s four Paris boutiques, Rue Madame, their second to be opened, is the largest and most handsome; its artsy, colour-coded displays are scattered over four rooms. Puech’s imaginative range of scarves – look for his take on the mink stole, the one in feathers festooned with a cat or fox face and a tail in leather – bangles and wallets, designed to complement the bags, can be found there, too.
Jamin Puech, 43 rue Madame, Paris 6th, Tel: +33 1 45 48 14 85
APC began its illustrious life on Rue Madame in 1987, and its two gleaming men’s and women’s flagship boutiques just opposite each other, perfectly reflect their clothes: meticulously designed, minimal and very hip. The brand started life as a backlash against the slouchy styles of the 1980s and never looked back.
Cut as fine as a knife blade, and almost as narrow. Their austere designs, many with vintage touches, sometimes veer dangerously close to geeky, but that’s actually a part of the appeal. That maddeningly simple yet impossible to achieve Parisian talent for transforming classic lines to reflect personal style is precisely what makes these clothes so appealing.
For instance, a simple shirt-dress isn’t on most women’s fashion radar. But offered in printed silk, with a matching belt, and dressed up with a bow at the neck, it’s a convincing wardrobe staple – a look that can be paired with platform sandals or high-heed wedge booties that’s as chic as it is flexible.
Most APC fans will say that it was the incredibly flattering jeans and silhouette-hugging pea coats which are now synonymous with the label that first won them over. And while APC really did make its name with understated basics, cut to fit like a sleeker second skin, it’s evolved to offer much more than that. You’ll still find the jeans and coats, alongside a wide range of basics categorised somewhere between ‘instant classic’ and ‘essential cool’. Merino or cashmere sweaters rely on cut, colour and concept for their appeal: a delicate boat neck allows a glimpse of shoulder during those cold months when we’re too swaddled to be sexy, and a chunky fisherman’s sweater has just the right heft, lightened with alpaca or glossy cashmere and offered in a heathered sky blue as comely as the sea. Paired with a pleated floral skirt, tapered trousers or matching hot pants, the look can be as individual as the woman.
Accessories are another big draw. Understated – and well-priced – leather bags, wallets and belts in beautiful muted colours; durable, lightweight travel satchels; stylish boots and shoes; luxurious scarves; and a jewellery line for men and women.
If criticism of the brand focuses on its limited audience – these narrow silhouettes aren’t flattering to everyone – the menswear may be even less forgiving. Nevertheless, if you’ve got the physique, the sheer elegance of the jackets, shirts and trousers is hard to beat. Sweaters, T-shirts and denim are more roomy – a casual look that anyone can achieve. The fact that these separates never go out of style is a big plus, both for men who shop and those who don’t.
Some purists reproach the label for the sin of capitalising on their hipster credentials, through collaborations with the likes of Kanye West. While chagrin at seeing a beloved ‘underground’ label sell out to the hype is understandable, it’s probably time to acknowledge that, at this point, APC is very much a part of the fashion mainstream.
APC, 35 (men) & 38 (women) rue Madame, Paris 6th, Tel: +33 1 42 22 12 77
If you’re not convinced by APC, head over to Maison Kitsuné a few steps down the street. It’s a newer French label – the two designers showed their first collection during 2005 – which seems to take up pretty much where APC leaves off, but with an added touch of whimsy. Kitsuné makes understatement seem like the limits of chic, valorizing basic styles – the sweatshirt, the Oxford, the cardigan – while amping them up with deep, resonating colours and unexpected fabrics and borders.
The bright new boutique resembles a mini version of a yacht’s prow (where the clothes would be very much at home). The shop breezily accommodates both the men’s and women’s lines, plus a corner for sportswear exclusive to the Rue Madame shop, and still seems airy and spacious. The lines are limited to two short racks each and the feeling conveyed is, ‘Trust us, this really is all you need’.
In our age of ‘fashion gone wild’, there’s something reassuring in limiting rather than multiplying choices. Maison Kitsuné wholeheartedly embraces the idea that less is more. Like a school uniform – which many of the clothes closely resemble – separates come with the implicit dare to be made your own. A wide-striped button down shirt worn under a cropped blazer or knee-grazing front-pleat skirt might be paired with a fastidiously cut pair of red paisley trousers, black-patent Oxfords, a grass-green cardigan and a nifty pony-fur bomber jacket. Admittedly, the uniform theme is limiting for a certain age group, but there are age-defying stand-alones, such as a beautiful muted, metallic-weave jacket that goes just as well with jeans as it does a black dress and stilettos.
Sportswear is the highpoint, and the best buy, here. The label’s surprisingly tasteful logo (Kitsuné means fox in Japanese) may appear or, in the case of this boutique, the word ‘Madame’ be emblazoned across a comely pale pink, powder blue or white sweatshirt, a T-shirt or a cotton tote.
Maison Kitsuné, 38 rue Madame, Paris 6th, Tel: +33 1 53 71 76 62
Mathilde Ma Muse
The newest boutique on the block, jewellery designer Mathilde Simon’s second boutique brings a frisson of high glamour to Rue Madame and serves as a nice ally for the colourful Jamin Puech.
Simon’s handsome black-and-gold shop is an excellent backdrop for her opulent jewels, which range from a single semi-precious stone on a cord bracelet (€20) or set in a ring, to a stunning necklace of black diamonds, pearls and matte black-lava beads fastened with a leather cord (€1,800).
There’s lots to tempt you in the middle range – wide cuff bracelets which have been cut-out of gold or wrapped in silk cord; dangling earrings of faceted, candy-collared semi-precious stones; and elegant, long-beaded sautoir necklaces that are begging to be worn with a silk shirt and jeans.
But Simon really hits her stride with her over-the-top necklaces, which look like something Liz Taylor might have worn to the Oscars. Two of my favourites are a stunner with three-rows of blue agate beads clustered around a gold-rope chain, and a sublime six-tiered necklace of graduated black-lava beads spaced with gold discs and fastened with a fuchsia-leather strap (€300).
All of the jewels are handmade in limited editions and can be customised according to your needs or desires. Best of all, most of the prices are within the reach of everyone.
Mathilde Ma Muse, 45 rue Madame, Paris 6th, Tel: +33 6 88 24 59 62
From France Today magazine