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fashion: feature

Samedis à la mode Samedis à la mode

Christophe-Alexandre Docquin

Keren Chiaroni finds the best way to indulge Parisian style, without the stress of fashion week, at the 8th arrondissement’s Hotel Bristol


PARIS FASHION SHOWS, and the hype surrounding them, are legendary. So is the exclusivity of the guest list, unless you are amongst the “most wanted” of society’s famous and fashionable. Covered assiduously by reporters and photographers, runway shows are major media events, even though access to the shows remains the privilege of a minority.
   Meanwhile, in the heart of Paris’s 8th arrondissement, in the gilded elegance of the Hotel Bristol, fashion shows of a different kind of exclusivity take place on select Saturdays throughout the year. The exclusive nature of these shows is determined quite simply by the fact that they are unique, and that the hotel’s architecture only allows a certain number of guests to be seated comfortably at one time. If you miss out, it will not be because of who you know or don’t know, but because of the very democratic rule that if you don’t call in advance, then someone else may take your seat (in which case, you may have to postpone your pleasure for another Saturday).
   In the luxuriously appointed hotel bar, you get to enjoy all the glamour of haute couture and the excitement of seeing new collections, while being made to feel you actually belong in this rarefied world, as exquisite dainties are served for your refreshment, with tea or coffee, by charmingly attentive staff. The confections are specially prepared by the hotel’s chef, Laurent Jeannin, and designed to complement the vision of the couturier du jour, who may be a young unknown artist with a career to make, or, equally, a mega-star like Lacroix or Galliano. As you lift fine china to your lips, the models brush past your chair, to the accompaniment of music and the click and flash of a single, professional photographer. It is 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The great romance of tea and cakes at the Bristol has begun.
   Such a love match between haute couture and high tea was arguably anticipated in late nineteenth-century Paris.
   By 1853, Japan had opened her doors to trade with the west, and by the end of the century, Europe was enjoying a steady flow of ‘green gold’, as tea was then called, from Japan as well as China and India.
   Tea supplied the aromatic high note in the growing taste for all things oriental, fed by the world trade fairs in Paris and London, whose displays acted like enormous shop windows to the artefacts and accessories of the east. Fine porcelain, silks, and kimono-inspired gowns became especially desirable commodities in fashionable society.
   Eventually these three—tea, fine porcelain, and the graceful lines from the kimono—would unite in the wonderfully seductive concoction known as the tea-gown, a garment to be worn while sipping tea from China whose pearly surface reflected the sheen of the gowns themselves. Perfect for receiving a lover or relaxing with friends in the salon, le tea-gown was composed of loose, flowing fabrics that achieved at once a daring revelation of the female form and a degree of unprecedented comfort. The un-corseted tea-gown was thus erotic and practical, luxurious and comfortable.
   If these gowns were fashionable all over Europe, it is the French author Proust, who acknowledged and poeticized their elegant sensuality in his novel, In Search of Lost Time. As Valerie Steele points out, it is when Odette wears ‘a tea-gown of pink silk, which left her neck and arms bare’, that Swann begins to truly fall in love with her. It should not surprise us that in this masterpiece of twentieth-century literature, detailed descriptions of clothes play their part in philosophical reflections on time, memory, mortality and art. Particularly since the author of these reflections lived and died in, or near, the heart of Paris, and was accustomed to frequent just such gatherings as the Hotel Bristol offers its clients today.
   The French have always known how to associate sensuality with practicality, and philosophical discussion with an enjoyment of life. This is why the Bristol’s fashion high teas seem to me to be a peculiarly French phenomenon, even though it is to the British that we owe the terms high tea and le 5 o’clock. And why it is in Paris, not London, that we find an old established tea-house like Mariage Frères dressing its staff in white tie and tails during winter, and stone-coloured linen suits during the summer, as they serve discerning clients their measure of green gold.
   Easy cultural clichés aside, the fashion high teas at the Bristol today are not just charmingly French. They are fashion shows with a difference, whose ethos and vision seem to me to be unique in a world so often perceived as frivolous and ruthless. The difference is endemic to the very nature of the event as reflected in the way the roles of management, designer and guests (i.e. members of the public) are defined and have developed since the shows’ inception in 2002.
   First, it must be said that the management, in the form of the Hotel Bristol itself, has a world-class reputation as a hotel offering outstanding service at all levels of hospitality. The Institutional Investor elected le Bristol Paris as the ‘world’s best hotel’ in 2008, and this is consistent with the reputation it has built up over a number of years, since its official opening, under Hippolyte Jamet, in 1925. (Prior to the creation of the current hotel, the site of the hotel’s winter restaurant was occupied by a theatre built by the Count of Castellane, society leader and patron of the arts under the Second Empire.) The site of the present hotel at 112 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré ensures an easy association with fashion (all the mainstream designers have boutiques in the area). But the idea of directly combining fashion with high tea at the hotel was the brainchild in 2002 of Mme Gabrielle Hirn, former director of the hotel’s marketing department.


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Emanuel Ungaro

Complementing the high teas at Ungaro, Céline and Chloé.



The French have always known how to associate sensuality with practicality, and philosophical discussion with an enjoyment of life. This is why the Bristol’s fashion high teas seem to me to be a peculiarly French phenomenon, even though it is to the British that we owe the terms high tea and le 5 o’clock

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