When I am in the City of Light, I rarely set foot in a gallery unless it has a gift shop. My favorite place to dine is the department-store café, with the frites stand at the flea market a close second. But recently it dawned on me that even a world-class compulsive shopper like myself has a tendency to visit the same markets, the same charming boutiques, the same venerable department stores. So on my latest trip I decided to consult three shopping gurus—two natives and one honorary citizen—about their favorite local haunts. Claudia Strasser, who runs a New York–based interiors business called the Paris Apartment and has been showing American clients around Parisian markets for decades, is charged with taking me fleaing; Juliette Gitel-Lassablière, a fashion forecaster and a tour guide for Context Travel, swears she can introduce me to surprising discount venues in lofty St.-Germain-des-Prés; and Rosemary Rodriguez, the creative director of Thierry Mugler, has been persuaded to share her secret cutting-edge addresses.
Hitting the Fleas
When Claudia Strasser sweeps into the café across from the Vanves Métro stop on Sunday morning she has quite an entourage with her—three members of the B. family, whose 15-room mansion in Seattle she is helping to furnish, along with Toma Haines, an Oklahoma native who calls herself the Antiques Diva. Before we hit even the first booth, Strasser and the Diva are unloading trade secrets: Did I know that the traveling fairs that set up in different neighborhoods on summer weekends are listed at the Vide-Greniers website, and that there are three keywords to look for: antiquités (for items at least 100 years old), brocante (for classic flea market merchandise), and vide-greniers (what in other cultures is commonly referred to as junk)? Was I aware that the best time to go to markets is the last weekend in July, before the whole of France goes on vacation, when dealers are desperate to empty their booths and want quick cash?
Okay, sure, but what if what I want to buy with that cash is, say, a copper bathtub as big as a truck? How is it that people like the B.’s are hauling those 15 rooms worth of furniture back to the Great Northwest? The answer, Strasser reveals, is a Camard account. At that Mr. B. takes out his Camard book and waves it gleefully in my face. Strasser explains how the account works: Camard, and a number of other shipping companies, maintain offices at the Porte de Clignancourt flea market and other spots around Paris. You register, and they give you a receipt pad, stickers, and your own personal Camard number. When you see something humongous that you are dying to take home, you take out your Camard pad and the dealer slaps a sticker onto your purchase. The dealer fills out some paperwork, which is relayed to Camard, which then picks up your furniture—even if you purchased items at a number of different markets—and the next thing you know you’re unpacking an 18th-century chifforobe in Cedar Rapids. The best part: no money changes hands until Camard has everything ready to ship. This arcane and wacky system, Strasser assures me, is based on an ancient antiques dealers’ honor code and is surprisingly foolproof.
Next, we’re off to the Vanves market. The B. family is searching for 18th-century chairs and chandeliers; the rest of us for anything that catches our fancy. Strasser surprises me by insisting that the best deals are to be found in the bins of prints for $4 and at the $7 tables, where she snatches up a mirrored 1930’s dressing-table box. Even when things are marked higher than $5, bargaining is swift and easy—while I scoop up a pair of framed sepia prints of 1920’s flappers for $40, down from $70, Strasser is dickering over a trifold Art Moderne mirror, a total steal for $140, though because she lacks her own Camard book, it would have to be lugged on the plane, a prospect she reluctantly decides is too daunting.
We sweep up our small purchases—among us we have bought vintage rosaries, old brass keys to string on cords as necklaces, and one dazzling bargain, an Alaïa dress for $140—and hop on the Métro to a brocante in the bohemian neighborhood of the Place des Abbesses, clear on the other side of town. I am torn up about not being able to buy a marble-topped night table here (it’s small but still needs a Camard sticker) until Strasser tells me why it’s lined with marble—once upon a time this pretty piece was used to store a chamber pot.
The B.’s haven’t found any chandeliers yet, so we get back on the Métro and cross the river once again, to the Brocante Rue Chardon-Lagache, in the 16th Arrondissement. The refined merchandise here reflects the surroundings, and before you know it a Camard sticker has been slapped onto a hand-carved early-19th-century walnut chest that hard bargaining (the language barrier surmounted by two of Strasser’s flea market staples, a pencil and pad) has reduced to $3,200. In short order, the B.’s have also fallen for a daybed with satin cushions for a ridiculously low $280, and I am loaded down with an assortment of necklaces and ephemera, anxious to get back to my hotel, log on to Vide-Greniers, and see what other antiques markets and brocantes are coming up.
Bargain-Hunting in St.-Germain
The next day I meet Juliette Gitel-Lassablière in the heart of the Sixth Arrondissement. Though Gitel-Lassablière, effortlessly chic in jeans and a trench, insists that there are all kinds of affordable gems hidden in this fancy neighborhood, I am frankly dubious. To prove her point, she suggests we dip into André, a chain shoe store I must have walked past a thousand times. Once inside I realize how it is that French women manage to look so stunning on minuscule salaries: a black suede high-heeled pump, elegant as a Louboutin though minus the red sole, is $125. At Monoprix, the massive discount store that I have occasionally visited to pick up Band-Aids and Bourjois makeup, the looks are a total eye-opener. Like H&M, Monoprix collaborates with designers, which is why the $110 black dress with the satin straps is so alluring—it’s from Erotokritos, a cult label with its own Parisian boutiques.
Of course, bargain is a relative term. Gitel-Lassablière points out that what a five-and-dime designer dress needs is a decent handbag and takes me to Les Trois Marches de Catherine B, where everything is secondhand, super-mint, and bearing one of just a few labels: Chanel, Vuitton, Hermès. Prices range from $140 for a scarf to $5,600 for a tangerine Kelly bag (but at least there’s no waiting list).
The next few hours are a retail whirlwind: she introduces me to Cyrillus, Paris’s answer to J.Crew, where a sharp blouse with pleated sleeves is $69; to Losco, where the made-to-measure belts worthy of Jane Birkin are around $195 (maybe not the most affordable belt in the world, but pretty good for a one-of-a-kind keepsake). At Des Petits Hauts, a literally star-studded boutique (étoiles dot the pink floors), a quintessentially Parisian pink mohair cardigan (think Amélie) is $145. For more-classic tastes, the remarkably unpretentious Eric Bompard has cashmere pullovers at under $280. There are even less-rarefied souvenirs at the vast Pharmacie Suprapharm, with coveted powder-room brands—Klorane shampoo for $5.90; Elgydium toothpaste, $7.50 for two; Anthelios sunscreen for $12—sold at reduced prices. “Don’t even think about coming here on Saturdays—it’s a nightmare,” Gitel-Lassablière warns. Last up is the adorable Bonpoint outlet, where the iconic baby clothes—pin tucks! smocking! hand-knitted booties!—are all 30 percent off, though it doesn’t actually say this anywhere, which is why I finally admit to myself that it’s sometimes indispensable to have a native guide.
Cutting-Edge Paris, Uncovered
The following afternoon I fetch Rosemary Rodriguez at her chic offices near the opera house. But our destination is far from these elegant digs. Like so many people in the fashion business, Rodriguez, who is wearing jeans, a Liberty of London button-down, a pair of spectacular antique diamond earrings, and a Goyard tote, only gets really excited these days by something truly off the grid. Which is why we taxi straight to Thanx God I’m a V.I.P., in the neighborhood between the Place de la République and the Canal St.-Martin. Rodriguez is ecstatic in this vintage clothing store, but in fact the whole quartier delights her. She points out Du Pain et des Idées (“Best baguette in Paris!” she crows); the leather wholesalers with their goods piled haphazardly in the window; the restored Alhambra dance hall; the couscous joints. We walk toward the canal to Artazart, a bookstore with Banksy monographs, among other finds. The peaceful curving waters, traversed by picturesque bridges, look nothing like the Paris I know.
Then it’s over to Merci. I am enraptured by this three-story multi-brand boutique. With everything from limited-edition designer clothes and books to flowers and linens, it is giving Colette a run for its money in the hipness sweepstakes.
Soon we’re deep in the heart of the Haut Marais. Rodriguez favors Pretty Box, yet another vintage store (a pre–Alber Elbaz Lanvin shirt is $130), and Hoses, a shoe shop with a sleepy dog in the corner and footwear with the coveted Avril Gau label. At Pring, the strappy heels are displayed in octagonal metal boxes; at Moon Young Hee, halfway between a shop and an atelier, a glorious silk chiffon skirt, puffy as a cloud, is $450. I love a gossamer garment, but in these hard times I am equally drawn to the more utilitarian, oddly chic designs at Yves Andrieux Vincent Jalbert, made from unlikely vintage fabrics—parachute nylon; linen and cotton meant to cover French camping cots. Happily zipping myself into an elaborate multi-seamed number, I’m forced to concede that without Rodriguez’s leading the way, I would never have parachuted into this place.
Lynn Yaeger is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor.
Camard 2 Rue de l’Industrie, Saint-Denis; 33-1/49-46-10-82; call for pricing information.
Moon Young Hee 62 Rue Charlot, Third Arr.; 33-1/48-04-39-78.
Pharmacie Suprapharm 26 Rue du Four, Sixth Arr.; 33-1/46-33-20-81.
Vide-Greniers A reference list of flea markets in France, Belgium, and Switzerland. vide-greniers.org.
Yves Andrieux Vincent Jalbert 55 Rue Charlot, Third Arr.; 33-1/42-71-19-54.