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Sappy Souvenirs

"What's in the bag?" asked Jean-Paul Gaultier, pointing to the overstuffed satchel I had been trying to conceal. Several years ago, in Paris to interview the designer, I had arrived at his studio straight from a shopping spree on the Rue de Rivoli and was vaguely ashamed of my purchases, which included Arc de Triomphe snow globes, Notre Dame hankies, and miniature metal kiosks. As our talk wound down, Gaultier demanded to see what I'd bought. Reluctantly, I pulled a furry, smiling, plush pink stuffed Eiffel Tower from one bag; Gaultier seemed to light up with pleasure.

His approval made me feel a thousand times better, though in hindsight I might have guessed that the pierced, platinum-tressed, pixieish designer would be a sucker for souvenirs. After all, isn't his trademark shirt a retro blue-and-white-striped sailor number?Isn't he the one designer who has managed to infuse French fashion clichés—the shoulder-buttoned sweater; the Jean Genet-inspired pea coat—with more than a soupçon of Gallic glamour?

I'm no stranger to the lure of a Queen Mum mug or a Colosseum key chain, but it is in Paris that my desire for campy keepsakes reaches its zenith. I'm not sure why these slight items appeal to me so much, but I suspect that their homey nature, so useless and unintimidating, has a comforting effect in a town whose hauteur and beauty, not to mention its fashion sense, have frankly overwhelmed me at times.

On my first trip to Paris, decades earlier, I took one look at myself in the armoire mirror at my no-star hotel, assessing with newfound horror my denim skirt and black leotard top (they'd looked fine back home...), and hightailed it to Galeries Lafayette, where I bought an ecru, square-necked Cacharel shift that I subsequently wore every day of my trip. That dress became my first, and arguably best, Paris souvenir—it made me feel that I was able to meet the town at least halfway.

These days, though I have permanently graduated from denim-and-bodysuit ensembles, I continue the tradition of hunting for ur-Parisian souvenirs, high and low: the vintage Chanel couture suits at Didier Ludot at the Palais Royal; the silk knot cuff links from Charvet at the Place Vendôme; the antique enamel kitchen canisters unearthed at the Clignancourt flea market; the channel-set emerald brooches by JAR; the chevron-printed monogrammed handbags at Goyard on Rue St.-Honoré.

Unfortunately, much of this upscale merchandise, delightful as it is, can be bought closer to home these days—the august Goyard has a boutique in Barneys; Charvet has set up shop at Bergdorf's. Which may be why, though I spend most of my time in high-end ateliers, I still hold a special place for Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe mouse pads and Matisse oven mitts. When I'm in the City of Light, I want something that shrieks Paris!—or, more precisely, the cheerfully tacky, wholly fictional Paris of my dreams. My imaginary Paris is a city where American artist Gene Kelly woos perfume girl Leslie Caron; where a working girl-in-training named Gigi (also Leslie Caron) wins the heart of a millionaire; where Jean Seberg, in a striped sailor shirt just like Gaultier's, hawks the New York Herald-Tribune under the directorial eye of Jean-Luc Godard.

I usually stay at the elegantly faded Jolly Hôtel Lotti or the Belle Époque Hôtel Regina, old-world establishments in striking distance of both the Rue de Rivoli and the Rue du Faubourg-St.-Honoré, since my perfect Paris shopping day combines the two neighborhoods—and distinct neighborhoods they are, even if they're only a block apart.

I might dart from Goyard to Galliano in the morning, have a quick lunch at the fanciful Ladurée tea salon on Rue Royale, and then hit the Rivoli arcades, pausing to admire the mosaic medallions set in the sidewalk, which commemorate retailers that formerly resided on the street. (One particularly lovely creation memorializes Sulka, a now-vanished men's boutique that until the late eighties was not unlike Charvet.) The souvenir shops, which stretch practically from the Place de la Concorde to La Samaritaine—with only the austere stone Temple de l'Oratoire du Louvre interjecting a serious note into the frivolity—seduce me in the way Le Grand Vefour would tempt a gourmand.

Though many of the stores seem to have no name—and are anything but happy to see a reporter, however enthusiastic, taking notes—not all are so shady. At the highly unshifty Galerie Architecture Miniature Gault the specialty is metal miniatures: Hector Guimard's Art Nouveau subway entrances, now a little over an inch tall; entire Parisian streetscapes, meticulously rendered yet small enough to hide in the palm of one's hand; a girl holding a balloon, which is even smaller. The latter seems a bit too precious until you look across the street and see real little girls in the Tuileries holding the same balloons.

At La Vie en Rose, the Limoges porcelain boxes are destined, it would seem, for dressing tables the world over. Why else would a diminutive flowered shopping bag be inscribed SHOP 'TIL YOU DROP in English?Another bag, which depicts the Manhattan skyline complete with the Twin Towers, reads J'AIME NEW YORK. I settle on a porcelain easel bearing a reproduction of one of Toulouse-Lautrec's Jane Avril posters, seduced by the notion that 100-odd years ago, Avril, a dancer known for her grace and fragility, may have rushed down this very street on her way to the Moulin Rouge.

I'm happy with Jane, but I'm now on the lookout for an easel with a miniature poster by Théophile Steinlen, whose work is often represented on the Rue de Rivoli. Steinlen's famous posters—the best-known, Lait Pur Stérilisé, features a little girl with a bob in a puff-sleeved red dress alongside a kitten lapping milk—have been reproduced on everything from postcards to aprons. As a college student I had a print of Steinlen's Clinique Chéron over my bed (another girl, more cats plus dogs), and I liked him even better when I later found out that he was a committed socialist who, when he wasn't drawing ads, illustrated downtrodden workers for left-wing publications.

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