Tokyo is the homely child you have to love; Paris is, of course, the precocious wonder so beautiful it defies you not to. Isn't Paris, after all, the place renowned for its austere refinement, its residents' famed élan, fashion savvy, and deft scarf-tying techniques?Doesn't everything creative in commercial ready-to-wear and haute couture come from there?The answer is a tiny bit complex.
I would not be the first to remark how easily Parisian self-assurance can devolve into tiresome conceit. Part of being stuck-up, after all, is being stuck. Yet if the French have genteeled themselves into a corner, it's a corner that can still command admiration. Lately I have developed renewed affection for Parisian pretension. Parisians may lack brio. They may occasionally seem trapped by their conformity. They may sometimes justify the judgment of Kate Moss's agent, who once told me, as his limousine glided through the streets of the 16th Arrondissement, "I hate chic."
But, still, they look so good! When I arrived, I dumped my luggage and went immediately for coffee to a small square off the Rue St.-Honoré, the current hipster rialto. There, as fat cinematic clouds chugged through a typical sky of bleachy blue, I sat at a sidewalk café for an hour drinking in the array of lovelies. And I don't mean just the girls.
For every young Frenchwoman whose low-slung Earl jeans were at just the right angle to flash a blade of lean hipbone, there was a cocky young Frenchman slouching along in snug, slept-in Levi's, his forelock flopping with a casualness that takes plenty of mirror time to achieve. For every well-tended matron looking as though she had been gift-wrapped at Hermès, there was a municipal worker whose coveralls had obviously been tailored to accentuate the pert loft of his behind.
Coming from my home in New York—where half the population dresses as though for some imaginary red carpet and the other half as though they intend to mow your lawn—the Parisians' dedicated efforts to uphold their stylish reputation is as strutting a gesture of civic pride as a Kiwanis parade.
"There isn't much happening here," said Sarah Lerfel, the owner of Colette, the first and the best of the "concept" shops that have mushroomed all over Paris. "It's a drag." Ms. Lerfel, who typically goes by just her first name, was speaking of nightclubs. The only place worth bothering about, she said, was Le Pulp. The music there can be fantastic, she said, but the space is . . . well, what's French for a dump?
I happen not to agree with Ms. Lerfel. It may no longer be anyone's idea of cutting-edge, but I still enthusiastically send friends to Favela Chic, the Brazilian restaurant and bar near the Place de la République. I first learned of the place two years ago from Richard Buckley, who is the editor of Vogues Hommes and who lives in the city part-time with his boyfriend, the designer Tom Ford.