Every international city has its landmark fashion street. For New York, it’s Madison Avenue. London has Oxford Street, and Milan, Via Montenapoleone. In Paris, two are top of mind: the iconic Champs-Élysées and the elegant rue Saint-Honoré. All guidebooks point visitors to these high streets of fashion for what is considered to be the penultimate luxury retail experience in Paris. Certainly, you’ll find the top luxury brands located on these avenues: the flagship stores of Hermès, Louis Vuitton, and Goyard, for instance. But the shopping experience here is usually compromised by the crush of tourists and the nagging thought that these same brands are now increasingly found in shopping malls all over the world. Indeed, with Asian tourists often outnumbering everyone else on these streets, one sometimes feels like never having left home.
On the other extreme of Paris’s retail map are shopping enclaves that few tourists are known to visit. In the outskirts of downtown are the flea markets where Parisians get their fix of vintage clothing and accessories. Start-up fashion brands and small design ateliers unable to afford the high rentals in the center of Paris also gravitate toward working class neighborhoods further from the center—a pattern not unlike Le Marais in the last two decades of the twentieth century.
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Indeed, looking at the fashionable lunch crowd queuing for a seat at the sidewalk cafes of the Marais today, it’s hard to imagine that this neighborhood covering parts of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements was once where working class Parisians and poor immigrants settled half a century ago. This cycle of gentrification and pauperization apparently goes back further to when the Knights Templar in the thirteenth century transformed this piece of idle land outside the walls of Paris into their fortified base in the capital. Soon after, French nobles and a few royals built their mansions here (called Hôtels in Paris), starting a long process of gentrification that culminated in the construction of the Place Royale, later renamed the Place des Vosges, in the seventeenth century. The perfectly symmetrical square is still the most elegant in Paris today, but even that was not reason enough to keep the aristocrats of the Marais from rediscovering the charm of the Left Bank and the new parts of the city rebuilt by Baron Haussmann in the nineteenth century.
The flight of Paris's elite from the Marais left a gap that was quickly filled by the Jewish community, most of whom were involved in the fashion business as tailors, sewers, and cloth merchants, primarily. The Nazi occupation of Paris in the Second World War forced most Jews out and, after liberation in 1944, Paris's working class along with a new wave of immigrants and refugees from North Africa began establishing themselves in the Marais. The neighborhood that was once host to French nobles and a thriving Jewish community had, by the second half of the twentieth century, become one of the most notorious places in the city.
But the area would see a familiar pattern of rebirth when government efforts to restore the abandoned hotels or royal mansions helped revive interest in the cultural significance of the Marais. The rehabilitation of the area saw mansions transformed into museums of art and history and the creation of newer ones such as the iconic modern art museum, the Centre Georges Pompidou, in the western edge of the Marais in 1977. Along with the Picasso Museum housed in the Hotel Sale nearby, the neighborhood would become a magnet for art galleries and artists’ ateliers. The artsy vibe and the liberal atmosphere it cultivated brought a lively gay community and an avant-garde crowd to the Marais and, along with them, an eclectic mix of shops, bars, and cabarets.
The Marais visitors find today has lost much of its legendary edginess. The starving artists have since moved to cheaper parts of town and upscale boutiques have replaced the experimental shops that used to dominate the place.
But centuries of cyclical change have left its trace on the streets of the Marais, a colorful tapestry of cultures that continues to be woven by new waves of tenants and residents.
From Catholic churches to Jewish delicatessens to gay bars, the history of the Marais is reflected in the rich mix of establishments that stand side-by-side, a legacy of multiculturalism that's likewise expressed in its retail environment and the independent brands that have made the bustling neighborhood their home. Those searching for one of the most exhilarating shopping experiences in the Marais will, as I have, most probably find it along rue Vieille du Temple, a narrow street that spans the elegant boulevard Beaumarchais on the east and the bustling Rue de Rivoli on the west. Along this stretch of road, and tucked between traditional cafes and grand mansions, you can find an interesting mix of mostly homegrown Parisian labels that offer a refreshing alternative to the mega fashion brands in the crowded tourist belts of Paris.
15 rue Vieille du Temple
It's hard to miss the flagship boutique of the Japanese manufacturer of premium socks and hosiery: the colorful and playfully patterned socks on the window display are simply too enticing to ignore. To appreciate the quality of Tabio products, you need to brush your hands over the soft, lustrous finish of their socks. The store sells over a hundred pairs of pure cotton socks in varied color combinations and printed patterns apart from more expensive pairs made from silk, angora, and wool.
16 rue Vieille du Temple
One hundred percent cotton men's dress shirts have been the specialty of this French brand since 1971. The Marais boutique stocks a large collection of shirts in varying fabrics, colors, patterns, and styles. As the name of the brand suggests, all shirts are sewn by hand in a private and exclusive workshop, or atelier prive. The boutique also sells casual jackets, knitwear, cotton trousers, and scarves.
22 rue Vieille du Temple
Like its neighbor, the upscale boutique for men specializes in dress shirts and pure silk neckties, which, according to their helpful sales representative, are all made from the finest Italian fabrics. The current fashion in Paris is for slimmer, shorter cuts in shirts with smaller collars, but the classically tailored pieces at Nodus ought to reassure demanding gentlemen that their purchase here won't go out of style with each passing season.
Paul & Joe Homme
56 rue Vieille du Temple
Named after the founder's two sons, Paul and Joe, the Parisian label carved its niche at a time when the fashion industry was obsessed with monochrome and minimalist designs. The signature style of Paul & Joe embodies an exuberant spirit with colorful pieces and fun patterns that resurrect French joie de vivre.
169 Boulevard Saint-Germain, 75006 Paris, France
One of the few native Italian brands along the street, Slowear was founded in 2003 on the principle of encouraging slow fashion as an alternative to dominant fast-fashion labels like Zara and H&M. Slow fashion emphasizes quality, durability, and sustainability over the throwaway culture identified with the fast fashion movement. Made from the finest Italian fabrics and utilizing traditional methods of production, the garments of the Slowear family of brands are classically cut and purposefully designed to outlast trends. The chic but homey boutique in the Marais feels like an apartment of a good friend, albeit, one with a large and well-curated wardrobe.
The French street wear brand from the 199os was overhauled by a new generation of owners that has given it new energy while still maintaining the label's roots in fifties- and sixties-inspired fashion. Like the era the designs were taken from, the clothing pieces called “cult classics” are often bright and loud—a stark contrast to the minimalist interiors of the Paris flagship store in the Marais. The new owners diversified the brand with forays into digital media and publishing. Their cult magazine and musical recordings are also sold in the boutique.
106 rue Vieille du Temple
This relatively new French label is the creation of the family that sold their Comptoirs de Cotonniers retail chain (also in Vieille du Temple) to the Japanese apparel giant Fast Retail/Uniqlo. With the money they earned from the sale, the Elishas went on to create an upscale but edgy fashion brand with a unique concept based on the fictitious name they chose for the label: the Kooples. Meant to sound like the English word “couples,” the clothing designs are deliberately androgynous—meaning, pieces that seem identical on men and women—or mixed couples. The chic and offbeat apparel approximates dandy fashion with a glam rock edge. The well-tailored pieces have patterns developed by the legendary Savile Row institution Norton & Sons in London.
112 Vieille du Temple
The hip French label Atelier de Production et de Creation or A.P.C. founded in 1987 has since grown into a global brand with shops all over the world, but the store in the Marais stocks collections and individual pieces that can't be found in our part of Asia. Through the years, the brand has kept its unadorned aesthetic and slim-cut silhouette inspired by military garments. The icon of the brand remains its raw-denim selvage jeans, with a wide variety of cuts and styles available at their Marais store.
126 rue Vieille du Temple
In a block populated by edgy, fashion-forward labels, LA Panoplie offers a refreshing choice of classic menswear. Not to say that it's old fashioned, however. The collection reflects what the boutique staff call “wearable but distinctive clothes.” In Paris, that usually means something contemporary yet still elegant.
Zadig & Voltaire
11 Rue Montmartre, 75001 Paris, France
There are dozens of Zadig & Voltaire shops all over Paris, but their two boutiques in the Marais manage to match the brand's identity best. Known for casual ready-to-wear pieces with an edgy, rock 'n' roll vibe, the label is the type of dress code that fits in perfectly with the neighborhood's atmosphere at night.
128 rue Vieille du Temple
No, they don't sell pig's feet at this chic boutique. The label's name is a contraction of the words "French" and "globe-trotters," a nod to the well-traveled Parisian couple that founded the lifestyle boutique in 2005. The first multi-brand store in Paris sells fashion, furniture, household items, records, books, and other lifestyle products handpicked by the couple while traveling around the world, particularly in Japan, Scandinavia, and in their hometown Paris. The collections sold at the two-story emporium at the Marais embody the casual chic look and lifestyle of the founders. Notable fashion labels include Filippa K., Acne, Opening Ceremony, American Vintage, and Veja—and, since 2010, their own line of FrenchTrotters knitwear from Brittany.
This story originally appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 14 No 2 2014