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.
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.