Fashion tells you a lot about a city
Not that I don’t have a weakness for fashion shows, expensive dresses, beautiful people and extravagant posers. All this can be viewed in excess at the Fashion Week. What meanwhile fascinates me almost even more are the locations that some fashion brands select for their shows, parties or presentations. These are often sumptuous private homes or buildings that are rarely mentioned in travel guides. Designer Miuccia Prada always has a knack for picking spectacular architecture to give her fashion a special stage – and vice-versa. Palais d’Iéna, for instance, an architectural monument by Auguste Perret from the late 1930s, which I saw for the first time at one of her shows. A place that shows temporary exhibitions or installations that are always interesting and open to the public (infos at www.lecese.fr).
Last summer, I was surprised by an invitation to the Miu Miu Croisière show at an address I didn’t yet know: 25, Avenue des Champs-Elysées. The most famous street in Paris, of course. But, to be honest, I also found it the most boring: in the midst of all the glamorous window dressings and tourist drama, I had never noticed the glorious house, hidden behind a high fence in the second row. The “Hôtel de la Païva”, the last remaining private palace on the Champs Elysées and today the headquarters of the exclusive English “Travellers Club”. What a location and what a history!
“La Païva” was one of the most flamboyant hosts of 19th century Paris, with opulent soirées frequented by VIPs of that epoch: composer Richard Wagner, painter Paul Baudry, writers Théophile Gaultier, Emile Zola and Gustave Flaubert. The Goncourt brothers casually dubbed the house “Louvre des Sex”. Born into modest circumstances in Moscow, the red-headed beauty Esther Lachmann later became one of the city's most famous courtesans. Legend has it that a former suitor once threw her out of his coach on the Champs-Elysées, a humiliation that she never forgot. After multiple divorces, Lachmann married Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck, 11 years her junior, a count palatine, an industry tycoon and the richest man of his era. She beseeched him to build her the most beautiful house in Paris at the site of her greatest humiliation, and he granted her wish. As I ascended the grand staircase of solid yellow onyx to take a view of the collection being presented on mannequins in the top salons, I imagined how the Russian siren must have robbed the love-crazed German of his senses and his fortune with a mere rustle of her empire-cut gown. How could Kate Moss, hitting the decks of the DJ booth downstairs, even compare?
I have shoe designer Christian Louboutin to thank for another architectural discovery. He revealed in an interview that his high heels were inspired by a childhood visit to the Palais de la Porte Dorée (293, avenue Daumesnil). Signs there forbade high-heeled ladies’ shoes on the lavishly decorated floors. Built as a former colonial museum in the gorgeous art déco style, it has meanwhile been given the politically correct name “Cité nationale de l'histoire de l’immigration”, and also houses an interesting aquarium. I am excited to see which doors will open for this year’s Fashion Week.