My earliest exposure to the Parisian mystique came by way of three things: Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire in Funny Face, Sofia Coppola’s Miss Dior Chérie ads and, well, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s direct-to-video Passport to Paris. Basically, I’d only ever experienced the City of Light vicariously through film.
Because I work at a fashion magazine, it’s common for my colleagues to travel for Paris Fashion Week. So when I set off for France to finally see the land of prestigious fashion ateliers, Champagne and, of course, house music, little did I know this Paris would be completely different from the one I’d imagined. The Eiffel Tower wasn’t on the itinerary provided by my host, Atout France—nor was any other major tourist spot.
My home away from home is Mama Shelter, a boutique hotel located in the 20th arrondissement that was designed by French interior/industrial designer Philippe Starck. The Mama chain currently boasts locations in Lyon, L.A. and Rio de Janeiro, to name a few, with a Prague outpost in the works. Rooms have a minimalist edge, featuring concrete walls and an iMac in lieu of a TV.
Though my hotel is near the Père Lachaise Cemetery, where Édith Piaf and Jim Morrison were laid to rest, what makes the 20th so charming is the glimpse it provides into contemporary Parisian life. Historically, this was a working-class neighbourhood where Armenians, Polish Jews and Greeks settled in the 1920s. Its second wave of immigrants came from Algeria and Tunisia in the 1960s, and by the ’80s, African and Asian expats had made it their home. But a steady influx of students and hipsters in recent years has led to a gradual gentrification.
Just north of my hotel is Le Centquatre-Paris, an arts centre housed in a 19th-century building that once served as a morgue. The space provides artists with private studios and open areas in which to work and practise their respective arts. On any given day, you’ll see dancers practising their routines or people juggling in Centquatre’s main atrium. It also serves as a private venue from time to time—the late Alexander McQueen presented his Paris Fashion Week Spring 2009 collection there back in 2008.
After leaving Centquatre, we meet up with Retro Tour Paris, a company that offers sidecar tours throughout the city. My driver, a handsome bearded fellow who introduces himself as “FX” and looks like Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, takes me along the famous Canal Saint-Martin and then to the Place de la Bastille.
Giving the Left Bank a contemporary edge, street art is emblazoned on many buildings in the 13th arrondissement. You’ll notice both small- and large-scale pieces by OG French graffiti artists Miss.Tic and Jef Aérosol and the renowned American artist Shepard Fairey, founder of OBEY Clothing and the artist behind the Obama “Hope” poster.
But if there’s a less-discussed aspect to the City of Light, it’s the nightlife. There are about 12,000 bars in Paris, one of which is Le Rex Club, which dates back to the creation of house music. Concrete, a venue located on a boat docked on the Seine, is known for its all-night parties (held every three weeks, starting Saturday at 10 p.m. and continuing until Monday at 2 a.m.), à la Berlin’s infamous Berghain.
Sure, my stay in Paris didn’t consist of snapping selfies at the Louvre or strolling through the Jardin des Tuileries as if waiting to be papped outside a fashion show. (I did catch a sliver of the Eiffel Tower, although it looked more like a hydro tower than the twinkling version seen in The Devil Wears Prada.) But considering that many locals protested against the wrought-iron tower being erected and the fact that even today many Parisians see it as a tourist trap, perhaps I experienced the city in the most authentic way possible. And I’m cool with that.
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