In Paris, private apartments are the latest places to get your retail fix
Akiko Ida

Tired of snippy French shopkeepers?Had it with Left Bank stores that carry the same big-brand merchandise available back home?Skip the conventional shops and ring the bell of an apartment, where the person who bundles your purchases also often happens to live. Highly individual and specialized, stores in residential spaces are giving career shoppers the intimate, personalized experience they're looking for these days. Bye-bye, boilerplate boutiques.

Vintage Fashion

The nexus in Paris for other people's gently worn clothes, many carrying labels with glittering marquee value, Anouschka is located just behind the Printemps and Galeries Lafayette department stores. But few taxi drivers can get you there without consulting a plan de Paris. After much grumbling, they will leave you off in front of a none-too-promising, tall iron gate flanked by a pharmacy and an eyeglass shop. On the other side of the gate is a cul-de-sac lined with menacingly bourgeois buildings.

Everything about the setting feels wrong, even a little creepy. But creepiness is small change for women intent on a very Jackie-esque 1963 Pierre Balmain haute couture silk shantung opera coat. Indeed, no one said shopping in apartments was easy. As Anouschka demonstrates, it can require a leap of faith (but, happily, no French--funny how the retail transaction flattens the language barrier). To be admitted to the third-floor shop, an engraved copper door plaque advises TOURNEZ LE BOUTON S.V.P., but the bouton probably hasn't worked since World War II. Taped next to a second bell is a note with scribbled instructions to hold the button down when pressing. Finally, results. The sound of distant feet and Macy Gray ululations. The door opens-- first only a crack, opium den-style, then just wide enough to let you in.

That Balmain coat, a prim pre-Tom Ford Gucci leather handbag with knobby bamboo handle, an Elli for Eurosport copy of a Saint Laurent cotton canvas men's safari jacket with wooden buttons--they're all here, battling for space, literally, with Madame Grès, Cardin, Courréges, Hermés, Dior. Peeking through are signs of the shop's domestic origins, the private lives once played out in Anouschka's four rooms suggested by crystal chandeliers, gold-leaf mirrors, marble fireplaces. Still, it's hard to regret the apartment's new vocation. Where else are you going to find a Jean Patou sleeveless black crepe evening dress with a flutter of cock feathers at the hem? 6 Ave. du Coq, Ninth Arr.; 33-1/ 48-74-37-00; by appointment.

Antiques and Curiosities

Galerie Réfractaire offers the same shopping experience as many well-bred stores on the east end of Boulevard St.-Germain--up to a point. You enter through a conventional storefront, and it's clear that whoever runs this place has amazing taste: there's nothing you don't want. A re-edition of a late-19th-century magnifying glass on an adjustable iron pedestal here, a pile of African toiles embroidered with seashells there. It's all perfection.

But as you penetrate the shop, it stops being one, or at least it stops being a traditional one. A wrong turn up a spiral staircase lands you in the off-limits bedroom, oops, of Réfractaire's owner, Francis Dorléans. Hoping to avoid a second blunder, you pause on the ground floor at the threshold of a paneled room lined with books, layered with objects, and furnished with the most inviting buttoned and fringed upholstery. Reading your mind, Dorléans--a reedy aesthete swaddled in pashmina--appears from the adjoining kitchen with the gentil offer of a drink and assurances that his library is part of the shop.

The thickly atmospheric downstairs salon serves both private and commercial purposes as well. Everything in it is part of Dorléans's quotidian life but also for sale, including 18th-century painted Venetian chairs covered in muslin, a petit-point carpet scattered with fleurs-de-lis, and an Aubusson tapestry the price of a lifetime of summer rentals in St.-Tropez. Blessedly, Dorléans is one merchant who is temperamentally incapable of the hard sell. "If a customer seems sympa I'd rather take tea with him than sell him something," he says. "I'm a lousy salesman." 26 Blvd. St. Germain, Fifth Arr.; 33-1/43-54-39-90; open after 2:30 Tuesday-Sunday, or by appointment.


If Claire de Lavallée were English instead of French, and had lived in the 1920's instead of the present, it would be easy to imagine her as part of the Bloomsbury group. Her apartment is what used to be known as bohemian, a late-19th-century atelier in which every piece of (lumpy) furniture seems to have a wool throw tossed over it. If you've spent any time on the Left Bank, you've probably walked admiringly past de Lavallée's building a million times, never dreaming you'd be welcomed in.

De Lavallée is a generous and spontaneous host, encouraging customers to take their ease on her studio sofa and offering tea in one of the winsome, naturalistic faïence services that made her reputation. Gilded handleless cups are individually molded directly on apples to capture the fruits' every bump and dimple. Accompanying saucers are fashioned by hurling a pancake of clay against a rock, a technique that results in creeping fissures. Other pieces--platters, dishes, bowls, pitchers, candlesticks--borrow their forms from water lilies, pumpkins, gourds, sea urchins, philodendron leaves, and orange halves.

Sold in museum shops throughout France, de Lavallée's pottery has a naïve, childlike quality cynics find easy to resist. Which leaves more of it for the rest of us. 11 Rue de St.-Simon, Seventh Arr.; 33-1/45-49-36-30; by appointment.

Fifties Furnishings

The smell of woodsmoke catches your nose from blocks away. A knock on the forbidding steel door just beyond the grizzly Renault repair shop produces a Moroccan manservant with a gentle smile.

Lounging around the fireplace in the soaring, hectically furnished former garage is Alan Grizot--a minor legend in France for giving the country back its taste for fifties furniture--as well as what seem like six of his best friends. They are, in fact, customers who gingerly made the excursion to Come In My Loft, Grizot's completely fungible shop and home near the Marché Paul Bert antiques market. They arrived hoping to bag one of Roger Capron's highly collectible biomorphic dishes, which they did, but not before accepting a glass of rather good Bordeaux and having the maître de maison proudly show off his bathroom. Poised on the lip of the freestanding tub are the most mignon Yves Klein painting and a cartoonish illuminated resin clamshell, both very much for sale.

Having helped revive the reputations of such mid-century designers as Jean Prouvé, Serge Mouille, and Jean Royère—names now routinely preceded by great—Grizot seems to wish he'd been a rock star instead. He is a man of a certain age who always wears black, and who always unbuttons that one extra shirt button. A mirrored Ian Dury badge adorns his lapel. It's seven euros. 45 Rue Anselme, St.-Ouen; 33-1/40-10-93-08; open Saturday and Sunday, 11-7, or by appointment.

House Wares: Nine More Apartment Shops (and services)

Custom Dresses The tradition of the back-street Paris couturier is all but extinct. Julien Cristofoli remains bravely at it, in a building constructed for Napoleonic army officers. 16 Rue de Lancry, 10th Arr.; 33-1/ 42-49-37-48; by appointment.

Redesigned Vintage Michele and Olivier Chatenet sell women's ready-to-wear out of their sprawling loft in an Art Deco commercial building. The couple's ruse: reworking a sixties Ungaro blouse and wedding it to, say, a seventies Valentino skirt. E2, 15 Rue Martel, Apt. E2, 10th Arr.; 33-1/47-70-15-14; by appointment.

Home Furnishings In Mary Shaw's homey Haussmann-era flat, everything dangles a price tag, including antique patchwork wall hangings from Rajasthan, linen voile by the yard, and traditional Irish tweeds in bright colors. Sequana, 64 Ave. de la Motte-Picquet, 15th Arr.; 33-1/45-66-58-40; open Monday- Friday, 10-6, or by appointment.

Antiques Behind a tiny door in a verdant courtyard is Pierre and Dominique Bénard-Dépalle's shop, where—thanks to some brilliantly poetic merchandising—every basket, wineglass, and piece of marbled Apt faïence recalls an emotionally charged story. Vivement Jeudi, 52 Rue Mouffetard, Fifth Arr.; 33-1/43-31-44-52; open Thursdays, or by appointment.

Embroidery In an hôtel particulier where Robespierre is said to have hidden out, Lesage, the First Family of French embroidery, sells extravagant cushions, drawstring purses, and fabrics. Jean-François Lesage, 207 Rue St.-Honoré, First Arr.; 33-1/44-50-01-01; by appointment.

Cooking Lessons Laurence Guarneri shares her culinary expertise in a kitchen converted from a tannerie. Sample class: magret de canard; celery root purée; tarte Tatin. Astuces et Tours de Mains, 29 Rue Censier, Fifth Arr.; 33-6/81-64-10-75; three-hour class (instruction in French) $68, including dinner.

Hair and Beauty Salon An elegant enfilade of boudoirs in a private apartment leaves clients cooing. Charlie en Particulier, 1 Rue Goethe, 16th Arr.; 33-1/47-20-94-01.

Shiatsu Back-pain sufferers praise Odile Varnat's thoroughness—and the way the windows of her salle de traitement frame Paris rooftops. 11 Villa Pierre Ginier, 18th Arr.; 33-1/45-22-22-76; $60 for one hour.

Concerts Take a seat on a ballroom chair for one of the jazz or classical music performances held in this 18th-century apartment on one of the loveliest streets in Paris. Arpeggione, 35 Rue de l'Université, Seventh Arr.; 33-1/45-48-11-55; $15-$30.