While the stereotype of the chic Parisian woman irks most of the Parisian women I know, it also happens to be the God’s honest truth. Many, many words have been dedicated to analyzing the phenomenon, but the explanation is really simple. Women from this city know how clothes should fit, and—aside from the occasional wacky look during Paris fashion week—their taste is generally quite conservative.
Since the 1960s, Parisians of all shapes, sizes and colors have more or less stuck with the same formula (picture a skinny jean, a ballet slipper, a cat-eyeliner and some tousled hair). This makes for a sexy timelessness that is rare in our Kardashian-inflected era.
On moving to Paris without a ready fortune to spend, I was relieved to discover that, in creating this classic look, a Parisian woman’s most powerful weapon is not a designer brand, but a ubiquitous, working-class chain called Monoprix. Founded in 1932 and best compared to Target (or perhaps Britain’s Marks & Spencer), the store offers brilliantly priced merchandise across all categories, from beauty products to groceries, bed linens, kitchen supplies, and clothes for the whole family.
Despite its mass appeal, Monoprix has true fashion cred in Paris—an eye-wateringly expensive city in which salaries are low. It’s not the fly-by-night, depending-on-who’s-guest-designing attitude many Americans have toward the clothes at Target or H&M. Even though designers regularly collaborate on single items or capsule lines at Monoprix (among them Hussein Chalayan, Giles Deacon, Alexis Mabille, and Antik Batik), the true home-team love is reserved for its basics.
With what appears to be genuine respect for the customer (GAP, take note), Monoprix’s in-house design team always dedicates a fair amount of floor space to iconic French staples. Season permitting, there is likely a delicate trench coat and a variation on a Bréton stripe for the ladies, or a Mao collared dress shirt for monsieur. Its affordable lingerie comes in all-over lace, subtle colors, and alluring cuts. In summer you can rely on finding a flattering nautical swimsuit, just as in winter, you’re sure to discover an array of toasty angora socks.
There are many things you can do in Paris that correspond to a certain idea of the place: sit in a café and eat tartines, stroll the Butte Montmartre, lazily browse the used booksellers on the Seine. All that is fine, but if you want to skip the sight-seeing and just get the look—because who are we kidding, your Instagram followers await!—go straight to your nearest Monoprix.
Alexandra Marshall is a contributing editor and the Paris correspondent at Travel & Leisure. Food, design, architecture and fashion are her specialties, which means, living in Paris, that she is very busy. Follow her on Twitter and on Instagram.