If you’re traveling to the City of Light, perhaps it’s prime time to re-think the word “souvenir.” In French, it means “memory,” but too often, globe trekkers associate the word solely with “trinket.” Not that there’s a thing wrong with that, says this card-carrying souvenir hunter. It’s Paris after all, where the wooing stops for no one.
But why not consider crafting the kind of magic retail moment that really will leave a lasting memory? Like, for example, booking a front row seat at a Galeries Lafayette fashion show? Or buying a pair of gold bellbottoms directly from an indie designer in the shadow of Sacré-Cœur? Or like recharging your inner-boogie with the purchase of a Marie Antoinette bougie at Trudon, the oldest candle company in Paris?
The mind squeals at the possibilities.
It is possible to have it all: to get that “Made in Paris” treasure you’ve coveted and come home with a story to tell. Focusing not so much on the thing as on the journey, i.e., on the experience of the visit itself, here are a few basic tips for some mindful shopping. And with all budgets covered, no one gets left behind.
Note, though: I feature what I, myself, fancy. If I haven’t included your favorite shop, do let me know. I’ll check it out and may keep it in mind for a future piece like this. Feel free to ask questions, too. I’m always happy to help.
Now, let’s tally forth.
1. Be prepared
First, consider your basic shopping tool kit: fancy day-to-night sneakers, water bottle, pre-cut moleskin, chocolate (for energy), gum, eye drops, Métro tickets, maps with targeted shops circled, and coins for WCs. And don’t forget an oversized bag for your treasures. Most French grocery store chains and department stores sell them for just a few cents. Lightweight and good-looking, they make perfect souvenirs, too.
2. Plan of Action
Having a “quest” in mind always helps, since visualization helps narrow your hunt while increasing your chances of actually finding the object of your desire. What’s missing from your closet? Repetto ballet slippers? Trench coat? Both are timeless French classics, and quite souvenir-worthy. Covet nautical wear? Lingerie? Longchamp? Parapluies?
Grab a pen, and create a wish list.
My two cents
Now, during your actual shopping excursion, instead of lots of cheaper items I recommend splurging on a just a few high quality statement pieces (though stay within your budget!) that will last for years. Keep your eyes wide open for those “Made in France” or “Made in Paris” tags. Yes, shop local, and support both up-and-coming and well-established indie designers. I’ll show you how.
In fact, this is exactly how I now roll. Recently at Le BHV Marais, I found the love of my life: an over-sized khaki-colored canvas trench coat by designer Quynh Bui and century-old La Redoute. The collaboration was inspired by the 1849 Gold Rush in San Francisco—a city once dubbed the “Paris of the Pacific” due to its large French population.
Price? Fifty euros. A lifetime of compliments and boasting? Priceless.
3. Where to start?
Shake those jetlag blues away with a gentle browse through one of the 19th century grand magasins. Here you’ll not only find architectural traces from the past, but also comfort lounges, free Wi-Fi, and beaucoup cafés, loos, and rooftops with views. Holly Golightly may have had her breakfast at Tiffany’s, but whenever I need an mood lift, nothing else will do quite like a shiny Paris department store.
Here’s the deal: Paris still has four flagship department stores (these in fact, were among the world’s first). Le Bon Marché, Printemps, and Galeries Lafayette are located along the Métro 12 line, while Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville (Le BHV Marais) sits next to the Hôtel de Ville (naturally). While it’s possible to visit all four on one day, try to resist; I insist. It’s better to pick one or two and savor the experience. Remember what I said about enjoying the journey vs. acquiring the thing?
Hives of activity
Besides being crammed with nearly every desirable object a shopper could possibly want, these palaces offer behind-the-scene tours, art exhibitions, window displays, fitness challenges, cooking classes, DYI workshops, and interactive pop-up ateliers throughout the year. Tip: The events are extremely popular, so register before you leave home. For available program dates and times, visit the store websites.
I recommend Galeries Lafayette’s weekly in-store fashion shows held in the Opéra Salon. Whenever my sister Wendy is in the city, we make time for the spectacle. For 14 euros, you’ll get a mini-swag bag with beauty product samples, a bottle of water, and a show program, along with seasonal OOTD inspo and a front row seat. Arrive early to snag that Anna Wintour-worthy spot. Again, try to register prior to your trip.
Tourist discount cards
Both BHV and Galeries Lafayette offer “International Customer” cards, which knock 10 per cent off on selected items. To score G.L.’s “Exceptional 10% Discount” card, present your passport at the information desk on the store’s ground floor near the rue Mogador entrance.
You’ll find BHV’s “-10% offer*” discount voucher on their website. Print it before leaving home and then present it at the welcome desk, along with your passport.
It’s just that easy. If you forget, don’t fret. The cards are also available on the ground level at the welcome center near the rue de Rivoli door.
Don’t overlook the house brands. Affordable, durable, and sporting souvenir-worthy labels, the collections feature bags, scarves, and sweaters. I’m still obsessed with the trench coats by designer Laëtitia Ivanez, the founder of Les Prairies de Paris. My recent acquisitions include a red vinyl rain slicker and matching hat, one fitted black trench coat (okay, I have a coat fetish!) a velvet tracksuit, along with a pair of silky honeycomb-like anklets—spotted at Galeries Lafayette’s in-house fashion show.
Also, BHV now stocks Galeries Lafayette’s reasonable in-house brand. This includes G.L.’s collection of scarves and handbags, located on BHV’s ground level. #Lifeisgood
Most of the Paris department stores are now championing new designers. Often with reasonable prices, the collections are typically located by near the escalators. The store websites list their featured designers. It’s a win-grin, because after making your purchase, you’ll be able to support the designer on social media. This is also an excellent way to find out about their new collections.
After Galeries Lafayette featured the “Make Fashion Big Again” collection by Ester Manas, I started following her news on Instagram. Celebrities worldwide are now wearing Ester’s edgy “one-size-fits-all” capsule. Brava!
4. Indie designer boutiques
After beating jetlag, it’s time to make the indie scene. Possess a penchant for collecting one-of-kind or limited edition confections? Step by step, I’m with you.
Throughout Paris, you’ll find pockets of shops that promote independent designers, but especially in Abbesses. Maybe it’s because of the close proximity to the textile district (at the foot of the Sacré-Cœur steps), but the designers here play with the entire spectrum of fabrics in ways you wouldn’t imagine. I once saw a wedding gown made of cat head-patterned fabric in the window at Zélia’s boutique.
Start your quest at the tip of the rue des Abbesses and rue des Martyrs intersection, and then cross over to rue d’Orsel, followed by rue des Trois Frères. Here’s where Saint-Denis lost his head, so don’t lose yours. Wait for your price point. You’ll find it.
My pick: Lab 30
I’ve always felt a “Groovitational” pull at Lab 30, located in Abbesses-Montmartre at 30 rue Durantin. Their kitschy, candied-colored vitrines always stop me in my tracks. Curated by designers Guillaume and Laurent, here you’ll find mellow yellow felt berets, Twiggy-inspired dresses, and retro-rocking handbags and wallets. Look for favorite brands like Des Habits Tués and Yaanbath. And don’t ask me how many irresistible vinyl cat bags and wallets by silkscreen artist Meg Sérigraphie I’ve purchased down through the years for friends. Too many to count, I must confess.
Tip: Customer service shines here. The team will not only gift wrap your treasures, but also give additional information about the designers, taking the experience to the next level—even on rainy days when your umbrella has made a mess. #Guiltyyetagain
Sister Wen’s pick
Also located in Abbesses on rue Houdon since 2011, Candy Miller’s shop rocks an over-oversized dollhouse vibe, possessing retro floral razzle-dazzle from floor to ceiling. The one-of-a-kind garb is bright, eclectic, and hand-stitched in France by Candy’s favorite indie designers, including Hân Nguyen, Lisa Pearl, and Gaëlle Barré. Showcased in flying kitchen sinks, bathtubs, and a gigantic chest of drawers, Alice of Wonderland fame would have lost her head here, I’m certain.
Tip: Candy is nearly always in the shop (open Monday through Sunday), so it’s possible to get some one-on-one styling assistance from her.
Two more addresses:
La Boulangerie, 30 rue des Trois Frères, Abbesses-Montmartre
Le Studio 14, 14 Rue Chappe, Abbesses-Montmartre
Then, with your purchase hand
Enjoy a glass of beer or wine at one of the cafés along rue des Abbesses—preferably at sunset. Do take the time to peek at your new finds more than a dozen times, most definitely, while sipping and committing the surrounding beauty to memory.
Again, feel free to ask questions. If I’ve neglected to mention your favorite Paris shop, just say the word. Meanwhile, happy hunting!