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French Fashionista

Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society. Mark Twain

She looked amused. Or terrified. It was hard to tell. I had only spent three, maybe four hours with her, tops. Rather than pausing to gauge her reaction, I pushed forward, sensing on some animalistic level that if I did, she would give me what I wanted. “Open it,” I said in a firm but friendly voice that said, “I am not here to judge, I seek only to understand.””No, I can’t,” she replied for the seventh time, but in a coy way that told me that her refusal was just for the sake of appearance. Or maybe I was wearing her down. Either way, it was clear to everyone in the room that she would succumb to the pressure, and soon.

She’d been introduced to me as Bérengere, but I couldn’t pronounce that, so I referred to her as “Berry.” Because the name of her husband was just as vexing, I had dubbed him “Armoire.” David and I sat on a couch in Berry and Armoire’s fashionable apartment, located in the ultra-hip Marais district of Paris, sipping champagne from jewel-colored flutes as we hounded our generous hostess to stand aside and open the cabinet door behind her. She hadn’t meant for us to see anything when she had carefully cracked the door to just the width of her arm. She wanted only to illustrate a point in conversation by showing us one small object. She obviously had not foreseen my natural inquisitiveness and brazen American nosiness — a common mistake made by those with whom I am not well acquainted.

As my mouth formed the words, “Come on, open it, I’ve already seen what’s inside,” I silently chided myself for being so barbaric. After all, this was the third occasion in as many cities that a member of Berry’s family had magnanimously donated their time to enrich our European experience. David and I met Berry’s parents, Pierre and Nicole, at the bed and breakfast in Venice. When they learned we were heading to the South of France, they invited us for lunch and a tour of Château Beaulieu, their extensive vineyard in Provençe. We came to know Berry a few days later, while enjoying a French interpretation of chili con carne and sipping a delicious rosé produced by Pierre’s winery a few miles away. Nicole had unexpectedly been called away so Pierre had invited Berry to join us as the feminine representative of clan Guénant. Directly following lunch, Pierre, a busy man who employs 11,000 workers amongst his many ventures, gave us a personal tour of the Beaulieu estate. As David and I tasted the Cabernet Sauvignon her father had named after her, Berry was already winging her way home to Paris. It just so happened that Paris was to be our next destination, and before dashing off to the airport, Berry had graciously offered to meet us in the city, show us around her mother’s art gallery, and take us to one of her favorite spots for tea.

When we met up in Paris, Berry had brought her husband with her. Sitting at a window-side table in Ladurée, the rich, exotic aroma of the rose tea, the small, elegantly decorated Marquise cakes, and the clamor of patrons at the pastry counter made for a delightful afternoon; for a few short hours, I felt Parisian. Unfazed by our American “charm,” Berry and Armoire invited us for an apertif in their home the following night. It was there, relaxing on the couch with a bit of bubbly in me, that I engaged in one of my favorite hobbies — coercion by means of incessant, playful badgering.

Berry was a down-to-earth kind of girl, or so I thought. Her long dark hair was thick and shiny and fell perfectly down to the middle of her back. Her make-up-free face was fresh, and her big eyes were like pools of chocolate. She dressed like a Boston collegiate, in solid colors and conservative cuts. She had once driven a jeep through Africa giving safari tours. But when we met up in Paris, something was amiss — it took about an hour for me to answer the age-old question I had silently asked myself — “What’s wrong with this picture?” She wore blue jeans and a snowy white button-down that hung out loosely from beneath a dark cardigan. Her hair was brushed straight and the most she could have been wearing on her face was a smear of Chapstick. But like an ornate, jewel-encrusted vase filled with cattails, at the bottom of her plain, unassuming ensemble she wore metallic, baby-blue lamé high-tops. Confused at first, I decided to consider her choice in shoes an endearing quirk. That was before I realized just how deep Berry’s fashion affliction ran.

It seemed to David and me that fashion sense came with the Paris postal code. Sitting at a sidewalk café off the beaten path, consuming a typical French breakfast of baguette, coffee, and orange juice, we watched Parisians as they went about their normal lives. All of the men sported jackets, designer shoes, and matching “murses.” Regardless of whether they wore leggings or leather, all of the women appeared elegant. People didn’tride but cruised by on their bicycles like Audrey Hepburn, so smoothly that the wind could not knock a hair loose from their luscious coiffures; they looked more like they were sitting motionless on a prop with a film of the passing landscape running behind them. We had never felt so awkward and poorly put together.

Over tea, we learned that, prior to acquiring his job at Louis Vuitton, Armoire had never been much into fashion, and that he only wore the high-end runway duds because he happened to be the same size as the prototypes. I could buy that. Together with Berry’s no-nonsense attire, I thought I’d finally found some different sort of Parisians, a couple who were not so preoccupied with being stylish. Perhaps it was my insecurity from those two days of exposure to perfectly attired people that precipitated my inappropriate reaction to Berry’s secret, the one she now guarded with her entire body.

It had been the mention of my surprise at seeing those shiny blue high-tops on Berry’s feet the day before that prompted Berry to tell us about a new pair of shoes she’d purchased just that afternoon — multicolored Adidas sneakers that were difficult to describe, so she’d just show them to us. But when she opened the door, I saw more than one pair of crazy-looking shoes.

Finally beaten into submission, Berry stepped aside, and I leapt off the couch and over to the built-in shelves that were piled with shoes. They were not just any shoes — these were Fendi, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Chinese Laundry, Miu Miu, and more. And they weren’t the kind you can get in the store — these were psycho-colored, limited editions. “I have a problem,” Berry confessed as I dug through the shelves and handled each shoe, reeling at the sheer impracticality of trying to match any of them with clothing. There were no simple colors, no black or red, the two boring basics that comprise my wardrobe. This went beyond fashion. This was cutting edge . I felt betrayed somehow. “I’ve never even worn most of them.” She said this as if it were supposed to make me feel better. Then she explained that this Imelda Marcos-worthy treasure trove was but one-sixth of a collection housed in three homes.

At a loss for words, I did the very thing I’d promised I wouldn’t do — I pointed and laughed. I held up a clear acrylic heel in which plastic flowers were entombed and said, “These. I mean, these are ridiculous. ” Turning the shoe over and over in my hand, I acknowledged to myself that my cruelty was born of envy. I had not the gumption to purchase, let alone wear, such an audacious heel. I looked up at Berry, who was staring at me, perhaps in expectation of more ridicule. “Too bad my feet are a size bigger than yours,” I said, by way of concession. “Because I would love to steal these and wear them to my next wine-and-cheese party.”

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