Have Your Purse’s Innards Analyzed in Paris

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Inside her rue St. Denis apartment, in an old building wedged in among the sex clubs and peep shows that line the street, Nathalie Lecroc is conducting a peep show of her own. She is about to reveal the intimate details of what’s inside my handbag. Ordinarily it would seem rude if a stranger asked you to dump the contents of your handbag onto her dining room table. But this is what I did, spilling out an amazing amount of stuff that looked pretty boring to me. But to the soft-spoken Ms. Lecroc, a graduate of the Beaux Arts academy in Paris, even my unremarkable inventory is fascinating. Which is a good thing since she’s about to spend three hours detailing each item—no matter how mundane or embarrassing—drawing it on a sheet of white paper and then applying watercolor. Eventually my pre-baguette Fendi purse, bought 20 years ago at a Paris thrift shop, will be immortalized as No. 370 in Ms. Lecroc’s planned book, A Short Anthology of Bags and Handbags. “It’s not so much the bag or the individual things in it that are interesting, but everything together forms a portrait of personality, says the 35-year-old artist as she sketches the outlines of my Swiss army knife, a plastic vial of hand sanitizer and an energy boosting Power Bar retrieved from my purse. “It’s amazing what you can say about people after examining their handbags.” Rummaging through purses for insight and art indeed seems to be an idea whose time has come. For the past five years, Ms. Lecroc’s clientele has run the gamut: fashion editors, models, students, architects, stylists and socialites have all climbed the four flights of winding steps to her tiny apartment for the sole purpose of having their handbags and their contents sit for a portrait. Ms. Lecroc began her project in 1998 by immortalizing her own handbag, a classic black number she found in a trash can. The idea appealed instantly to women who saw that first watercolor. After showing it at an exhibition, she left with a long list of names. Since then, she has done close to 500 of these portraits, each for about $60. She plans to stop the series at No. 1,001, a nod to Scheherazade who, she says, “tells a story just as the inside of a bag tells a tale.” Her only requirement for a prospective client: Don’t edit the contents of your bag. But since most women who come to her—including such luminaries as Texas socialite Lynn Wyatt and Michael Jordan’s wife, Juanita—know that whatever’s in the bag will be included, it seems likely that some editing goes on. “I know some women take out indigestion pills and other items from the pharmacy,” says Ms. Lecroc. Other items from the pharmacy? Oh, no. Did she suspect something? I mean, I hadn’t actually edited my handbag back at the hotel. Sure, maybe I had moved a few things a few inches away. Small things like a packet of Tums, some moleskin heel pads and a really ugly compact. And just from my bag to a nearby tabletop. But edit? Never. Despite this unfortunate tendency in her clientele to edit, Ms. Lecroc has found some strange stuff in the bag she’s painted so far. A hula dress. An electric hair remover. Firecrackers. Lettuce. A bag filled with nothing but old underwear. Juggling balls. The kind of stuff that made the contents of my bag seem quite normal, if not boring. I almost wished I’d left in my black lace Wonderbra. Ms. Lecroc says the bags of Americans are quite different from those of French women. “Americans are very hygienic,” she says. “They carry a lot of gum and breath mints. And they carry more—and better—makeup than Frenchwomen do. The French make up at home in the morning and don’t carry so much with them.” The time had come for her to sum up what my handbag says about me. The watercolor she hands me is whimsical and playful; it resembles an elegant cartoon. “You have the essentials—you don’t like gadgets,” she says. “And for you, trademark is not important. You are not a fashion victim.” I nodded, pushing aside the thought of my new high-heeled sneakers in a fancy box back at the hotel. “I call it the analysis of the banal,” she says of her attempt to derive meaning from purse contents. “And there’s nothing special about it—it’s just using common sense.” Appointments must be made in advance with Nathalie Lecroc by phone or e-mail. Phone/Fax: 33 (0)1 45 08 13 87; Email: [email protected]. Alice Steinbach is the author of  Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman, and Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman.
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