Ave Montaigne … Paris’ Fashion Blvd

Louis Vuiton window © Bob Bishop

Shopping in this capital is far more than an mere act of self indulgence. It’s the best way to discover the glamorous side of Paris as well as France’s renowned tradition of quality and attention to detail, and inimitable sense of luxury. Though there are several distinctively different “fashion neighborhoods” around the city, none of these can rival with avenue Montaigne’s aura of elegance and plethora of prestigious designer ware.Lined from end to end with a who’s-who list of legendary labels from around the globe, this street represents the best planet style has to offer.
For more than a century, avenue Montaigne has been an ultra-exclusive quarter, exuding hushed chic. In the second half of the 20th century, its image has been considerably embellished and transformed by the presence of high fashion institutions like Christian Dior (#30), Valentino (#17-19) and Chanel (#42), celebrated jewelers, Bulgari (#45) and Henry Winston (#29) – as well the plush Plaza Athenée hotel, which is the favoritepied-à-terre of a good many European and American barons, Brazilian millionaires, movie stars, royalty and heads of state.

And, as if this weren’t enough, in the 1980s even more fashion greats migrated onto this street… thus making it the most luxurious thoroughfare in the country. In fact, by the 1990s, the title of “top-flight fashion neighborhood” had shifted away from the rue du Faubourg St-Honoré toward avenue Montaigne. This is due in part to the LVHM group, who in the past 12 years has invested heavily in the area’s real estate thus creating a regal environment for its stable of leading labels (Louis Vuitton (#56), Loewe (#46), Dior (#30), Celine (#38), Christian Lacroix (#26), Inès de la Fressange).

Its prestige has, consequently, attracted other world-class brands to the avenue like Germany’s Escada (#53) and Jil Sander (#54), Italy’s Dolce & Gabbana (#2 & 24), Prada (#8) and Salvatore Ferragamo (#45), the UK’s Joseph (#10) and even American giant, Calvin Klein (#53). First named “Allée des Veuves” (Widow’s Lane) – because ladies in mourning found solace in its leafy shadows – in 1723, the street was renamed avenue Montaigne. By the mid-19th century, it quickly became one of the most popular places in the city on account of its lively Saturday night Mabille Balls. Illuminated fountains and some 30,000 gas jet lamps, along with Chinese billiards, ring toss games and energetic bands playing polkas, waltzes and quadrilles… kept the crowds lively for more than a quarter of a century. However, by the turn of the last century, the quarter experienced a veritable “metamorphosis.”

Cornerstone “institutions” like Dior (#30), Ungaro (#2) and Scherrer (#51) continue to elaborate haute couture collections on their own premises. Only the most sumptuous fabrics, often handcrafted and costing hundreds of dollars per meter are used. Each creation is a “small miracle” of handiwork that can take from 70 hours for a simple day dress to 300 hours for an exquisitely embroidered evening gown.

Still, the majority of the avenue’s latest occupants concentrate on top of the range ready-to-wear designer gear by the “makers and shakers” of global fashion. They rub shoulders with luxury accessory boutiques like Harel (#8) – where a pair of shoes can set you back 500E – and S.T. Dupont (#58), famous not only for its Chinese lacquer lighters and pens, but for men’s haberdashery. Caron (#34), a gem of a perfume shop with pearl gray drapes, stylish mirrors and a grand crystal chandelier, boasts a dozen monumental Baccarat urns filled with re-edited precious scents dating as far back as 1919, and sold nowhere else in the world.

Like the typical “grand dame” of fashion that it has become, avenue Montaigne is “pretty complete.” Take a break and have lunch at L’Avenue at #41 (tel: 01 40 70 14 91) where the local beautiful people meet – or, at the Relais Plaza (#21), the canteen of haute couture’s “inner circle.” At the end of the day, take in a concert at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées situated at #15 (reservations: www.theatrechampselysees.fr) then cross the street for a late night drink at the Bar des Théâtres at #6 (tel: 01 47 23 34 63) or indulge in dinner at the Maison Blanche at #15 (www.maison-blanche.fr), a sleek and distinctly noteworthy restaurant atop the Salle Drouot-Montaigne, itself a highly esteemed auction house.