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French Lessons: Beauty With Polish

Lesson #1: The True Cost of Beauty

Yesterday, a very small package arrived at my door, heralded by squeals and giggles.

“It’s here,” I gushed to my girls. They each jumped up and ran to where I held the taped-up manila envelope in my hands.

“What does it look like? How big is it?” they asked.

Normally I use scissors and delicately open a package, but I was too excited and used my hands to rip the manila paper apart, revealing a small box wrapped in tissue, topped with a sweet “thank you” sticker. I unwrapped the tissue and there it was, a glossy patent-leather-looking black box emblazoned with the signature double-C design.

Chanel.

I’d seen their Fall 2011 nail polish collection and had fallen in love with a particular color, Peridot, which was a limited edition. Jade had sold out quickly last year and I’m old enough to remember the craze that Vamp created. In a fit of impetuous passion, I had found it online and bought it for the crazy price tag of $36 (not including $8 shipping). Sheepishly, I told one of my friends about this purchase yesterday and she said (like my inner voice), “You do realize that $8 for an OPI color is too expensive, don’t you?” (And yes, I do.)

But there’s something different about this. I’m not a total fashion junkie – far from it. Although I appreciate fashion and love dressing up, I am more inclined to pick a favorite look for spring and one for fall and wear those pieces to death. Right now it’s the whole stripe thing from Banana Republic. Still, there is something to the craftsmanship of certain products that I appreciate so greatly that I will go out on a limb and make a crazy purchase like this one… and I’ll LOVE it.

However, my Chanel fixation mirrors my Fendi fixation and there’s one main reason for it: Karl Lagerfeld. I happened to catch a behind-the-scenes documentary on Sundance called “The Day Before” with Chanel, and another with Fendi. The filmmakers follow a fashion designer around in the days before a big fashion show and you get to see what it’s really like in their studio and within their inner circle, the power plays of which model wears what, the stress involved in getting the stitches absolutely correct, etc.

My favorite one, hands-down was with Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel show. House of Chanel is located in a gorgeous old building in Paris. Apart from Karl’s show-stopping office, there are also several warrens of seamstresses in the atelier, and as he makes changes to the designs, these women run up and down the back staircases – in heels! – to show him the hand-stitched changes or embroidery work, sometimes having to rip out gorgeous stitching in order to make the changes to the bodice. It would be easy to classify KL as a diva designer – I still don’t understand how he can helm both Chanel and Fendi at the same time, as well as his own fashion house – but I found that his understanding of the designs and his appreciation for the skillful work of his seamstresses was unparalleled.

In one segment, a courier was dispatched to the countryside just outside of Paris to go to a farm where a little old lady hand-stitched lace. No lie. She had been working with Karl and Chanel for years and her work was so prized that they waited for the lace to finish the show-stopping bridal gown for the end of the fashion show. I was floored by this attention to detail and I started to understand the vast difference between a knock-off and the real deal. When you buy couture, you are not only buying a gown, you are acknowledging another person’s creative vision and good taste. Sure, another person could make a garment that looks similar in cheaper fabric and it would do just as well, but the very first person to make that dress was, in a sense, an innovator. The knock-off couldn’t do it justice, just as machine-made lace wouldn’t have had a place on Karl’s dress.

When we were in Paris last summer, my girls got a taste of this during a private tour with a lovely woman named Antoinette. She took us to a patisserie in the Latin Quarter and helped us buy macarons in several flavors, explaining that French bakers are only allowed to do one job so that they can do it exquisitely. For instance, in that bakery, the person who makes macarons is not the person who makes bread is not the person who makes the delicate apple galettes. The idea would be ludicrous; how could you make all of those, and make them well, each day? Not only that, but we found out that when the macarons weren’t in the case, that meant they were sold out – fin! – until the next morning. The bakery wouldn’t increase their production to fill demand; you just had to wake up earlier and beat the crowd.

My girls seemed to grasp this concept and appreciate the sheer craftsmanship of a Parisian life. The strawberries were better – likely cultivated by a farmer whose life work was to grow the best berries he could – and the shoes were beautiful and the artwork was incredible… Each person was an artist in his or her own way, from the guy who sold crêpes on the street to the woman who juiced oranges on the grounds at Versailles. They did one job and they did it incredibly well. Like Chanel’s lace maker.

In America, sometimes the buck wins out over craftsmanship, which is why we tend to balk at price tags that reflect the work and time that’s gone into a product or service. In this day and age, where “Groupon” seems to get people to pay a small fraction of the real price of goods and services, the common guy or gal constantly feels like (s)he can get something for nothing. I can’t imagine the typical TJ Maxx shopper appreciating a piece of hand-loomed lace when something “just as good” can be purchased down the street at Jo-Ann’s Fabrics.

But I get it. I understand that OPI and Revlon will probably have a very similar nail polish color in their repertoire very soon, but it will not match my affection for Peridot’s limited edition chic. In my heart, I know that someone at the House of Chanel worked diligently to get the shading absolutely correct, probably mirroring the reflection of the sky on a puddle in the southern region of the Langueduc-Roussillon. And that – with its lesson of true beauty and craftsmanship – means more to me and my budding fashion connoisseurs than just a simple polish on our toes.


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