I have, in my memory bank, an unforgettable day in Paris that involved champagne (naturally), Valentino and a little black dress. It’s a memory that I conjure up when I am feeling slightly inadequate, or want to remind myself that fairytales do exist, you just sometimes have to move the goal posts.
At the time, I was living in Chantilly a beautiful town about 40km north of Paris, historically linked to Princes of Condé (cousins of the kings of France). I mention this because everyday I drove past the Chateau de Chantilly and was reminded of the opulence of pre-Revolutionary France, and dreamt a little bit about being a princess. I loved Chantilly, our house, our neighbours and the friends I made while I was there. So, when we learnt that my husband’s job was going to take us to Tokyo indefinitely, I needed cheering up. So did my friends.
On one particular day, a very good friend of mine wanted to take me to lunch in a good restaurant in Paris. She had organised the child care, booked the restaurant, and the day was ours.
The very good restaurant turned out to be Lucas Carton*, a 3 Michelin starred restaurant in the place de la Madeleine, near the Opéra in central Paris. To say I was intimidated by the entrance is an understatement. I straightened my back, pulled my shoulders back and tried to feel as elegant as all the other gorgeous Parisian women lunching in the opulent art-déco surrounds.
We were seated at a well placed circular table and immediately asked if ‘Mesdames would like Champagne’. ‘Mais bien sur….’ Louis Roderer was the house champagne, and we were offered a glass to help with our menu choice. We barely needed to lift our eyes up and a waiter would be there, ready to answer any questions. My menu had no prices on it (the subtle way you are told that you are the guest and can choose whatever you please) and I was terrified of accidentally choosing the most expensive dish. I settled for a Langoustine entrée, Poulet de Bresse main, and a chocolate nougatine dessert that I can still imagine melting in my mouth if I close my eyes and think about it for long enough. That one glass of champagne didn’t last very long, so a bottle was ordered for the meal, but that disappeared before dessert. Obviously we needed to have some sort of drink to accompany the dessert, so we were served another glass of champagne to finish off. I was in a daze, a Champagne Daze, and didn’t want the experience to end.
Neither did my friend.
In fact, she decided that we had to go shopping because it would be quite a few hours until she could drive us home again after all that champagne.
How convenient then, that Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré was just around the corner. My friend really wanted to go to Dior for a new top, and she said she wanted me to help her choose. This is where the day starting really turning in to a fairytale. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would step foot in Dior. While my friend was trying on some clothes and I was trying not to hyperventilate at the prices, the sales assistant came over with some clothes in my size to try on. She said my friend wanted te see what they looked like on me, because she was having trouble deciding. I have never been so scared about trying on something and ripping it in my life. It was a mistake though, because the fabric felt so sublime, I didn’t ever want to wear anything else!
Dior episode over, I noticed Valentino across the street. I asked if we could have a look in there. It must have been around the time that Julia Roberts had won her Best Actress Oscar and had worn a stunning black and white gown that was reportedly on display in the Paris flagship store. I wanted to ask if we could see the gown, my friend wanted some sunglasses, so in we went. My friend looked at sunglasses, and clothes, and I nonchalantly asked where I might see the ‘Julia Roberts’ dress. Madame was quickly put in her place being told that it was at the Couture store. We were only at the Pret-a-porter. Suitably chastised I went back to my ‘browsing’. I always said if I could ever afford a ‘real’ designer dress it would have to be a little black dress. Timeless. Needing something to browse at I looked at the little black dresses. On seeing the prices I realised I would probably have to relinquish that dream. The dresses were all about 15000 francs (it was before the Euro) or about $3000. Unreachable for me. I pulled a simple one of the rack to see it more closely and couldn’t believe my eyes when I read 2000 francs (about $350)on the price tag, I must have been missing a zero. The sales assistant asked if I would like to try it on, so I said I would love too (if only to give me a chance to look more closely at the price). The dress fitted like a glove. I called my friend in to have a look and whispered excitedly at her to check the price. Definitely 2000 francs. What was the catch? I glided out to the main sales area to have a better look in the big mirror and two assistants swept on me. They told me what a lovely fit it was, that the dress was made for me. They called a guy in another room to come and have look. He stood back and tut-tutted a bit, gave me some ridiculously high heels to put on as well, and finally said “It would be much more flattering to your legs if the hem was 1cm shorter”. Then he called the seamstress. She came and pinned up the hem the required centimetre, and four shop assistants stood back and admired their work. My friend was slightly bemused in the background. It was decided for me, I had to buy the dress, but then sadly, I told them I was leaving for Tokyo in four days and I wouldn’t have time to come back to Paris to pick up the alteration.
‘Pas de problème.’ They could have it finished in an hour!
The whole episode was unbelievable. I went back an hour later, the alterations were done, and I decided I had to have the shoes as well. I was the proud owner of a Valentino Little Black Dress and shoes. I couldn’t believe my luck. My friend insisted it was my accent. She wanted to always take me to the good shops with her. She thought it made her more ‘exotic’ having a friend like me. That just made us both more upset that I was leaving.
I have since discovered that at the beginning of spring, the designers often put some prototype dresses on the racks to see the reaction. There are only ever two sizes of each style, and if they have good feedback, they are then made up in more expensive fabric. I got lucky. Most likely my dress is a prototype – but I don’t care, it has a Valentino label. And the shoes….well they are quite simply divine. Fairytales don’t always come in the form of knights in shining armour and golden carriages.
This was all bought back to me the other day when my 16-year-old daughter was discussing dresses for her upcoming semi-formal. Apparently one of the girls in her year is wearing a Valentino they had ordered in from Paris.
All I could think to say was ‘Would you like to wear mine?’
* Sadly Lucas Carton as I saw it closed it’s doors in 2005 and gave up its 3 stars in the process. Chef Alain Senderens (Chef at Lucas Carton since 1985) wanted to create a more affordable dining experience. A distinguished chef, he wanted to get away from the chains of luxury without sacrificing the quality of his food.