The Day I Met A Fashion Legend

Victoire Doutreleau started working with Christian Dior in 1953, at the height of his fame, when everybody from Marlene Dietrich to Princess Margaret wore Dior. Merely twenty years old, she had become one his models, one of his mannequins. In these days, every single look of a collection, all of these wonderfully elegant day-time dresses and suits, all of these lavishly adorned evening and ball gowns were created on a mannequin’s body before they were finally presented to the press and the designer’s customers, in a rather modest surrounding compared to today’s over-dimensional fashion shows whose costs often exceed China’s GNP (well, maybe not China’s, but definitely the one of some African state), in these days a simple room filled with lots of chairs would do, in Christian Dior’s case, however, the walls were painted in some fine grey, a shade of grey so exquisite, that a Dior perfume now bears its name, Gris Dior. The people that were sitting in these chairs had fine names, too. Victoire Doutreleau paraded past le tout Paris, the international press, Harper’s Bazaar’s Carmel Snow, the one who in 1947 came up with the iconic expression New Look for Dior’s very first collection, photographers like Richard Avedon, and at one time Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn with husband Mel Ferrer. This is where I came in.

I posted this photo on my Instagram account, writing a little story in French about this fashionable encounter, about Audrey Hepburn’s infidelity, she was Hubert de Givenchy’s muse after all at the time and not Christian Dior’s, but all in all it was rather a tribute to Victoire Doutreleau’s charme, her smile and grace in this photo had amazed me much more than the chicness of the Dior dress she was flaunting. And just by chance, or divine intervention, who knows, it just so happened that Victoire Doutreleau read my story on Instagram and found it most amusing. And by that, she won my heart.

Many a story later, I had moved from Zurich to Berlin in the meantime, and had written little somethings about her friendship with Yves Saint Laurent whom she followed when he left the house of Dior to open his own couture house in 1962, her best friend Karl Lagerfeld whose death she mourns deeply, and the great dresses she has worn, we had become sort of acquainted, and this December she invited me to tea in her Paris apartment, an elegant pied à terre where she stays when she’s not in Switzerland or at her 18th-century mansion in the South of France. I arrived the day Paris went on strike, my flight was over three hours late, there was no métro to take me any place near or far, it was raining heavily, but Boy, did I not mind! Imagine the joy you have when you learn all about Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Bergé (that one not so charming as one might have thought), Françoise Sagan, Helena Rubinstein, The Duchess of Windsor, Marlene Dietrich, Princess Margaret, Jacques de Bascher, Karl Lagerfeld, nights at the Paris opera with Alain Delon at her side and Maria Callas on stage, showing Olivia de Havilland, one of Dior’s most loyal customers, how to walk tête haute, learning about all that straight from the horse’s mouth! However, no expression could be less fitting. Straight from the goddess’s lips, this has a much better ring to it… A goddess dressed in a red Chanel, too. Designed by Karl Lagerfeld, that one, not Coco, who she has met as well, of course, un génie et un monstre, so she told me. She wore Mademoiselle’s suits in the years between, between being dressed by Dior and Saint Laurent, the time when Yves Saint Laurent was hospitalized during the Algerian war. We talked for hours, over champagne and snacks, only disturbed by texts from her sons and my mother. Both our closest family weren’t so sure about this internet connection of ours and wanted to be sure nothing awful had happened—who the hell had she invited? Who the hell was I seeing? But we told them to trust our guts just like we did. Unless all of it was a dream, I can only say that one meets the most wonderful people on Instagram.

Paris For Misanthropists

When in Paris, it’s one of my strange habits to have the first coffee in the day in the Marais, don’t ask me why, there are perfectly fine alternative locations all over Paris, but no, it has to be the Marais, Paris’s oldest quarter, you won’t find much of Haussmann’s architecture here, it’s filled with beautiful hôtels particuliers, the residences of the aristocracy, erected hundreds of years ago, and still teaching us lessons about grandeur, in comparison, the front door of Mrs Kennedy’s lodging on Park Avenue appears to me like the back entrance to a dubious embassy of a totalitarian country with a laughable gross national product, sorry, New York, and don’t get me started on Trump and his golden tower, anyway, the Rohans and consorts had much better housing, one of those palaces, that’s what these hôtels particuliers really are, palaces, now houses the Picasso Museum. Then there’s Place des Vosges, a cliché, I know, but I have to pay it at least one visit each time I’m there, it actually looks nicest off season, in January, early in the year and in the morning, on a frosty day, void of people and tourists, under light snow, when only birds have left their prints, I like it in the rain, too, a little morbid, but I rather hate it when it’s full of people in summer, people with too much time on their hands ruin everything, loitering with intent, thirsty for a tan or whatever they do on a lawn – I do sound misanthropic, don’t I? Don’t get me wrong, I like people. Just not in places that look better without.

Paris birthday dinner.

When I turned 35, I was frolicking through the food halls of La Grande Épicerie de Paris on Rue de Sèvres, in Paris’ stylish 7th arrondissement, to get some tea from Kusmi, I was in desperate need of new supplies of Prince Vladimir and St. Petersburg, my two favourite blends (and boxes, because who am I kidding, I buy it mostly for the boxes), but then I got sidetracked, sidetracked by a salami that looked so yummy as any salami ever could, the sign said “saucisson des Abruzzes”, and although I didn’t know where the Abruzzo (or is it “Abruzzi”?) are, Italy, I guess—I do have to look it up one of these days—anyway, I was sure that they produced the best salami in the whole world, it just looked so yummy—perfection, absolute perfection! I bought 500 gr of it, a baguette, a bottle of red wine, can’t remember what kind but I guess St.Émilion as I usually buy St.Émilion, and however Italian that salami was, I was still in Paris, France, wasn’t I? I made it happily to my hotel nearby to meet my parents who were waiting in their hotel room, you see, after dropping my tea in my room, I was supposed to pick them up to go to a nice place to celebrate my birthday, kind of a family tradition to dine in Paris on our birthdays, but I had just made a change of plans: I was planning on having a picnic in my hotel room! Baguette, salami and Bordeaux while looking out of the window. How swell, I thought, how very swell – but my mother’s reply was “What? Are you crazy?” – an hour later I had Bœuf Bourguignon at a nice place on Île St. Louis. Mothers! But I kept the box. I’m a romantic.

Parisian Coffees.

At first, I have to tell you that I am convinced that coffee’s a very healthy beverage. It’s really rich in flavonoids and these keep you safe from any antioxidants, even the French ones. So, the plural here is chosen quite deliberately, I always have to have more than just one coffee when I’m in Paris. I’ve had them in the sun, and in the rain. I’ve had coffees in high-toned places, and in places off the tracks. They’ve been served with the warmest of smiles, and in sheer disgust—which was quite amusing in a way, homophobia in the Marais, in a café on the corner of Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, because if you’re a waiter who happens to disapprove of gays, you really should reconsider working in their natural habitat. But I digress. I’ve had coffees that were just great, and coffees that tasted like way too strong a Nescafé. I’ve had coffees to go from Starbucks, and coffees in the presence of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre at the Café de Flore, au Flore, that is if their spirits still haunt the place, I think they won’t approve of that Louis Vuitton store right next to it, some marketing idiot thought it appropriate to squeeze their bags in the tiny space between the Flore and the Deux Magots—although, who am I to complain, I always paid the bills with euros from my Louis Vuitton wallet, but at least I hadn’t bought it there, in the very middle of St.Germain-des-Prés, but on the right bank, that’s where you are supposed to buy such things. But back to my coffee sermon: I’ve had all these coffees in wonderful peace, next to Frenchmen and tourists, next to people in suits on their lunch-break and next to people in sneakers on their honeymoon, and there never were any gilets jaunes in sight, there was never any pseudo-revolutionary brutality going on, no places were ever set on fire, and so I have just one thing to say to these guys if they ever dare to disturb my peace and quiet in Paris: Get lost, you losers!

Maigret’s Paris.

Paris in 1958 was very different from today, from the Paris I know. First of all, it was so very dirty. It was none other than André Malraux, de Gaulle’s guy for everything cultural, who had all the blackened historic façades cleansed, he wanted Paris to be the City of Lights again, the most important operation in urban architecture since Baron Haussmann changed the face of Paris altogether in the 1850s and ’60s, and there was quite some dirt that had laid up since then, believe you me (and by me, I mean my mother, she should know, she did live in Paris in the early 1960s). Second of all, one of my favourite areas, the Marais, was considered a troubled district, it was quite run down in those days, don’t imagine you’d have found any of today’s fashionable cafés and restaurants there, no art galleries, no stylish designer stores, no perfumed air emerging from the Guerlain and Diptyque boutiques, certainly no gays, not even closeted ones, instead you would find a butcher right on Place des Vosges, just like in Jean Delannoy’s 1958 movie “Maigret Sets A Trap”, and a butcher who let you witness his bloody business through his shop windows at that. It was a different time, one might say, I say it was a better time – or more precisely, it was a more authentic time, a time where there was not yet a Louis Vuitton store between the Flore and the Deux Magots to please people suffering from logomania in every possible spot, or otherwise Simone de Beauvoir would have had to look for another place to work and have her p’tit noir. By the way, neither she or Jean-Paul Sartre were very fond of Malraux, trop réac politically, and I think, she might have sensed the side-effects that Malraux’s polishing of Paris would bring. Who knows? Luckily, she died long before the Louis Vuitton people opened their store on Boulevard Saint-Germain.

The best worst coffee of Paris.

The Flore. This is the place where Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre worked on their essays, plays and novels, literary milestones that made them rich and famous (well, not really rich, but very, very famous), all while having lots of coffee and even more cigarettes. As for the cigarettes, I cannot say which brand they were smoking and if I would have liked their taste, I’m a Dunhill kind of guy, the blue ones, but as far as the coffee is concerned, gee, no wonder they were so embittered about society. I hate that brew. It’s so nicely presented, the coffee is served in a jug, you got another one for your milk, hot milk on top, you pour and mix it yourself, according to your taste, you get an extra glass of water, so all in all one really can’t complainbut still, I do. This coffee is just awful, it‘s way too strong, it tastes like overdosed Nescafé, strangely bitter, brutal, a simultaneous attack on your taste buds and your stomach, you take one sip and you immediately have to light a cigarette to recover from it—and it takes a lot of time to recover. But that’s actually the only good thing about it, as a convalescent, you spend your time soaking up the atmosphere while watching the passers-by, just as long as it takes to let this wonderful spot called St.Germain-des-Prés sink in really deep. I can do this for hours at a time while that nasty coffee is getting cold. And if you should feel like re-reading “Les Mandarinsor Les Mots“, there’s a bookshop just next door on Boulevard St.Germain, so you can start right away, right there where it was written.

Imperial breakfast.

For years and years, I’ve thought English marmalade was the best. I’m not known for admitting mistakes easily, but Boy, do I stand corrected. The best marmalade in the world is definitely French and not from a supermarket but from the Ritz on Place Vendôme in Paris. I wonder if they still have people stay in their suites of if they don’t have to rent out rooms any longer as they should be making a fortune with their grapefruit and clementine jam by now. It’s best spread on fine pâté, by the way, trust you me. Bon appétit!