How to do a Selfie on the Chanel Staircase

Of course, the Paris Meetup wasn’t the only fabric shopping I did in France…

We landed in Marseille in the south of France on a Sunday, and headed to my husband’s old stomping grounds in Aix-en-Provence. He spent his “junior year abroad” in Aix during college/university, leaving behind an all-men’s school on a Tennessee mountaintop and landing with an old French host family that had a large villa on the outskirts of town. It was culture shock in all the best ways.

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That’s a picture, probably taken by my husband, of his American student roommates and his French host family members playing “boules” on the villa’s lawn.

We visited their home once 25 years ago, and the matriarch threw a dinner party for us on a balmy May night at a table set up outdoors. She served the “spring plate” of lamb chops, flageolet beans cooked with bacon, and a “jolie” French red wine. In other words, paradise.

Check out the early-60s Kennedy-era fashion in these pictures from the yearbook, now online, of my husband’s 1964 class at the Institute of American Universities, an entity that still exists in Aix. It’s a lot of fun seeing these idealistic young American things, who came from places like Kalamazoo (third class on the Queen Mary), and landed in another world.

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Duffle coats, pencil skirts, those parkas with the single kangaroo pocket worn with capris…the 60s mod “youthquake” was just about to begin.

Just a short drive from the villa where my husband stayed that year, is this view of Sainte-Victoire, a mountain frequently painted by Cezanne. Still gorgeous.

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Aix-en-Provence is one of those old town that was occupied by the Romans way back when, and some of the structures still exist. My husband thinks that the main thoroughfare was designed much later by Pierre L’Enfant, the same guy that created Washington, D.C.’s circular layout, which looks stately but makes it absolutely impossible to make a left turn. However, I wasn’t able to back up that claim (in the five seconds I spent googling it).

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As we were walking along the main drag of the Cours Mirabeau, my husband reminisced about how he had been standing in line at the movies theater there when he overheard that President Kennedy had been shot.

Later, we had dinner in the Grillon brasserie, which looks exactly the same as when he was there 51 years ago.

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Mmmm, warm goat cheese salad with olive tapenade. Old France does still exist.

The first day we were there, I spotted this congenial fabric shop, Tissus La Victoire which had a number of printed cotton Provencal fabrics from region.

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But I was afraid if I bought some, I would have to sew (shudder) home dec, so I stuck with the garment fabrics on the other side of the shop. The very patient people working there tirelessly pulled bolts down onto a large table while I hemmed and hawed, and finally I settled on a good-quality wool blend Missoni knock-off and a bonded knit masquerading as a tweed. Unfortunately, I don’t have more pictures of the shop, because my husband ran off with my phone that day!

In the same market square, there was one of those magazine gazebos you see frequently in Europe.

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I looked around the shelves of craft magazines, but then had to ask the man, “Burda? Pour coudre?” And I don’t know what kind of reputation French Burda has, but he pulled it out of some hidden cupboard in the back and plunked it on the counter, like a girlie magazine.

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While we were there, we rented a car with a navigational system that gave us very polite, officious and, frankly bossy instructions in a clipped British accent, whom we quickly dubbed “Miss Moneypenny.” Using Miss Moneypenny, we were able to find this archeological site of the remains of a Gaul, then Greek, then Roman town in Glanum, near St-Remy (a male family member’s idea of course).

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But while walking around there, I thought about the women who lived in these houses, cooking, weaving, sewing, and possibly hanging out in the place I’d most likely be found:

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After that I got Miss Moneypenny cranked up again, while my gadget-mad husband put on the American voice from Google maps “as a backup.” Well, Miss Google Maps must be doing her year abroad from Little Rock, because she kept saying things like “turn on the “Rooo Suh-ZANE” for “rue Cezanne” while Miss Moneypenny barked at me to “PLEASE prepah to tuhn left!!” in that Sloane Ranger voice.

After some spirited back and forth between my husband, Miss Moneypenny, Miss Google Maps, and me, Miss Google was sent to back to Mayberry to study her French some more, and smug Miss Moneypenny soldiered on with the ugly Americans. Then all of a sudden Moneypenny croaked out, SZERGLSZZZZZ! and died a swift death. (Probably from some Bond villain’s leftover cold war laser). So we had to settle for Nellie Forbush again, telling us to turn on rooo dess eckol-ess militar-ess.

Suffice it to say, the 13-year-old in the back was the most mature of the bunch.

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All around us, the landscape looked like every Impressionist painting, with the rounded, leaning pines and tall, straight, skinny evergreens (probably evolved like that from the winds that can be, as the road signs said, “vent lateral” which basically means “sideways winds that can blow you the hell off the road.”). As we drove through Van Gogh country in St. Remy, the road was lined with a tunnel of solitary trees. Still so beautiful. Vive la France for having the discipline not to mess up this gorgeous area.

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Then it was just a short trip, less than four hours, on the high-speed TGV train to Gare de Lyon in Paris, where I ran off to the meetup.

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The next afternoon, after ditching my family, instead of heading to the left bank where I intended to roam, my feet made a sharp right down the rue du Faubourg St-Honore, past the rows of tony designer shops, in the direction of the fabric store that dares not speak its name. (But I wrote about it last year here.)

On the way, I spotted Chanel on the rue Cambon, and walked into the part of the shop where her famous staircase resides. I took a picture of it last year, but this time I was determined to get a selfie. As I walked up to the stairs, I was stopped by the guard, but after asking nicely in bad French, he let me have a seat, and was friendly enough to take some pictures.

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Score! (Sorry, Coco, but the Chanel-style puffer jacket I’m wear is from the Monoprix, AKA the Target of France.)

While I’m thinking about it, I wanted to mention that if you’re going to Paris, and would like to arrange an insiders’ tour of fabric and notions stores, Barbara of Stitching Up Paris can arrange it all for you. She came up with a garment district itinerary for the Paris meetup, with a lot of great shops on the list.

So then this happened:

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There’s a reason why Susan Khalje calls Janssens et Janssens the best fabric store in the world. Because it is. Just rob a liquor store before you go.

I wanted to get more of the Italian printed wool I’d used to make things like this:

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because the feel is so light, warm and luxurious when I wear them. So I picked out an Italian wool/silk fabric, with a retro print that reminds me of the Fuller Fabrics “Modern Masters” fabrics from the 50s, and decided that was enough.

But then, looking at the silks (bad idea) I found a gorgeous 30s-looking twill and remembered that I still had black Italian Chanel tweed from last year’s budget-blowing visit to Janssens et Janssens. The tweed was slated to become a little black jacket I’d dubbed “The Kaiser” (Lagerfeld’s nickname, though probably not to his face), and though I’ve already bought silk to line it, I thought this would be better. Uh oh.

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Then I went downstairs to look at the sparkly stuff (not for me, fortunately) and found the trims. Nooooo!

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I am just going to have to start sewing faster.

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So that’s what I did when I skipped Thanksgiving! Hope your sewing’s going well!

28 thoughts on “How to do a Selfie on the Chanel Staircase

  1. Oh wow! I haven’t heard of janssens et janssens but now it’s definately on my travel wish-list. Which is the silk you’ve envisaged for the lining? both would be lovely.

    • Janssens is a fabulous place, but beware…most fabrics there are more than 100 Euros per meter! That’s why I make little tops and jackets from what I buy there, using every scrap. I’ll be using the black/white/beige silk twill on the left as my lining. The multi-colored fabric on the right is a wool/silk blend I’ll use for another top. Lined in silk CDC, those makes are the most luxurious things ever, and they don’t wrinkle in my suitcase. I’ve worn them to death!

    • Hi Patricia! What do you think? You can just see the trim I bought at the bottom of the picture of the fabrics from Janssens. It’s a black “windowpane” trim with purple and brown yarn woven through. I was going to use it to trim the Monoprix Chanel-style puffer, to look like the $800 Moncler versions I saw in Bloomingdales. But now I may use it on my upcoming Little Black Jacket. It’s very pretty and subtle, which is more my style.

    • I’m eager to get going on all of this great fabric from France. But first I have to clean out may stash closet, because my sewing toolbox is absolutely buried in there! My machine, Karl, is very perturbed with the delay.

  2. Sew faster? If you figure out how to do that, let me in on your secret! I figure it might be better to sleep less, hire a laundress and a cook, and teach the pets how to feed themselves!

  3. What a lovely post! It’s fun to hear about the 60’s style study abroad and see the photos. Your trip must have been wonderful. I do wonder how many photos the guard has taken at the staircase! Glad you came back with too much fabric.

    • Hi Susie! I got such a kick out the fashions in my husband’s yearbook that I just had to share them. There’s good book about Jacqueline Kennedy’s experience doing her year abroad, starting in Provence and moving to Paris, that really gives the feeling of what it was like there in the 50s: http://www.amazon.com/Dreaming-French-Alice-Kaplan/dp/022605487X. (The book also talks about Susan Sontag and Angela Davis’ experiences in Paris, though I’ll admit that I’ve only read the Jackie Kennedy part…)

      • Thanks for the book info! I may have to get it for my daughter…she is doing a French study abroad this summer. I am envious, but hope to go visit!

      • I think you should definitely go to keep your eye on your daughter, because France does things to people. Like my friend who went there on vacation, and ended up married with five kids to a Frenchman! And take an extra suitcase, because fabric also happens to people there.

  4. Thanks for the vicarious trip through Provence. Amazing how it maintains the old world charm. I totally understand how you were compelled to return to Janssens et Janssens. The trims were amazing and seemed like a bargain in comparison to the fabrics; I need to get going on my stash from last year. I’ll be watching for your projects using your choices. Your tops look so classy!

    • Mary, I was looking for you at Janssens, after our accidental “meetup” there last year. They certainly have a number of things that would be calling your name, so it’s probably better for you to bust some of that stash from last year before you return. (And I should have done that, too…)

    • I had to put it in because it was so funny to try to figure what the heck she was saying, so I would know where to turn. Still, it really helped to have some directions in those old French traffic circles.

  5. Ach Provence! Hmmm…. Aix-en-Provence! Absolutely stunning places! Special light! Gorgeous colours! I fall in love with Provence! What a great tip/time you had! Lucky!
    I still have to visit the Janssens et Janssens though in Paris one day.
    Just give it a shout you next time visit Europe! It would be wonderful to meet. 🙂

  6. Per your husband’s memory of JFK’s assassination; it’s always amazing to me how an event can fix a location firmly in your brain, in a tangible and tactile manner. Glad you had a grand time, look forward to the results!

    • Thanks! What’s also strange about that recollection is that we both know where we were at that same moment in time, and since we’re 13 years apart, I was a world away in a Northern Michigan grade school!

  7. Janssens sounds amazing but 100E+ per metre – Yikes, it’d have to be VERY special…
    I very much like the green print cover-up (Stole???) you’re wearing – do you have a free pattern for that? Could you show us more?
    Thanks for the great post.

    • Actually, I just found your win and the pattern, which I have but have not yet made. Hurrah. Now I must make it.

      • I’m glad you found the pattern info, which I should have added to the post. It’s a Schiaparelli-inspired wrap from the Decades of Style pattern company: http://www.decadesofstyle.com/collections/1950s-sewing-patterns/products/5006-1950s-stole. I highly recommend that pattern! When I made it, I made the front hem a little longer, and made the flap on the opening for my hand half the size. I also put a large fabric-covered snap on the shoulder to hold it on. Since I’m a lefty, I flipped that pattern so that the sleeve is on my left arm, making it easier for me to use that arm. It’s a very versatile wrap, and I’ve worn it a lot.

  8. Pingback: Textiles from the south of France, caught in a Roman Bath tsunami, and Reader, I married him… | Jet Set Sewing

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