…you know how to work the ventes privées

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.

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If there’s a queue it must be good

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.

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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.

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Non, red sticker does NOT mean -50%; au contraire it means “Hells not soldé!”

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:

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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.

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Feelin’ like VIPs doing the VPs

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.

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VP jungle in full swing 

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.

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#piratefauxpas

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!

…#pfw affects your daily life

A few years ago I’m pretty sure I didn’t know that “pfw” stood for Paris Fashion Week.  I had plenty of acronyms in my life but “pfw” (or indeed “fw” of any kind) just wasn’t one of them.

When you live in Paris for a while, this starts to change and you don’t really have any choice in the matter.  Apparently the official “pfw” (Women’s Ready-to-Wear) takes place twice a year: once in February/March for the autumn/winter (A/W) collections and once in September/October for the spring/summer (S/S) collections.  But then there’s men’s fashion week, haute couture fashion week and, as far as I can tell, a ton of other “fw”s in between.

All I know is that a fashion week of some kind or another seems to roll around surprisingly often and I usually don’t have any idea it has arrived until I start to notice the telltale signs.

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This #ootd can only mean one thing: #pfw is here

At the outset I’d like to clarify that I do not claim to be a fashionista by any stretch.  Quite the contrary: I’m more into the practical and the comfortable than the aesthetics (or “ze look“), which is entirely un-Parisian of me.  For example, when it comes to footwear I have no shame shopping at Mephisto (hello Hush Puppies and Naturalizers), I wear compression stockings when I fly long distances and you’re more likely to find me discussing the virtues of comfortable shoes with ladies twice my age than shopping for Louboutins.

Another case in point: I recently bought a dress after trying it out in the store, showing it to the (clearly disinterested) shop assistant and thinking I looked just great in it.  But when I got it home and saw it on the website I realized that I’d tried it on backwards in the store (à la Sisters).

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The only difference was that I actually bought the outfit #fashionfail (Photo Credit: Universal Pictures)

So all of that to say I do not consider myself to have any particular sartorial prowess.   Also, I certainly don’t claim to know the ins and outs of the fashion industry (so my apologies in advance for any errors in this post).

But that does not mean I can’t spot the arrival of the pfw crowd a mile away.

First, you start to notice a sprinkling of tall, pale, Bambi-like girls in the metro or wandering the streets looking lost, presumably on their way to their next “go-see” (yes, I learnt this lingo from many well-spent years watching America’s Next Top Model – thank you mum and dad for the Foxtel subscription).  I was surprised to learn at a dinner party recently that these go-sees (or “castings” as they seem to be called outside Tyra Banks’s kingdom) only take place a day or two before the show.  The designer I spoke to told me that for her show they cast the models on the Monday for a show on the Wednesday.  Why?  Because before that the models are in Milan, before that London, before that New York, and so the merry-go-round of fashion weeks continues.

Next, you see the fashion “people” jaunting about town – the ones who are clearly not models but are part of the weird and wonderful fashion world (buyers, designers, publicists, etc.).  They can often be observed flouncing around in the fancier arrondisements for fashion shows (popular locations include the Jardin des Tuilieries, the Louvre, Place Vendôme, Palais Royale and the Grand Palais), always with smart phone in hand, frequently in sunglasses and usually in black (but with some exceptions – cf. Spongebob Squarepants, above).

 

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Fashion people gotta eat

They can also be spotted in the marais or Canal Saint Martin area for “showrooms”.  From what I gather from discussing this with the same designer, “showrooming” involves renting a space, displaying the collection and arranging times for buyers to come by and pick pieces that they like (and then negotiating about cost, orders, mark-ups, mark-downs, etc.).  I was told it was actually a very un-glamorous exercise but, although I wanted to believe her, it still sounded glamorous compared to my day job.

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We be showroomin’

Observing these trendy types generally, it seems that it is still unfashionable to actually put your arms through the sleeves of your coat (even in winter).  Instead your coat should be draped over your shoulders so that it flaps like a cape (see below).  I find this puzzling: do they not get cold?  Does the coat not fly off in strong wind?

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Using arm holes is sah 2010 

Also we can note from the above that this year cropped pants seem to be all the rage with the fashion set (and the hipster set for that matter), but importantly with NO socks, or, if deemed absolutely necessary, VERY short socks ONLY.  Again, this rule applies even in winter.  I also find puzzling: do they not get cold ankles?

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Once you start noticing these fashion folk swanking about town, you brace yourself for all the things that inevitably come along with them.

First, the traffic gets worse.  Uber goes into surge pricing, even at usually non-peak hours like 9.30am on a Wednesday (a perfectly reasonable time to head to the office, or so I like to think).

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Uber uncool 

Second, your regular running route through the Tuilieries/Louvre/Palais Royale is blocked because there is a fashion parade (défilé) on there.

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When your running track turns into a runway

Third, your usual haunts (or at least the cool places you like to try to go to from time to time to feel cool) are suddenly full of fabulous fashion folk.  Good luck getting a table at colette water bar during pfw, which is jam-packed with “ze people” sampling the 60+ types of mineral water on offer even at the best of times.

Colette water bar
Fashion people gotta drink artesian water

Likewise, be prepared to wait extra long for your maki roll at Bob’s Juice Bar due to the influx of pfw’ers getting their acai bowl hit.  And don’t even think about trying to get into the members-only and already über-difficult to get into Silencio on a Saturday night during pfw  (see below).

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Silenci-no gonna happen tonight. (Note also the lack of arm-hole use in the beige coat in the foreground)

Having said all of that, it’s also kind of awesome when the pfw circus rolls into town.  It’s fun to see the crazy outfits go by in the street and to do the odd bit of celebrity spotting.  It’s also cool to see how the big fashion houses dress up some of the monuments you’re used to seeing every day (my favourite being when Dior built a mound of bluebells in the Louvre courtyard last year).  So all in all, pfw aint that bad.  I’ve just got to work out how to wear my coat on my shoulders without it falling off.

*Credit for this blog idea to my friend Chris who is regularly inconvenienced by pfw but is not displeased by the presence of the Bambi-like models