Why the Brits are suddenly so chic in Paris
From Anglo-flavoured cuisine to Marks & Spencer, the French are developing a taste for all things British. By Jane Anderson
Sunday 17 May 1998
But there is an irony in this: with Conran's grand return to Paris, another piece of France, having been recycled in Britain, is now being sent back to France; as already happened with the early Habitat, now securely ensconced on the streets of Paris, selling a modernised English version of the Provencal farmhouse look.
In fact Conran is a Francophile of the highest order stemming right back to the time he was a plongeur in a restaurant called La Mediterranee in Paris in the '50s. Indeed, much of his inspiration has come from across the Channel.
Unsurprisingly, given these roots, he has been itching to expand his London restaurant empire into the heart of Paris. But only now has he has found the perfect platter for his theatrical restaurant panache. The Alcazar on Rue Mazarine was the original site of the Boit de Nuit, a famous Parisian nightspot with a great transvestite act in the 1950s and '60s.
Originally built as a printing works, the building has fallen into disrepair, but one fantastic feature remains just about intact, a spectacular glass atrium dome. Conran is busy restoring the building to create a double height, 200-seater domed restaurant which will greet diners as they enter through a small passage way.
Conran's PR manager remains adamant that Conran is not Londonising Paris. "Conran sees himself as an English restaurant designer creating a wholly French restaurant in Paris," she told me. "All the staff will be French and he is currently seeking a highly-talented French chef."
Generally though, the point of view that Paris is following London is backed by hotel concept guru, Grace Leo-Andrieu who was recently quoted in Conde Nast Traveller saying, "Compared with London, Paris is dead."
"I think there's a lot of tangible influence of the London scene in Paris at the moment," said Leo-Andrieu, "especially in the fashion and style sector. We've never had so many British designers in starring roles such as Alexander McQueen as head of that bastion of French couture Givenchy, John Galliano at Dior and Stella McCartney at Chloe."
"Conran has undoubtedly brought in a new concept to Paris with his shops and now feels the timing is right to introduce a new restaurant in the Latin Quarter. Whereas the French have a mature gastronomy, London is new and exciting and has revolutionised eating habits."
Following this trend of taking an Anglo-flavoured France back to the French is Jean-Christophe Novelli. Following the success of his four fashionable London restaurants in Notting Hill, Mayfair and the City, he is taking his modern French cuisine back to his homeland of Normandy this summer.
The UK Malmaison chain of hotels is another case of recycled French style bouncing back into Paris from across La Manche. Malmaisons in Glasgow, Edinburgh and now Manchester have all taken their inspiration from Chateau Malmaison, the former home of Napoleon's mistress, Josephine, just outside Paris. Founder and chief executive, Ken McCullough has been looking for a site in Paris for over three years and is just about to secure a former hotel most likely between the Left Bank and the Champs-Elysees, with 100 rooms opening later this year.
"There hasn't been much freshness in Paris hotels for five or six years, but we're not aiming to tell Paris how to do it," says McCullough. "Our whole raison d'etre has been the love of the Bonaparte dynasty, so in effect we are taking something French back to Paris. If we get it right, the French will love it, but we're doing it with respect.
"Malmaison will fill the gap in the market for a high standard hotel at a very competitive price, something which Paris has been alien to. Instead of charging pounds 300 for a room, we will charge pounds 150 leaving the other pounds 150 to spend in the shops!"
Another French hotelier/restaurateur who is shaking up the Paris scene is Patrick Derderian, France's answer to Conran, with his post-modern Hotel Square and Zebra Restaurant in the media-friendly 16th arrondissement.
"Where Conran's is a Nordic style, mine is Latin. Where he uses light wood and white metals, I use dark woods and gold," says Derderian.
Plunging through the lobby of Hotel Square is a five-storey-high gallery wall space, an outlet for up-and-coming artists. Terracotta urns, orchids and chic red sofas adorn the lobby, while the 22 rooms come in ivory and grey, brick and saffron or gold and bronze with stark venetian blinds and a Henry James novel to send you to sleep.
Fine. But who would want to stay in a new designer hotel and eat Conran when you could stay in a fantastically grotty Parisian pension and stuff yourself silly with croque monsieur and tarte citrons at a Parisian institution like Angelina's on Rue de Rivoli?
For Parisians it may be the craving for something new. What UK tourists seek and what Parisians desire from their home, may be as different as the Eiffel Tower and the Millennium Dome. Long has it been known that our safe symbol of British dependability, Marks and Spencer has been going down a blast in Paris. Instead of lunching at a bijou table in a brasserie with a glass of rouge and a baguette, high flying Parisians have been scurrying out at lunch to grab a M&S sandwich to devour back at the office. Along with the sarnies, best selling items include English marmalade and muffins. In the clothing range, traditional British blazers, tartarns, cashmere and lambs' wool are attracting Parisians.
Slightly wacky British ideas are seeping into French fashion. That peculiar British habit of mixing trash with cash is rubbing off with Parisians out and about in a posh Favourbrook waistcoat and jeans. According to Hannah Kelner at the British Embassy in Paris, "High-quality English garments are popular such as John Smedley knitwear which have a modern twist. Paul Smith is greatly influencing menswear in Paris and he is showing the staid Paris boutiques that shops can have their own personality. The French are often seen as being somewhat humourless, but they are being influenced by British playfulness."
According to the DTI, over 1800 British companies are now actively established in France. Visibly on the streets of Paris there's Virgin Megastore safely entrenched in the Champs-Elysees while Laura Ashley plies her wares on the upmarket Rue Cambon. Good old WH Smith is going down a storm at 248 Rue de Rivoli with sales up 15 per cent in the last two years. According to manager, Stuart Walker, 60 per cent of customers are Parisians. "English authors are doing very well here, especially writers like Nick Hornby and William Boyd."
Perhaps the Channel Tunnel has had more of an impact than we care to admit. Could it be that the concept of Europe is finally sinking in. What with Juliette Binoche over here and Eddie Izzard over there. If we're talking politics, what about Blair's two-hour address in the mother tongue of the French parliament - the gall of the man!
Writer Howard Jacobson recently marvelled at the new politeness of Parisians. "No one honks their horn at you. Everybody is patient while you struggle with your French. In short, they've become us and we've become them."
Whatever France is doing, it seems to be doing it right in terms of tourism. According to the World Tourism Organisation, 11 per cent of the 620 million leisure trips made globally last year ended up in the land of Citroens and croissants, making it first in the world.
The UK came home in fifth place. But after its reconquest of France, who knows? One day not far off, those positions may be reversed.
paris Fact file
Eurostar takes three hours from Waterloo Station to the Gare du Nord. You can also board in Ashford. Economy fares cost from pounds 69 return. First class travel where you're served aircraft-style with a meal and can indulge in a spot of champagne costs from pounds 159 return. Tel: 0990 186186.
Where to eat
Alcazar: 62 Rue Mazarine. Bookings are not yet being taken for the September opening. Call Conran Restaurants on 00 33 156240222 for more information.
Hotel Square/Zebra Restaurant: 3 Rue de Boulainvilliers, Paris, Tel: 00 33 1 44 14 91 90 or book via Small Luxury Hotels of the World on 0800 964470. Twin/double rooms from pounds 135 to pounds 195. As the restaurant is a fashionable venue, advance bookings are necessary.
Angelina's: 226 Rue de Rivoli, Paris. Tel: 00 33 1 4260 8200. A great place to walk into on the spur of the moment.
Where to shop
Marks & Spencer
There are 10 M&S branches in Paris, the main one is at 35 Blvd Haussman.
W H Smith is at 248 Rue de Rivoli.
French Government Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL.
Premium rate information line: 0891 244123 (costs 50p/minute).
Paris Tourist Board at 127 Champs-Elysees is a great source of information and hotel bookings can be made from there.
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