With the French economy still limping along, it isn't the best of times for the fashionable men and women of Paris. But even with the prices of good quality clothes so high, the chic French stay chic, because they know exactly where to shop for designer clothes at bargain prices.
At lunch time, for example, scores of French women make a beeline for discount clothing stores such as C. Mendes at 65 Rue Montmartre, a short walk from Les Halles. In C. Mendes, all the clothes, from sportswear on the first floor to silks and satins on the second floor, have Yves Saint Laurent's label -- and a few pieces by other designers, such as Emanuel Ungaro, occasionally -- but never the usual price tags. C. Mendes sells Saint Laurent at discounts of up to 50 percent and more.
Canny French shoppers know where to find similar degriffe, or designer discount stores, all around Paris. A couple are tucked away in nontouristy neighborhoods, but most are right on the beaten paths, selling the best labels of French couture. The degriffe stores are the well-dressed Parisians' secret weapon against inflation.
Designer clothes quickly go out of date. What was recently le dernier cri quickly becomes last season's mode or color. Those clothes, often so classical that they'll always be stylish, are sent to the discount stores and sold at slashed prices. So last year you could find for only $125 a velvet Saint Laurent jacket that originally cost $250, and this summer you could find an equally eye-catching cotton and rayon jacket by Saint Laurent that looked like silk ribbon for $230.
In one year, prices have gone up from 15 percent to 50 percent, and the designer stores sell for up to 50 percent less than regular boutiques. Some stores have super-bargain bins: Cacharel does, for example, at 114 Rue d'Ale'sia. And at C. Mendes last year, you could put your hand into a bargain basket and pull out a superbly stitched, crepe triangle scarf with the Saint Laurent label for about $3.55. This year the same basket yielded cotton knit dresses, slacks and T-shirts by another designer for $12 to $22. And Dorothee Bis' bins had shorts, T-shirts, colorful swatches of material good for curtains and culottes for $6 to $12.
Here are some of the best degriffe stores in the French capital. All of these stores are open at lunch time, except Les Maxipuces. Cacharel. Rue d'Ale'sia has two high-quality sale and designer discount clothing stores. Get off the Metro at d'Ale'sia station and walk along that street until you see Dorothee Bis. A few steps further, you'll find Cacharel at No. 114.
Cacharel sells its own line of men's, women's and children's clothing for 30 to 40 percent less than other stores. Compare sale-priced $2.75 to $12 Cacharel belts with the cruder ones sold for $4 by street vendors. For children up to age 16, Cacharel can provide an entire wardrobe. (Since children's clothes in Paris cost as much as adult's, the discount stores for children are especially impor- tant.)
For women, fine cotton sweaters sold from $14 to $18, and the bargain bins held Cacharel bathing suits for $8, down from about $13. Wool tweed women's jackets cost $75.80, suits were $110 to $114, cotton ensembles $74 and pants suits in tweeds and plaids $116 to $122. Women's sizes range from about 8 to 14, with a good selection in each size.
The men's department had lambs' wool Cacharel sweater vests for $11, silk ties for $15 and sweaters for about $20.
Cacharel is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Visa credit cards and French francs are accepted.
Dorothee Bis, at No. 74, is the other jewel of the Rue d'Ale'sia, selling primarily this designer's clothes at a 50 percent discount. This summer at the entrance there was a bin of multicolor cotton and linen culottes for $6 each. Deeper inside the store were long, fashionable raincoats for $93.50, and very long wool coats for $210 to $400 as a preview of the fall season. Slacks fashionably baggy and pleated at the waist cost $47, and wool suits $165.
Dorothee Bis is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10:15 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Visa credit cards and French francs.
C. Mendes. The name and address of the store are written in very small letters on a big brown glass storefront, so it's difficult to see the words at first glance. Keep watching for the brown glass front, on the left-hand side of the street as you walk away from Les Halles.
This summer the store was selling $30-$40 designer T-shirts in big bins on the ground floor. Upstairs, generally reserved for the dressy clothes or items normally found in Saint Laurent's Rive Gauche shops in the current season, there were three-quarter-length wool coats for $236 and severely tailored suits for $350 to $400.
There's always a good selection of silk dresses -- this year ranging in price from $280 to $430. For $30, you could buy good leather belts.
Silk, cotton and crepe blouses ranged from $100 to $220, and bright cotton short-sleeve shirt jackets for about $50.
There are no dressing rooms in this store, only a couple of mirrors in full view of everyone.
Mendes downstairs is open Monday-Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 4:30. Upstairs also opens at 9:30 every day, but closes at 6:30 Monday-Thursday, at 5:30 on Friday and at 4:30 on Saturday. Major credit cards.
Venezia. A little shop at 12 Rue de Buci, near Metro stop Ode'on, between Metro stops St. Michel and St. Germain-des-Pre's, has LaCoste shirts and T-shirts for about $3 less than other stores. And Lee, Lois and Levi jeans sell for about $30 to $33 -- less than in other stores. Venezia carries Brittany fishermen's sweaters of durable wool with modified turtlenecks for $23; they are guaranteed to last 10 years.
Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Visa or French francs.
La Solderie. For current styles and clothes from France and Italy, go to La Solderie, 85 Rue de la Boetie, owned by Nicole Guillou. She's a former model who speaks some English and sells famous designers' styles adapted by other stylists to sell at real bargain prices. Her selections are especially plentiful in American sizes 10 and 12 (38 and 40, French sizes).
This year's windows were decorated totally in beige: silk shirt dresses with big sleeves and long skirts for $103-$106, and beige trench coats and slickers for $122. Silk dresses were $75 and up, with labels removed.
Open Monday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Francs, credit cards or traveler's checks in dollars.
Les Trouvailles. If you get on a bus on Rue d'Ale'sia, outside Dorothee Bis or Cacharel, and ride for a while, the street name changes to Rue de Convention. Or simply take a Metro to station Javel. There, at 55 Rue de la Convention, you'll find Les Trouvailles, a small, spanking-clean, designer discount clothing store for women and children. Many fine items have had their labels removed.
Styles are primarily classical, in sizes 36 to 46 (8 to 18, American sizes), with few 46s. Suits begin at about $125 to $150. The management here also tells you that the pulls (sweaters), particularly popular in Paris, have had such labels as Ted Lapidus removed. Well-known designers labels begin at $25 to $50 for pulls. Sun dresses begin at $25 for adults. And children from infants through age 12 can be outfitted here at half the price of clothes in other stores.
Les Trouvailles is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and accepts francs only.
La Soldeterie. This store at 76 Rue de la Pompe is another long-established, excellent boutique for children up to age 15, with discounts from 20 to 40 percent. Labels are Albarine, New Man, Klimager and Wrangler. For children's clothes, discounted doesn't mean inexpensive -- simply less costly than in other stores for kids.
Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Francs only. Les Maxipuces. A variation on the theme is this secondhand designer discount clothing store at 18 Rue Cortambert, in the 16th arrondissement, near Metro stop Pompe. Tucked away on an obscure little street, well-known Maxipuces is in a residential neighborhood near Trocade'ro, so you can also reach it by going to Metro stop Trocade'ro. From Pompe, cross Avenue George Mandel, take the Rue Scheffer to the first street on your right, Cortambert. Or from Trocade'ro, walk down Avenue George Mandel, past a cemetery, and take the first street to the left. Walk one block to the corner, where the street name changes to Cortambert, and walk another half block.
In this boutique you find all the great labels: Ted Lapidus, Jean-Louis Scherrer, Guy Laroche, Louis Fe'raud, Christian Dior, and a lot of Saint Laurent. A Saint Laurent item, which usually sells new for $500, can be bought here for $150. Silk shirts cost $50 to $80, a fraction of their original costs. The items here are each one of a kind, especially good for American sizes 8-12. The former owners took very good care of the items -- suits, dresses, slacks, blouses, jackets, dresses, belts, bags.
The store is open for shoppers Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6:45 p.m., with a break for lunch from 1 to 2:30 p.m. If you wish to sell your designer clothes, get to the shop before 5:30.