Dreamy Poirets, the Nazi Chanel, and Other Tales of Paris


We spent last weekend in Paris. Two nights. Didn’t decide to go until Wednesday and left Friday. If you book the flight and the hotel together on, you can get a really cheap package deal up to the very last moment.

The reason we wanted to go to Paris so badly on this particular weekend—if we needed a reason—was because a rare cache of Paul Poiret clothes from the early years of the 20th century had just come up for auction. Every high-end vintage dealer, every fashion historian, every costume museum maven was going to be in town to view these mystical, haunting Poirets, and we wanted to be there too. The clothes were on display in Azzadine Alaia’s apartment for a few days before they moved to Drouot, the French national auction house, but since we don’t know Azzy (though we’ve read that his dinner parties are divine) we planned to go to the public exhibition with the other Looky-Lous.

We didn’t intend to bid. Even the soutien gorge (a flimsy cotton bra with a couple of embroidered rosebuds) was rumored to be going for hundreds of euros. We just wanted to see these rare treasures (and since we were in town, maybe do a little shopping . . .).

In fact, we’ve never been too keen on actual auctions, even ones where you don’t have to deal with a foreign currency. Back in the day, we used to occasionally bid on antique clothes at Christie’s or Doyle. We would wimp out when the things we actually wanted went a little bit higher than we intended, and then we would compensate by waving our paddle madly a few minutes later, ending up with something we didn’t want very much in the first place. And, oh, then there was that 10 percent buyers premium, and the sales tax, and the fact that we planned to wear the stuff but hadn’t been able to try it on.

But at least we got to bid in dollars. Imagine doing this in euros, going up against museum curators and other deep-pocketed fashionistas. If that wasn’t enough to scare us off, there is something in French law called the “pre-empt,” short for “faculty of preemption.” A dealer friend I ran into at the viewing (I’m telling you, everyone was in Paris for this thing) explained darkly that if by some miracle a little item—say the soutien gorge—slipped through the cracks and went for a reasonable amount of money, the French government has six months to buy it right out from under you and keep it in the country. Forever.

The morning of the auction the gallery was packed. I broke down and bought the catalog (70 euros)—a massive, exquisitely illustrated tome—and joined the throngs staring at bat-wing–sleeved opera coats, lavishly embroidered tea gowns, embossed velvet capes, and turbans still sporting feathers that looked like they’d come straight from one of Poiret’s famous Arabian nights parties. These were the very clothes that Coco Chanel, the creator of the austere little black dress, was so dismissive of. A famous story, perhaps apocryphal, has Chanel, always anorectically thin and dressed in tiny, dark ensembles, encountering the portly Poiret on the street in Paris. He takes one look at her ensemble and sneers “Who are you in mourning for, madame?” Without missing a beat she sweeps away a hundred years’ worth of frills when she replies, “For you, monsieur.”

Actually, we’ve thinking about Coco a lot lately. Not just because she is the subject of a militantly ahistorical exhibition at the Met’s Costume Institute, though the Met is hardly alone in ignoring Madame’s Nazi past. For the record: During the war, Chanel lived with a German officer in a suite at the Ritz. When the war was over, Churchill, an old pal, was rumored to have intervened with De Gaulle to save her head from being shaved and allow her to go into exile in Switzerland. Practically every major fashion magazine has done a piece on Chanel in the last few months, what with the Met exhibit and all, and hardly any of them mention what she was doing with herself between 1939 and 1954, when she crawled back into Paris and started staging fashion shows again. Guess no one wants to risk losing those Chanel ads.

Last weekend was also the 60th anniversary of V-E day, and the television in my hotel room was full of images of the city being liberated, the American tanks being greeted with cheers and tears as they barreled down the Champs Elysee. If you have ever thought for one minute that style has anything to do with money, ask yourself how it was that the Parisian women who flocked to greet those tanks, after years of being reduced to cardboard hats and cork shoes, could look so gorgeous as they leaned up to kiss a GI.