None of this weasel business seems to have affected the crowds at Louis Vuitton on Fifth Avenue in the least. Despite the ceaseless anti-French invective pouring forth from talk tv and the pages of the New York Post, Vuitton’s well-heeled clientele is lining up to order $1000 versions of the famous logo handbag, this season rendered in ivory with multicolored LVs. “No, we haven’t heard a word of anti-French anything,” says the wide-eyed woman behind the counter as customers clamor to get their hands on a look-book featuring pictures of LV’s newest designs—no samples available—then wave credit cards to pre-pay for purses they’ve never actually even seen.
If shoppers aren’t quite as avid at other French stores around town—after all, not everyone can have a hit like the white Vuitton—there doesn’t seem to be the merest soupçon of anti-Gallic sentiment dampening retail sales. An informal survey of Fifth Avenue department stores produced a chorus of nons, from the two bored guys behind a cosmetic counter laden with poudres and eaux de cologne to the saleswoman who volunteered her own enthusiasm for an upcoming trip to Paris.
On the other hand, one must always bear in mind the ferocious gag order that silences people who work in stores, a draconian, enforced sunniness that could be called the ecru wall of silence. If you listen to the people behind the counters, never is heard a discouraging word: Business is always great, this year’s stuff is always better than last year’s. Only once did we encounter a chip in this wall. Having been promised anonymity—”Don’t put my name or the store or anything!” the source begged—one employee was willing to whisper the following: A woman having her makeup done for free (well, it’s not really free, as you find out if you try to leave the store without buying any of the things they’ve put on your face) began to confide in the makeup artist, the session apparently providing the same tongue-loosening qualities as a visit to the hairdresser. “I just bought $5000 worth of Chanel clothes,” she said. “And I’m thinking of taking them all back!” Still, according to the source, “This was at the height of code orange, a few weeks ago. Nothing’s happened since.”
In fact, the enduring lure of French goods, coupled with the general peacenik atmosphere downtown, may account for the distinct enthusiasm noted by the salesman at Agnès B on Wooster Street. “People not wanting to buy French stuff?” he says, though by the look on his face it is not completely clear he knows why we are asking him about this in the first place. “No, it’s the opposite—I think everyone gets pretty excited when they find out we’re a French line.” Agnès B’s line is indeed ferociously Parisian, from the shop’s famous interpretation of that American classic, the sweatshirt—it’s slenderized, closes with 13 pearl snaps, comes in colors like tomato red, and is $108—to a short-sleeved, full-skirted summer dress for $230 that is worthy of Jean Seberg in Breathless. There’s even a garment willing to brazenly declare its provenance: Under a layer of ruffled tulle, a poufy black skirt is decorated with a large scrawled agnès b in white.
This same lack of shyness is in evidence at Kar’ikter on Prince Street, where a $21 beret by a guy named Ben Vautier is inscribed “tête de genie.” “Oh, yeah, Ben—he’s some French artist. We’re sold out of his T-shirt that says ‘I’m a work of art’ in French,” volunteers the saleswoman, who adds her voice to the chorus of no, there’s never been any Old Europe bashing in these parts. She warms to the task of recommending pro-French merchandise: blue-and-white enamel “défense de fumer” signs for $17.50; a gaggle of Babar items including coffee bowls, chess sets, and bookends; and even a Tintin wristwatch featuring that fellow dressed in a spacesuit. “Oh, but I think Tintin is from Belgium, actually,” the saleswoman muses. “I used to live in Belgium. Antwerp was great, but Brussels, it’s really one little square. You have a waffle and then it’s over. I think Unesco is there, though.”
The people at the corporate offices of French Connection are quick to point out that they are actually a British company, and that “no, we have not had a reaction to the name at all.” Well, sure, now that you mention it, the “UK” in their trademark, FCUK—an acronym amusing only to people under 12—stands for United Kingdom. It’s a shame the store sinks itself with this moronic moniker, because the merchandise is actually quite breezy. On a recent visit, a bright tangerine skirt ($128) emblazoned with glittery medallions showed an Indian influence in refreshing contrast to all the tired chinoiserie around; a fake Marc Jacobs jacket ($158) made of beige baby-wale corduroy had a Mao collar (not another political comment, we trust), and plenty of pockets and buttons, all blissfully devoid of the loathsome logo.
If there is any store that knows a thing or two about political repression, it’s the Librairie de France in Rockefeller Center, a historic bookshop and the center’s oldest retail tenant. During the Second World War, the Librairie was a home away from home for refugees from the pro-Nazi Vichy government, and the store even published exiles’ works under the imprint Éditions de la Maison Française. So it is with keen interest that we visit the shop, whose front windows brim with Larousse dictionaries and miniature Parisian street signs.
Unfortunately, the three people on staff conform to the very worst stereotypes, snarling and snapping at a meek reporter who asks them, in the nicest possible way, if they’ve had any negative experiences since the weasel business began. “We don’t have time to answer surveys, we have a business to run,” a young man barks. When asked if it would be OK to jot down, say, the price of an Eiffel Tower crystal clock or a tricolor key chain, his co-worker, a termagant who doesn’t look up from whatever she’s reading, growls, “You’re not allowed to write down any information from books!” Under these circumstances, it is hard to work up much appetite for the merchandise, which is a shame, since, along with an unparalleled book collection, there are items like French magnetic poetry kits ($24.95) and Petit Prince book bags ($69.95) you don’t see just anywhere. On the other hand, the shop does stock a tome that might come in handy if you’re in the mood to take on the sales help, and you could also use it if you find yourself at a street demonstration on the Champs Elysées and want to come up with a really creative anti-Bush sign: It’s by someone called Geneviève, and it’s called Merde: The Real French You Were Never Taught at School.