Alexander Wang tank tops, J Brand jeans and a Rag & Bone sweater similar to the very one I was wearing. Although each item on this color-coordinated rack could have been in any of the brand-focused, on-trend boutiques near my New York apartment, this was Paris. I expected something... more.
This particular disappointment came at Le66, a shopping super-store on the Champs Elysées. I had read online during my Eurostar journey from London that the boutique's holdings "[posed] a serious threat to the seemingly impenetrable Colette." This endorsement alone warranted a visit, as my first trip to Sarah Lerfel's famed Parisian boutique years ago remains a memorable experience. The important difference, however, between the two Paris-based stores was that while Colette features exhibits from artists, like Max Snow, and exclusive previews of collections, like Love editor Katie Grand's recent collaboration with Hogan, Le66 has brands that one could purchase in many high-end stores and online around the world.
All I could think was, what's the point of purchasing a Phillip Lim skirt abroad that I can buy at home, for less? To say I bought it in Paris?
And, wait, even Colette's goods are available online.
This was not the first time I have felt cheated of the Edith Wharton-esque fantasy I have had of New Yorker's trip to Paris for exclusive and unseen goods. But, globalization has taken away some of the novelty of travel and much has changed for the fashion industry since the early 20th century. Still, when I imagine shopping in Paris, I think of the city's many historic couturiers, like Givenchy, Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent and the overwhelming splendor of a Chanel runway show at the Grand Palais. The reality, for me and others with a budget, is that these stores are reserved for window shopping only (especially after purchasing an international plane ticket). While the number on a price tag on a Lanvin gown might be slightly lower in France, the reduction is insignificant to most.
My love for the European high street began as soon as I could dress myself (which, to my parent's horror, was before I could talk). Growing up, my British grandmother would bring me presents from Topshop, Mango and Zara -- as well as finds from her local charity shops (the fashion-loving apple didn't fall far from the chic granny tree). Not only were these large-scale European-based brands more fashion-forward than what I could find at my local New Jersey mall, they were also exciting because I knew no one I knew would be wearing them. These clothes became something that made me feel like I stood out. I would excitedly await our annual Christmas-time trip to visit my family... and fill out my wardrobe.
Now, not much time has passed, but on my most recent trip to Paris the feeling of shopping déjà vu that I experienced at Le66 continued as many of Paris' high-street stores -- Comptoir des Cotonniers, Sandro, Maje -- are now available in the U.S. (Zadig et Voltaire's designs are even available at Target.) With H&M, Topshop, Zara and more within walking distance of my apartment -- and available through e-commerce for the rest of the country -- Europe's mass retailers are just around the corner.
There are still a few chains that I like to frequent when abroad. Although outwardly I bemoan the fact that the H&M-owned chain COS has yet to cross the Atlantic, I relish in the ability to purchase stiff blouses, leather-paneled dresses and pleated skirts that my friends are less likely to own as well.
While a visit to the high street -- and COS -- isn't the only reason I love visiting Paris (a buttery croissant I ate upon arrival outshone any kind of possible shopping-gasm), it is certainly an enjoyable perk. And there's almost nothing quite like the magical experience of walking down a twinkling retail-filled Parisian street, like Rue Vieille du Temple or Rue Saint-Honoré. It was on one of these strolls that I discovered a reason -- beyond people watching -- to visit the original outposts of French brands now additionally located in New York: price.
"Maje?" A salesgirl at the Maje boutique said, pointing to the blue coat I had purchased when the store opened its first North American boutique in Manhattan's West Village in December 2011.
"Yes!" I excitedly exclaimed, feeling utterly au courant at the recognition in spite of my muddy boots and the shabby knit hat keeping me warm on a long walk from the Louvre to Sacré Coeur. But, this sensation was fleeting.
"Maje," the girl said again, pointing to the back of the store, where my exact coat was marked to less than one-eighth of the price I had paid just over a year ago.
"We are a stock store," another employee explained. "We have the new summer collection, but also winter and last year."
"New York is double the price," he continued, almost taunting me with the wonderful news.
And so it was that I discovered the stock stores of Paris. A.P.C., Chloe, Les Petites and Maje's sister store Sandro all had locations dedicated to selling last season's goods -- in addition to being already much lower than their American counterparts. (Think of them as a year-round sample sale, if that doesn't make you too excited, or an outlet mall in the center of a city.)
While it might not be swirling in a custom-made Pierre Cardin gown, it was enough for me to just be in Paris, surrounded by beautiful things and feel like I had discovered something new.