Last Thursday morning, before it was even light, I was on the Uniqlo website trying to shop the capsule collection by ex-French Vogue editor and all-round front-row institution Carine Roitfeld. Roitfeld, the somewhat unlikely industry pinup who resembles the lovechild of Coco Chanel and Iggy Pop, has recreated her signature French-fashion-editor look (pencil skirts, slim waist-hugging blazers, black sweaters, wide belts, leopardprint coats) at Uniqlo prices. When I flipped my laptop open, the collection had only been on sale a few hours, but already the faux-leather below-the-knee pencil skirt with the eyelet trim that I had been planning on buying was gone.
So I looked at the other pencil skirts, but they were all gone, too. As were the trousers, and most of the jackets. I bought a black sweater, and tried to console myself with that Yves Saint Laurent quote about how all a woman needs is a black sweater and a straight black skirt, although I couldn’t help feeling he meant theCarine fake-leather-eyelet skirt and not any of the four straight black skirts already in my wardrobe. I want to dress French: sadly, for my Uniqlo ambitions, I am not alone.
The Parisian look as the high-watermark of chic is the enduring style cliche of our time. The fashion system chews up and spits out trends on an almost hourly basis – buy a sleeveless coat! And a knitted dress! Now, over-the-knee boots! – while the Parisian look never changes and yet can never be trumped. Nowhere is this more evident than atParis fashion week. Showgoers who have bankrupted themselves for a new Louis Vuitton it-bag and starved themselves into a this-season Balmain skirt arrive at the Tuileries catwalk venue half-crazed with a lethal cocktail of hunger pangs and buyer’s remorse, only to be trampled underfoot by streetstyle photographers chasing some new gap-toothed Paris Vogue fashion assistant in skinny jeans and boring diamond stud earrings and a tissue-thin white T-shirt and well-loved Isabel Marant boots and a blazer that looks like Saint Laurent but could be Zara. It is brutal to watch. In the high-stakes game of fashion, Frenchness is the trump card.
It’s a confection, of course: Frenchness is just clickbait. The fashion industry insider, photographer and blogger Garance Doré, who has just published her first book, says that everyone in her adopted New York assumed she would cash in on the how-to-look-Parisian thing, even though she’s actually from Corsica, which as French people know is barely even French. On the approximately 235 times I have interviewed a French actress/model/singer and asked for her “secret”, she has given me a totally anodyne quote about how to dress. Stick to black and neutrals, wear the shapes that flatter your best bits, invest in a nice coat.
Actual real-life French people are completely bemused by the concept of High Frenchness as portrayed in listicles entitled 28 Shoes French Women Would Never Wear. To be fair to the French, they don’t write these; we do. They are pulling the wool over our eyes, pretending to be guarding a great secret. Well, a few of them are, but those are mainly French journalists with lucrative gigs writing deliberately provocative listicles. The rest of them, when asked about their style, tend to shrug and say “don’t try too hard” or “keep it simple”.
The real allure of Frenchness is its simplicity. The American fashion writer Leandra Medine, aka Man Repeller, wrote recently about how “when our parents’ generation was expected to keep up with the Joneses, there was a very specific model they were looking toward”, and how by contrast the internet has given us a much more complicated, fragmented world in which we are bombarded with a kaleidoscope of aspirations.
The invented allure of Frenchness, simple and soothing as a nursery rhyme, is the antidote that we have developed to immunise ourselves against this assault. What French style represents is not pandering to what other people think you should wear, or do. (And the French, remember, do not have a monopoly on not-pandering. I give you Kate Moss, or the Dowager Duchess of Downton Abbey.) It represents taking fashion in all its “345 new season must-haves” battiness with a large pinch of salt, and buying skirts that make your arse look good instead. If only they weren’t sold out.