Paris’s Secret Fashion Week Haunts

Couture Week in Paris is all about finding the perfect location for your show, with designers like Céline and St. Laurent racing to find not just the edgiest place to show off their threads, but also the most antiquated, including a sixth-century abbey.

An engineering school (École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Paris), founded in 1783 by Louis XVI, might seem like an unlikely setting for a Paris Fashion Week show. But the old-world building on the Rive Gauche proved to be quite the ticket for the fashion set during the men’s week collections last month.

Berluti staged its spring/summer 2015 catwalk show in the school’s leafy gardens, followed by a pasta cook-off with the likes of Dazed co-founder Jefferson Hack and actor Benn Northover cooking spaghetti (the carbs the carbs!) for all who watched the chisel-cheeked young models parade in warm summer hues.

Parmesan chunks and ice cream were served as appetizers and washed down by stiff summer cocktails, with a ping-pong table set up in the corner for entertainment.

The Dutch designer Iris van Herpen went underground for her Embossed Sounds collection last year, taking the fashion set into a private nightclub, the Silencio Club, designed by film director David Lynch. Guests swigged on stiff drinks mid-afternoon, after the subversive show of women tracing shapes over each other’s bodies with their hands in a sort of weird nightclub dance, which elicited sounds from the clothes.

Dating back to 1883, the building was once a publishing headquarters for left-wing newspapers like L'Humanité. Emile Zola published a famous headline and manifest there in 1898, while a socialist leader Jean Jaurès was murdered across the street. Molière, the playwright, is said to have been buried on site.

This rush to find cool, unexpected locations to stage shows is relatively new. For many years, the basement of the Louvre served as base camp for Fashion Week shows and events. But these days, with the city’s most famous museum crammed full of tourists in search of the ever-enigmatic Mona Lisa, the fashion set is scouting for alternatives.

Now the tribe treks off on a daily tour of new and often historic venues sought out by fashion houses in the name of finding the perfect setting to present their collections. Exclusive tennis clubs, former brothels, gold-leafed ballrooms, and on one recent weekend, a scruffy high school all serve as locations.

This week during Couture Week editors will be sprinting from a historic high school, the Lycée Henri-IV, situated in the Latin Quarter in St Genevieve, a former abbey from 502AD, to one of fashion week’s favorite venues, the Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild, a neo-classical building from the 18th century that was once part of an estate belonging to Louis XVI.

Features include a glass cupola designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, who also created the Crystal Palace in London. The so-called Curiosity Room, with its old-world fireplaces and dark paneled walls, proved the perfect setting for a recent Valentino show where the dresses were just as ornate. If you don’t have a ticket, no fear. One can even rent out the villa here or wander down from the Arc de Triomphe and peek through the fence.

The historic Pavillon Cambon Capucines will provide the backdrop for Elie Saab’s couture show. Built in 1914, the restored building is situated on the site of Maréchal de Luxembourg's 17th-century residence, where the architect Charles Mewes built a pavilion for the CFF bank. The building has now been expertly restored. 
Imagine marble and glass, arches and swirling iron balconies that transport visitors inside the old Paris, like many of these beautiful locations do.

Trading centers are also popular, and being Paris, they are also rather spectacular. Paul Smith filled the Bourse de Commerce with its copper cupola in June for his menswear show. The circular trade exchange building features murals which date back to 1889. These were restored in 1998.

When Jean-Paul Gaultier presents his couture show, it will be inside his headquarters, which reflect an unusual part of French history. The Gaultier building was originally constructed as part of a French workers cooperative founded in 1893, called L Avenir du Proletariat.

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In 1910, the organization built the beautiful Beaux Arts-style Palais de Mutualité, a majestic construction with a grand staircase, a glass roof, and vast windows. The society’s giant coats of arms can still be seen inside the Gaultier HQ today. The building was renovated between 2002 and 2004 by the architects Moatti-Rivière for the designer.

Paris’ history is writ large on many of the fashion set’s locales. On the eve of men’s fashion week in June, the Parisian concept store Colette organized a party at the newly renovated Piscine Molitor, an Art Deco pool that dates back to the 1920s that reopened last month as a hotel and pool complex. Once Paris’ most popular baths, it fell into disrepair and closed in 1989, when it became the haunt of artists. It has reopened as a private club, complete with a Clarin’s spa.

Dior last month staged its menswear show at the exclusive Tennis Club de Paris. Founded in 1895, the club is also a favorite haunt of the label Céline, which turns the courts into dressing rooms, complete with ironing boards set up between the nets.

Saint Laurent designer Hedi Slimane chose one of the most lavish settings in recent memory for his hipster spring/summer menswear 2014 show featuring funky menswear in an extraordinarily elegant venue at the Hôtel des Invalides, a complex of buildings dating back to 1670 which houses a number of army museums.

The Espace Vendome, one of the most beautiful squares in Paris, often houses shows in a former bank where one can see murals on the walls. The venue is favored by houses like Comme des Garçons and Cerruti 1881, which housed its mensweek show there last month.

Ornate historical gems include the Imperial Salon at the Hotel Westin. The room is a Second Empire design from the 19th century, featuring rich gold columns, frescoes, and glass chandeliers.

Edgier venues include the Cité de la Mode fashion school where designer Manish Arora once staged a show between the concrete pillars of the basement and the graffiti. There is now a funky waterside café set up between the pillars for an alternative fashion getaway. The school often stages exhibitions.

Its name may sound dreary, but the Chambre du Commerce is considered a classical gem, dating back to 1878. A beautiful party was held there last year for a Bulgari Diva jewelry presentation with Bulgari model, and former French First Lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy hobnobbing in the garden with fashion types drinking champagne. As much as Couture Week is about the clothes, it is also, always, about the bubbles.