Most non-Parisians know about the soldes (sales) in Paris. What they don’t know about, at least when they first arrive, is the ventes privées (private sales).
I know that when I first arrived in Paris, I would often see queues of well-dressed women lining up outside random, non-marked doors in the marais and be intrigued. Being naturally nosycurious, I once sidled up and asked someone what was going on. Was there a celebrity inside? “Non, c’est une vente privée.” “Ah oui”, I feigned comprehension. And how does one access these private sales? “Il faut avoir une invitation” (you need an invitation). Of course. Just when I thought I was getting the trick of the soldes, the French had to go and add another echelon of exclusivity on top. As I watched the women emerge from the sale with non-branded white shopping bags, no doubt full of tastefully selected bargains, I knew I had to get in – and I had to get in fast.
First, a bit about the regular soldes. These can only take place twice a year, as regulated by law. Let there be no doubt, the French take their shopping seriously. The Code de Commerce provides that soldes can only occur during two six-week periods each year, the dates of which are fixed by décret (decree). In practice, the winter sales (les soldes d’hiver) take place from early January until mid-February and the summer sales (les soldes d’été) take place from mid-June until early August.
There’s a bit to know about the soldes. First, you need to know that there are several waves of mark-downs (démarques). When the sales first start you have the première démarque, which is the initial mark-down. Then, you have the deuxième démarque, when the clothes that were originally only marked down 20% might fall to 30% or even 50% off. Then, in the final days of the soldes, you have the troisème (or often dernière) démarque, when you get the real bargains and prices can drop as low as 60%-70% off.
Working the démarques is a bit like gambling. Often, I’ll eye a piece that I like from one of my favourite (but ridiculously over-priced) brands in the nouvelle collection when it comes out. Then, I’ll bide my time until the soldes. In the first démarque it might drop by only 20%. The question then becomes whether you snap it up or hold out for the next démarque (and thus take the risk that it might sell out in your size in the interim). Sometimes, I’ll just casually ask when the next démarque is happening and whether the piece will be further discounted.
If you get an honest shop assistant they’ll tell you “Ça commence lundi et ce sera à -50%” (“It starts on Monday and that will be -50%”). Other times, you’ll get the shop assistant who will pretend not to know, or who will immediately say that it’s the last one in that size so you’d better buy it, etc. (An insider tip I learnt recently to deal with this dilemma: at some shops such as maje, they write the number of pieces left in that size on the tag of the item in pencil. Gone are the days of the faux-threat of the “last one left”, only to find that they magically roll out more in the next démarque!).
For enterprising commerçants, there are a few loopholes in the strictly regulated soldes system. For example, shop owners are permitted to have exceptional, off-season soldes if they are suspending their operations temporarily, for example for renovations (“Liquidation avant travaux”). However, they do need to make a declaration to the Mayor’s office of their intention to do so. Like I said, shopping (or rather, discounting) is serious business in France.
Another loophole of sorts is the pre-soldes that some boutiques hold in-store in the lead-up to the soldes. If ever you go into a store and see little round coloured stickers on the tags of the clothing, that means there is a secret pre-solde happening. Like some kind of unspoken code, the different coloured stickers represent different levels of mark-down. For example, gold may mean -20%, silver -30%, etc. However, a red sticker – bizarrely, in my mind – almost always means no mark-down.
This leads us to the world of vente privées (or VPs). VPs are traditionally the private sales that brands put on for their regular customers. Although some of the more prestigious brands still put on their own private sales, many brands now use a service-provider to put on VPs. Basically, the brands give their surplus stock to the service-provider who organizes VPs in spaces around Paris. Any stock that does not sell in the 2-3 days that the sale lasts is returned to the brand. A few years ago it was Adèle Sand or Catherine Max that provided these services. These have now been re-grouped under the umbrella of Arlettie, which puts on a VP in Paris for a different brand every week of the year (except for August, when even the bargain-hunters go on holidays).
Once signed up to Arlettie’s über-exclusive database, you will then receive emails like this:
All you have to do is present yourself at the designated time and place (Arlettie has two spaces in Paris, one in the marais near Bastille and the other at Trocadéro) with your invite and your ID. But then of course there is the mandatory queue out the front, complete with security guards, before finally you gain access.
Once inside, working these vente privées is a veritable skill in itself.
I learnt everything that I know about VPs from my beloved friend Cléa. A true Parisienne, Cléa knows exactly how to work the VPs like no other. I remember going to the Tara Jarmon VP with her (one of my first VPs) a few years ago. It was in a two-level atelier in the marais. Cléa and I did a lap of the ground floor and then made our way up to second floor, which was effectively just an amphitheater-style balcony that looked down on the ground floor. Cléa looked over the balcony at the shoppers below. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m watching”, she said, “to see what people are buying.” Once she saw which pieces were moving, she swooped.
Cléa has the golden touch of VPs. We can walk around for 20 minutes and I will see nothing. I will give up. Suddenly, out of nowhere Cléa will pluck the amazing piece that nobody has seen yet from a pile of sad-looking items (at the Sequoia sale a few years ago it was an amazing blue leather tote). Within minutes, other shoppers will ask in what part of the room she found it, whether there were others, etc. As Cléa taught me, that’s when you know you’re onto a winner and you don’t let it go.
A contrario, if you see another shopper with a piece you want in her hand, you NEVER ask her where she found it or if there are any left. This will only convince her that it’s a winner. Instead, you should follow her at a distance and pray that she puts it down. When she does, you strike.
Despite learning these tricks from the very best, I have so far only ended up with a series of duds from my dabblings in the private sales. Lowlights include a yellow polka dot skirt that I have never worn and a maje dress with unfortunately placed frills on the sleeves. The cruelty of the maje VP is that you are not allowed to try the clothes on (and of course there is a no returns policy across VPs generally). Thus, I didn’t realize the frills would make me look like an extra from the Pirates of Penzance until I got home and tried it on.
Luckily at most VPs you can try the clothes on, but on the flip side there are no change rooms. So you see women huddled in any free space they can find in all stages of undress (while other, more modest types try tops on over dresses, pants under skirts, etc.) and then jostling for the limited mirror space that is available. Pas très élégant, but it gets the job done.
Needless to say, just as I had finally figured out the tricks of the ventes privées I learnt about another, even more exclusive echelon of sales – the ventes presse (press sales). These are supposedly reserved for journalists and other fashion types and allow even earlier access to the sale items. This is my next challenge – I just need to convince someone to give me a press badge!