Deep in the shopper's brain, there's a hot wire linked to Paris. Food, wine, jewelry, clothes--even the most oblivious consumer knows that the best stuff comes from France. And whatever she may claim, every woman wants a frock from Paris. Some chic little rag about which she can say, "Oh, this? I picked it up in Paris."
I'm not accustomed to hoisting bags embossed with designers' names from Rue du Faubourg St. Honore or Avenue Montaigne. Usually, if you shop there, you don't need to ask the price. But the lure of a Parisian garment transcends the kind of bag it comes in. So I visited the stores that sell designer leftovers.
Though I'm no clotheshorse, I do appreciate a well-made garment that I can amortize over a decade. With my friend Rosemary, who lives in Paris, I surveyed discount outlets that specialize in clothes from the big-name houses. We found out that the sales staffs are friendlier than in the fancy stores, that you can angle for deeper markdowns and that, just like back home, you have to finger through a lot of fashion mistakes to find a flattering garment.
Anna Lowe (104 Rue du Faubourg St. Honore) had ads promising 30 to 50 percent off retail prices for the likes of Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Montana and other runway superpowers. We pawed through racks of coats, dresses and fancy evening gowns, suits for professional women and fashion mistakes that seemed to be inspired by the oldest profession. Many garments by a company called Rouge et Levres (Red and Lips) seemed to be aimed at twentysomethings who don't eat.
The salesclerks spoke a mixture of English and simple French, and I caught them more than once rolling their eyes at the tourists. In the front room, a young couple from Philadelphia were deciding which coat to buy--fur or leather. The woman complained about the size of her derriere while her male companion reassured her that she looked fine. Meanwhile, in the back room, a demanding American woman of a certain age prodded the salesclerk to pinch in a seam here, turn the hem up to there, and do it in 48 hours. Then the customer smothered the clerk in a goodbye hug and hiked her dusty sport shoe onto the coffee table to tie her laces. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia lovers bought two coats and a suit, racking up more than a grand on the Visa, but content with the further discount they'd negotiated for buying three high-ticket items.
The background drama here was the main event for us, though I did pick up a nifty little Yves Saint Laurent top that was cut T-shirt style but looked like much more. But the black velvet skirts were priced beyond reason. Even the discount shops have hefty markups--which is why you have to bargain.
Miss Griffes (19 Rue de Penthievre) wasn't ready for business the first time we visited, though it was long past the opening hour listed on a card in the window. When we returned, a smiling sales assistant led us upstairs to several rooms of clothing. Shoes, handbags, scarves, pullovers and hats spilled out of shelves or were stored in boxes along the floor. Items are 50 percent off. Figuring in the detaxe (a rebate provided by French customs if you spend more than 1200 francs--about $250--at one store) and with a little bargaining, significant savings are possible on clothes from big designers.
Some of the garments seemed a tad out of date, which might not be a liability given the extreme nature of high fashion: Out-of-date haute couture begins to look like something you'd actually wear. Rosemary almost put one dress on layaway, but decided to revisit the store and watch for July sales. January is the other month for big markdowns.
At the end of the day, we trekked back to the Rue du Faubourg St. Honore and priced velour separates at Sonia Rykiel. I bought two velour skirts and a tunic, which, after the tax rebate, cost about the same as a mass-produced ensemble from the Gap or Ann Taylor, but were miles ahead in quality and style. Sometimes the real bargains are at the designer's main store.
Don't buy just to have a designer label. Look for classic styling, quality fabrics and superior construction. Examine seams, linings, pockets and top-stitching. Keep in mind that shoulder pads, buttons and other decorative attachments can be removed or replaced.
Some of the clothes at the second-hand shops (depot-vente) may have been worn in fashion shows or photo shoots, so examine garments for cleanliness. Watch for stores marked "Stock" (factory outlets) and "Degriffes" (which offer marked-down designer clothes with the labels removed).
OTHER DISCOUNT DESIGNER SHOPS
* Alice Landais, 5 Rue du Faubourg St. Honore. Sells scarves, ties and other accessories.
* Boutique Stock, 91 Rue St. Dominique.
* L'Habilleur, 44 Rue de Poitou. Clothes worn in runway shows.
* Studio Lolita, 2 bis Rue des Rosiers. End-of-season dresses and sexy suits designed by Lolita Lempicka, sold at half price.
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