Lars Pillman

On the hunt for the perfect bag?Take a tour of the secondhand shops of Paris, where you’ll find the selection immaculate and wonderfully varied.

July 22, 2009

When the author Janet Flanner called her famed collection of essays Paris Was Yesterday, she wasn’t, of course, referring to handbags. But she might have been. The City of Light is responsible for many enduring reveries (both sartorial and otherwise), and it’s easy to imagine yourself carrying an Hermès Birkin bag to the market, a fresh baguette peeking out above the rim, or arriving dockside in Le Havre with monogrammed Vuitton trunks, instead of rushing through the airport dragging a nylon duffel in your wake.

A massive valise may not fit comfortably in one’s life, but a quintessential French handbag will make itself right at home. Buying a vintage model in Paris has distinct advantages: the selection is superb; the brands you’re after have flagships here (ideal for comparing old with new); and, in the case of purses that are wait-listed, the classic version is available immediately. Plus, there’s the added panache that comes from owning a back-model bag, handed down across the ages by some glamorous Gallic grandma. Finding a true bargain can prove difficult, but you are usually able to haggle a bit. Try offering 10 percent less, or just say, "Can you do any better?" ("Vous ne pouvez pas me faire un meilleur prix?" in French) and see what happens.

City Finds

Every Parisian quest should start with a visit to the major fashion houses—Hermès, Louis Vuitton, and the like—to marvel at the bags you’d have to wait a year for new. You should also make a point of stopping in at Goyard, on the Rue St.-Honoré. This elegant boutique deals in the current, but venture upstairs and train your eye on the historic collection (not for sale), including the Duchess of Windsor’s personalized luggage.

WK Accessories, a plebeian thrift shop, sits down the block from Goyard. Amid racks of secondhand Prada frocks and Jil Sander trousers, you could uncover an epi-leather Vuitton knapsack, a patent-leather Dior hatbox, or a crocodile Cartier clutch in caramel.

Should your target still prove elusive, the legendary dealer Didier Ludot in the Palais Royal is a short stroll away. While riffling through the museum-quality fashions (everything from Givenchy couture to early YSL) you might discover an Art Deco evening clutch with a bamboo closure. Or head to Scarlett, just off the Avenue Montaigne. Though tiny and cluttered, the impressive stock gives forth singular items, like a tweedy Chanel Sac Chine.

On the Left Bank, the well-organized Les Trois Marches de Catherine B has been selling vintage purses for the last 15 years. "But they must be presentable," the gentleman behind the counter will tell you with charming understatement. In fact, the offerings are impeccable, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to pick up something—perhaps a 1960 Chanel "Mademoiselle" for a tempting $1,100—from the pristine array.

Luck in the Outskirts

The most extensive selection lies ahead. Wait for the weekend and set out early (but not before 9 a.m.; this isn’t Portobello Road) for the mother of all antiques markets, Les Puces de Paris St.-Ouen, at the Porte de Clignancourt. Hurry past the late-rising merchants setting up shop to the Serpette, a huge, half-enclosed complex within the market. Despite the rough edges of this former garage, the Serpette’s 130 vendors sell the sort of pieces—gleaming 19th-century chandeliers, burnished Art Deco armoires—for which the French are famed.

At one of the stalls, Voyages Boutique, sigh over a 1950’s Hermès Sac Malette in burgundy calf (very Grace Kelly, though not itself a true Kelly) for $3,250. The owner is full of information: If an Hermès bag is embossed "24 Faubourg Saint Honoré," he informs you, it was made before World War II; if it reads "Hermès Paris" it’s pre-1974; if it says "Hermès Paris Made in France" it’s less than 33 years old. He goes on to explain another benefit of vintage shopping: it’s easy to stumble upon things that are truly one of a kind, since wealthy clients have a penchant for having items custom-made and then quickly tiring of them. As an example, he brings out a Vuitton special-edition satchel rendered in pink ostrich leather.

Head spinning, you walk a few feet to Le Monde du Voyage to find…Hermès Gige clutches that close with a strap tucked under a giant H! And a special-order Birkin with rare matte hardware! "What about this?" you cry, swooning over an extraordinary 1930’s fitted Vuitton shoe trunk with its original tray and drawers. The dealer shakes his head. It was designed for the opera singer Lily Pons, he says, and it’s not for sale.

Oh well. You can always console yourself with that ostrich Vuitton.

Scarlett 10 Rue-Clément Marot, Eighth Arr.; 33-1/56-89-03-00.

Louis Vuitton 101 Ave. des Champs-Élysées, Eighth Arr.; 33-1/53-57-52-02.

Hermès 24 Rue du Faubourg-St.-Honoré, Eighth Arr.; 33-1/40-17-47-17.

Goyard 233 Rue St.-Honoré, Eighth Arr.; 33-1/42-60-57-04.

WK Accessories 5 Rue du Marché-St.-Honoré, First Arr.; 33-1/40-20-99-76.

Didier Ludot 20-24 Galerie de Montpensier, Jardin du Palais Royal, First Arr.; 33-1/42-96-06-56.

Voyages Boutique Marché Serpette, Stand 10, Allée 3, 108 Rue des Rosiers, St.-Ouen; 33-1/53-10-01-09

Le Monde du Voyage Marché Serpette, Stand 15, Allée 3, 108-110 Rue des Rosiers, St.-Ouen; 33-1/40-12-64-03

Les Trois Marches de Catherine B 1 Rue Guisarde, Sixth Arr.; 33-1/43-54-74-18.

Les Trois Marches de Catherine B

Catherine B has been collecting vintage Chanel and Hermès pieces for more than two decades. Whether shoppers are searching for a discontinued Birkin bag, the perfect color Kelly bag, or a rare silk scarf, the store's hand-curated collection of more than 1,500 pieces is bound to have it. Her inventory from these two luxury labels is displayed at two boutiques in the Saint-Germain-des-Pres. At her first shop on Rue Guisarde, shoppers peruse mostly mint treasures in the company of exposed beams and an André Renoux original painting. 

Le Monde du Voyage

For restored, vintage, and pre-owned Hermès and Louis Vuitton trunks, leather goods, and jewelry, Le Monde du Voyage is the place to go. Located in the heart of the Paris Flea Market (Les Puces), this shop has been in business for more than two decades. Inside shoppers can purchase everything from a leather Hermès bag to ivory Chanel earrings, even a Jaeger LeCoultre clock. Non-Francophiles appreciated that English is spoken in the shop, which is open every weekend and Monday throughout the year.

Voyages Boutique

Since 1997, well-heeled travelers have shopped this boutique in the Marché Serpette for labels like Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Moynat, Chanel, and Goyard. This store, which looks more like a museum for leather, is a trove of hard-to-find handbags, suitcases, garment bags, and accessories (owner and collector Elisio Das Neves specializes in Hermès handbags and Louis Vuitton trunks). After great success, Elisio opened a second outpost across from the first in 2000, with a wider offering of hand-picked brands, furnishings, and even more leather pieces. These pieces are costly, as many are vintage and discontinued, but they're built to last.

Didier Ludot

For vintage threads, this boutique situated among the gardens of the Palais Royal attracts a well-heeled clientele. Every piece in fashion expert Didier Ludot’s shop is hand-curated from French haute couture houses, including Givenchy, Chanel, and Dior, but there are also international selections, such as Valentina, Charles James, and Mainbocher. Pieces in the shop range from over-the-top evening gowns to timeless little black dresses all created between 1900 and 1980, and although previously owned, these items do not come cheap. Ludot contributes his own personal style and vision with a line of original designs.

WK Accessories

Top label-lovers scour the racks of Dominique Balloffet's dépôt-vente (consignment shop) for secondhand Prada skirts, Lanvin shoes, and black Birkin bags. Just a block from Goyard and minutes from Colette, WK offers the thrill of the Parisian flea market, but without a huge time commitmentor the need to sift through junk, as Balloffet only accepts high-quality used items. The front window frequently showcases accessories, such as Dior sunglasses and crocodile Cartier clutches, while the shelves and racks within are well-organized with the best of last season's fashion (sold at a fraction of last season's price).

Goyard

Esteemed luggage manufacturer Goyard has been in business on the rue Saint-Honoré since 1853. Window displays of colorful totes catch the eyes of people passing by this brown storefront, marked with malletier (trunk maker). Inside, the warmly lit wood shelves are stocked with an array of classic hand luggage and steamer trunks, as well as more modern (and highly coveted) laptop cases, wallets, and totes—all with the signature chevron design. Goyard has had many fans through the years, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and this family business has been praised for creating durable, chic leather products.

Hermès, Paris

Leather, ready-to-wear, lifestyle accessories retailer Hermès has attracted a fashionable clientele since 1837. Its new flagship store opened its doors in the Left Bank in late 2010 with the brand’s signature horseman wearing a flying scarf situated on the roof. Built atop a 1935 swimming pool, the shop was decorated by Denis Montel, who utilized disposable wood structures for the interior. Hermès may be best known for its scarves and ties, but other items include handbags, watches, gloves, belts, shoes, even fragrances.

Louis Vuitton

Within view of the Arc de Triomphe, this Louis Vuitton flagship store is housed regally inside a stylized Haussman building along the legendary Avenue des Champs-Elysées. Along with rows and rows of leather-dyed luggage, this Louis Vuitton boutique of all Vuitton boutiques also holds vast collections of the label’s prêt-a-porter clothing as well as purses, shoes, and accessories. Shoppers can also enter via Rue Bassano and hike to the top floor, which holds a gallery-like space for revolving exhibitions.

Scarlett

Situated in the Eighth Arrondissement just off Avenue Montaigne, this tiny shop sells vintage haute couture from designers such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, and Hermés. The small, cluttered space is packed with gently used jackets, dresses, jewelry, handbags, and shoes, most of which are collector’s items (and priced as such—a handbag is likely to sell for at least €1,000). A large majority of the inventory is Chanel, making Scarlett a popular destination for fans of the double C logo.

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