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French Lessons, A Coming of Age

As a young girl growing up on the South African platteland, I had very little in the fashion stakes, but was free to explore the countryside. The curiosity about and receptiveness to all things beautiful that I developed then remain unchanged to this day. But it was during my seven-year tenure as editor-in-chief of ELLE South Africa that a series of moments experienced in France brought home to me the freedom that lies in restraint, the seduction of quality, and the allure of confidence.

 

WORDS BY JACKIE BURGER
JAN | Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen | French Lessons, A Coming of Age

STRIKINGLY SIMPLE

Hotel du Quai Voltaire, December 2007

Charlotte steps out of the taxi wearing an off-white silk blouse, black wool crêpe trousers and a Burberry trench. A beige cashmere scarf draped nonchalantly over her shoulders shields her from the icy, crisp winter morning.

Her smile is generous and welcoming and, as we embrace, a hint of perfume evoking a feminine mystique lingers just long enough to stir up my imagination.

My first up-close-and-personal encounter with the allure and indefinable style of Parisian women came compliments of Charlotte. At the time, she was ELLE France’s editorial director overseeing ELLE in South Africa. And as the newly appointed editor of ELLE SA, I was in France to learn the ropes. By the end of the week, I had not only familiarised myself with the ethos and values of the brand, I had also benefited from a masterclass in self-expression that started me on the road to developing my own style.

MIND YOUR STEP

Carrousel du Louvre, September 2008

We are almost giddy with excitement. It is day two of Paris Fashion Week and the anticipation of another inspiration-filled day is nearly unbearable. My wardrobe for the week had to be minimalist while allowing me to create multiple outfits, to be elevated by considered accent pieces. Practicality was key, as we had very limited time to move from one show to the next, taking the metro or striding down the street with a fashionista’s purposeful determination until our bodies ached with pure excitement and exhaustion. This was the tipping point in my shoe sense and the moment I understood the practical sobriety of classic ballet flats – the French style staple that is always elegant without ever overreaching.

After trawling many shoe havens, I fell in love with a pair in oxblood patent leather that lent the slightest irreverence to my palette of charcoal, black and camel. Just before entering the Carrousel du Louvre for the first show of the day, I bend down to swop my flats for a pair of black and gold heels… Showtime!

STUDYING THE CLASSICS

Angelina, Rue de Rivoli, February 2009

It began to snow last night. After the early-morning Givenchy show, I am waiting for Charlotte at the legendary Parisian tearoom with its exquisite Belle Époque interior and famous hot chocolate. During Paris fashion week, it is also a showroom for the magazine and design elite who gather here for an in-between-shows pause to read reviews, exchange highlights and draft their fashion columns.

Charlotte is running a bit late, allowing me to indulge in one of my most treasured habits – becoming a style voyeur and soaking up the delight of being surrounded by people with their own sense of style and an extraordinary ability to express it.

My gaze settles on an elegant, slightly older woman tucked in the privacy of a corner table. Her emerald-green gloved hands hug the cup of hot chocolate and an oversized camel coat is draped over the back of her chair. Her glasses frame her face perfectly, signalling intelligence in demeanour and style. But there is something about her bag that concludes my daily style lesson as she leaves the tearoom. The beauty of the softest woven leather, the absence of any decoration or bold logo, and above all the way it fits in the crook of her arm like a treasured companion, cemented my love for understated simplicity.

STARDUST

Place de l’Opéra, September 2011

I am sitting on the balcony of a top-floor apartment overlooking Paris. Marie Lafôret’s sensual voice is a blissful epilogue to a night at the opera. The empty champagne bottle underscores not just the notion of living the good life but, as I have begun to learn more and more, the importance of living in the moment.

That afternoon, as I was getting ready for my big night out, I experienced a series of magical moments of a kind I’ve almost ceased to enjoy – not enough time, too much effort – but there I was, laying out my daffodil yellow skirt made by a young South African designer and brought all the way from Cape Town, adding my brand new striped top bought at a high-street store and faux snakeskin heels. A leopard-print turban and vintage bag finished the look.

In the room next door, my friend and host, Jan-Hendrik, slipped on his YSL lace-ups and adjusted his tie. We walked through the streets like two members of the cast of Sex and the City, high on the promise of a beautiful evening of friendship, music and laughter, and treasuring our shared love for beauty.

Tomorrow I have to leave Paris for Deauville on the coast, but tonight, as I watch the Eiffel Tower glitter in the distance, I am free to dwell in this dreamlike and uncritical state of wellbeing.

THE INDISPENSABLE ICON

31 Rue Cambon, September 2012

As I step inside the vast space of the Grand Palais des Champs-Elysées to take a seat at my first-ever Chanel show, I pause to remind myself that dreams do come true.

My earliest fashion memories are of Mademoiselle Coco Chanel, and she has been my style icon ever since, inspiring me with her non-conformist design philosophy. My personal style evolution has been guided by the eternal relevance of her observations about style and the conviction with which she revolutionised women’s fashion in the early 20th century. She liberated women from corsets and time-consuming, impractical hairstyles. Instead, she introduced them to trousers, the comfort of soft jersey and, of course, the iconic Little Black Dress to be worn with Chanel No. 5.

Launched in 1921, Chanel No. 5 is the perfume that introduced a great many women to designer fragrances. After the show, we make our way to Chanel’s apartment at 31 Rue Cambon. I know every detail of this iconic space already, as I have visited it often on the pages of magazines and books. Now, however, I am entering her private domain that very few select clients have access to and climbing the famous mirrored staircase to this fashion legend’s inner sanctuary.

I could have stayed in that apartment for a long, long time, soaking up her legacy visible in every detail. It made me fully understand her words: “In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.” I pause on the fifth step of the staircase, from where she used to watch her shows; I savour the pure joy of this journey and salute the wisdom of this fiercely individual woman who had understood the difference between having money and being rich. Thank you for sharing your riches with me, Mademoiselle Chanel.

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