Bestselling author Elaine Sciolino shares an excerpt from her latest book, The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs, where she leads publisher Arianna Huffington on a secondhand clothing shopping expedition on her beloved rue des Martyrs.
Adapted from the chapter “Cheaper Than a Psychiatrist”:
The pressure was on. Arianna Huffington wanted to shop, but time was running out.
I won’t pretend that Arianna, the head of the Huffington Post Media Group, is a close friend. We had met only once before, when I interviewed her just before the launch of the French version of the Huffington Post. She had hired Anne Sinclair as its editorial director, a brash move. Sinclair, a veteran French journalist and the heiress to an art fortune, was better known as the stand-by-me wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund whose hopes of becoming president of France ended the day a chambermaid in a New York hotel accused him of sexual assault.
Arianna hadn’t wanted to answer all of my questions about Anne. But we had bonded as fellow journalists and mothers of daughters, and had struck up an e-mail and telephone relationship. Now she was in Paris again, she had looked me up, and we were having brunch at the Café Marly, in the Louvre. She had brought along her younger daughter, Isabella, a student at Yale, and I had brought along my younger daughter, Gabriela, a student at Washington University. As we ate in a dining room of satin and velvet luxury, Arianna and I decided it would be fun to take our daughters shopping.
We had only an hour to shop before Arianna and Isabella had to head to the airport. Complicating matters was that it was Sunday afternoon, and France has laws limiting most Sunday afternoon shopping. The aim of the ban is to protect small merchants with small staffs who cannot or choose not to work on weekends. So both big stores like Galeries Lafayette and small, big-name boutiques are closed. An exception is made for shops in designated tourist areas—like the top of the rue des Martyrs in hypertouristy Montmartre. I told the chauffeur to take us there.
Gabriela decided that we would try Maje, a trendy shop that is part of a small French chain with original, flattering, if overpriced clothes that appeal to younger women. With her tall, lean—but not too lean—body, Isabella was easily transformed into a lovely Parisienne. She walked away with two dresses and a top. Arianna was so pleased that she insisted on buying something for Gabriela, who chose a fitted, short-sleeved cherry-red top with a jewel neckline and a flared bottom. It remains one of her favorite articles of clothing.
After this we had only 15 minutes left, but I wanted Arianna to find something special for herself. Feeling confident, I led her into a world of adventure and chance that comes with going secondhand. Taking my friends to secondhand shops on and around the rue des Martyrs is at the top of my must-things-to-do-in-Paris list. It comes before my tours of pretty, small gardens; lesser-known churches; and hidden corners of the Louvre. I love the feeling that comes with finding a well-tailored, decades-old navy gabardine jacket with a “Made in France” label (usually dating from the years before much of French clothing manufacturing moved to Hong Kong and China) for the price of a double espresso. Even more, I love consulting with a team of personal shoppers who enjoy good conversation and appreciate my passion for the hunt.
The four of us headed to the very top of the rue des Martyrs, to a secondhand clothing shop on the corner named Chine Machine. We were a world away from Didier Ludot, whose museum of a shop at the Palais Royal sells meticulously curated haute couture. Reese Witherspoon, Catherine Deneuve, and Sofia Coppola are among Ludot’s clients.
At first glance, Chine Machine looks like just another low-end secondhand shop. Racks of clothing and shoes mix with vinyl LPs, bangles with papier-mâché maps of the Paris Métro, odd bits of fur, sunglasses. A patchwork of nude and fashion photographs is taped to the wall behind the counter, along with a note that says, “We’re cheap, so you don’t have to be.” (In other words, no bargaining. You’re already getting a great deal).
But at Chine Machine, you don’t have to sift through mountains of awful clothing that smell like mildew, dust, and mold in the hopes of finding a 1960s tango dress for under fifty euros. Here, every item has been steam-cleaned and pressed by a special machine. Clothing is color-coded and organized on racks according to type. There are always tango dresses.
The boutique is owned by Martine Chanin, a thirty-something American with a natural feel for business and an even better eye for fashion. A New York City native, she moved frequently with her family as a child, went to college (as my husband did) at SUNY Binghamton, in upstate New York, and settled in Paris in 2003 to study French language and civilization at the Sorbonne.
Long-haired, olive-skinned, tall, thin, and confident enough to wear a leopard-patterned jumpsuit with stiletto boots, Martine is one of the braver of the American women who have made their lives in Paris. She started out slowly. For five years, she lived in a dark apartment infected with black mold. She began collecting good-quality, reasonably priced vintage clothing from sources in New York. She stored her treasures in garbage bags and plastic bins in her tiny apartment. Eventually she quit her night job, teamed up with a partner, and then opened Chine Machine on her own, taking over a 325-square-foot, low-tech space that had been a contemporary art gallery.
Launching a business as a foreigner proved daunting. She paid one lawyer what she described as a huge sum of money only to discover, when she arrived at the immigration bureau in the Prefecture of Police to collect her work papers, that she was very, very illegal.
“They said, ‘You need to get out of here,’” she recalled. “They said, ‘You need to get on a plane and go back to New York or wherever you’re from and get a visa for your business, and then like in six months maybe you can come back.’ And I was like, ‘Nope, ain’t gonna happen. I just started this business. No way in hell I can leave.’
“So I got a new lawyer. And the new lawyer said, ‘Get married.’”
Which she did. She married her Swedish musician boyfriend, whose citizenship in a European Union member country gives her the right to live and work in France.
Unlike high-end consignment shops, called dépôts-ventes, which take items on spec, Martine pays cash or gives credit for everything. And unlike low-end secondhand shops, which often buy in bulk, Chine Machine rigorously examines every item before accepting it. The goal is to sell cheap and fast. “You can do high-end, but you really have to know what you’re doing,” she said. “So I get it in, get it out. Constantly bring in new stuff with bargain-basement awesomeness.”
Martine speaks slowly, never raises her voice, and seems unfazed by adversity, reacting calmly even when a Chanel coat walked out the door with a shoplifter one day. When confronted with a mountain of clothes, she turns ruthless. I’ve seen her reject full suitcases, leaving the wannabe seller disappointed and humiliated. She has turned me down, more than once.
“You have to harden a little, get a little tough,” she said.
Toughness has helped Martine deal with the lost souls from the nearby single-room-only residence who wander into the shop from time to time. One regular is a singer-guitarist with a 1960s mind-set.
“He’s always dressed in a sort of sixties style,” Martine said. “He often talks nonsense, but it’s all sort of sprinkled with the names of bands and how it’s not the 1960s anymore. When he’s feeling good, he puts his dentures in.”
She tells more stories: about the ex-con who threatened to take a coat without paying, the elderly woman who seemed ready to buy a gypsy-style skirt and then pulled a scam, the well-dressed adolescent pickpockets who carry tools to remove the anti-theft security devices from the clothing.
Serendipity rules. At Martine’s, I have found a Bruno Magli silver-and-black leather evening bag (twelve euros), purple suede Charles Jourdan flats trimmed in black leather (fifteen), and a short-cropped Max Mara wool crepe blazer (twenty). Just before my birthday one November, my daughter Gabriela spotted a sheared mink coat, with chestnut-colored skins so soft and lightweight that the fur felt like crushed velvet. Now, I have never been a mink coat kind of gal, but at fifty euros, and with the dead of winter coming, I was delighted to accept it as a luscious birthday present from Gabriela and her older sister, Alessandra.
The best deal ever came the day I bought Hannah Vinter, the 23-year-old daughter of a college friend, a welcome-to-Paris gift. A scarf with a red border and a lively pattern in olive, ocher, and teal called out to her from the two-euro bin.
When I went to pay for it, Olivia, the saleswoman, said it was five euros.
“But it was in the two-euro bin!” I protested.
“The tag says five euros,” Olivia replied. “It’s worth it.”
I almost didn’t buy it on principle, but I couldn’t disappoint Hannah. When we examined it closely back home, we discovered that it was signed “Hermès.” An Internet search identified it as a 1991 design called “Art des Steppes” by the artist Annie Faivre. Like the scarves that Guy Lellouche, the antiques dealer, and I had once traded, it had the hand-sewn edges with the hem rolled on the front side that proclaim Hermès authenticity.
The next time I was in the shop, I asked Olivia if she remembered the scarf. I told her it was an Hermès and asked whether the five-euro price tag had been a mistake. “Not at all!” she said. “It was a surprise. We like to do stuff like that.”
Finding an Hermès scarf in mint condition for five euros is the shopping equivalent of winning the lottery: it happens only once. So I didn’t tell Arianna the story; I promised nothing more than a bit of fun.
Arianna, it turns out, is as relentless in sniffing out bargains as she is in running one of the world’s most successful online news aggregators. From the jewelry case, she chose two bold gold-toned 1960s-era chokers for 20 euros apiece. Then she spotted a 10-euro BlackBerry case in crocodile skin.
As we were about to leave, she saw a floppy straw hat in a soft yellow and taupe with a tiger-skin motif. She pulled it down low over her forehead and giggled. Arianna Huffington actually giggled. Okay, this wasn’t exactly the felt fedora Garbo made famous in the 1930s, but like the Garbo hat, it did disguise.
Arianna loved it. “I’m going to wear it now!” she said.
We said our good-byes. It made me smile to see Arianna Huffington, a wealthy woman with polished skin and lacquered hair, head off to Charles de Gaulle Airport in a chauffeur-driven sedan wearing a 10-euro secondhand hat.
I have more fun in store for Arianna if she comes to town and wants to shop again. We will stop by No. 86 rue des Martyrs at By Flowers and say hello to the Israeli-born Paul Cohen and his twenty-something French business partner, Jonathan Winnicki. There are few fancy designer names at this shop (although I once found a forest-green cashmere Burberry jacket for 40 euros). It’s mostly clothes dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, many bought in bulk. You need time and stamina to discover gold.
Then we will go to the chicest shop on my secondhand tour: Troc en Stock, on the rue Clauzel just off the rue des Martyrs. The prices of the almost-new clothing are reasonable—about one-fourth to one-half of retail—and some items are real steals (a caramel-colored, soft-as-butter leather Fratelli Rossetti jacket for 140 euros and a Max Mara leopard-print silk blouse for forty).
There’s no negotiating with Sophie Meyer, the no-nonsense owner who opened the shop two decades ago. So I’ve tried to seduce her by bringing her bits of Coca-Cola memorabilia, which I know she collects, from the United States. We have developed a relationship of mutual respect, although I would never, ever have asked her for discounts. And then she started giving them to me.
My friend Susan, who hates shopping and spends a lot more money on Grace, her black Lab, than on her clothes, gave into temptation during a visit to Paris and bought an entire dress-up wardrobe here: two clingy Diane von Furstenberg dresses, one Marc Jacobs black silk sleeveless shift, and a print Prada dress for everyday wear—for about the price of dinner for two at a two-star restaurant. (It helps that she’s somewhere between sizes 2 and 4.)
“We keep out the chain stores and preserve the feeling of neighborhood,” said Sophie. “And we’re cheaper than a psychiatrist.”
I know Arianna will like her.
Follow Elaine on Twitter @ElaineSciolino