There are countless generalizations about the contrasting approaches that French and American women take toward fashion — French women pick quality over quantity; Americans are more casual — but most are products of our fantasies. To get closer to reality, we spoke to two women in the fashion industry: American fashion expert Valerie Steele and French fashion designer Anne Fontaine.
Valerie Steele is the director of the museum at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, one of the country’s top fashion schools. She has a Ph.D from Yale where she specialized in fashion history and has been called ‘one of fashion’s brainiest women” by The Washington Post. In addition to organizing museum exhibitions, Steele also has her name on more than 20 fashion-related books. Anne Fontaine is a Brazilian-French fashion designer known for her groundbreaking take on the white shirt. She started her eponymous fashion company 23 years ago and today owns about 70 shops all over the world. 25 of these are in the United States and she has been living in Manhattan for the past two years.
Both of these women will be participating in “Regards Croisés, a Discussion on French & American Fashion,” a conversation at Albertine Bookstore in New York on September 18.
France-Amérique: How would you define French and American couture today?
Valerie Steele: The world is more complicated than that. There are designers from everywhere working out of Paris and they all create different styles. In terms of attitude, designers in Paris may be more willing to see fashion as an avant-garde art form whereas in America there’s more of a tendency to think of fashion as minimalist sportswear. But that doesn’t apply to all designers. If you go to Paris Fashion Week, you’re not going to find everyone doing “Parisian” style.
Anne Fontaine: Couture is in our DNA in France. Paris is where high fashion began and is still the first place you think of when you think of fashion. There is an instinctive French elegance that women pick up. They don’t think that much about what they’re going to wear, while it is more planned in the U.S. Let me use an analogy: When American friends invite me to dinner, they plan a menu, look up recipes and buy specific groceries. But when I have friends in my home, I just think, “Okay what do I have in my fridge?”
Tell us more about “La Parisienne,” the classic Parisian woman. Does she still exist?
Anne Fontaine: “La Parisienne” is a woman who wants to create her own look. She doesn’t depend on fashion but uses it for small details. In France, you never show or try to draw attention.
Valerie Steele: This is a popular and enduring myth that is always part of the image of Paris fashion, the Parisian who was more feminine and stylish than other women. But even in the 19th century, you didn’t have to be born in Paris to be stylish; plenty of foreigners would come to Paris and adopt that look.
What about “elegance”? Does it have the same meaning in France and in the U.S.?
Valerie Steele: Saying “American” elegance is problematic; it’s more New York style, which is very polished and varies according to different subgroups. If you think of New York, Upper East Side dressing is not the same as fashion in Chelsea or in Brooklyn. I think the French tend to be more comfortable with doing a simple Parisian chic with a touch of the trends and certain classics like ankle boots or a trench coat.
Anne Fontaine: American elegance is more sophisticated than French elegance. For example, the French don’t like heavy makeup. A French woman would never wear something that shows off her curves or skin. American women, on the other hand, embrace themselves; they aren’t afraid of their body. I really appreciate this; it’s one of the most important things I’ve learned while living in the U.S. Last year, for a show I was doing in Boston, the manager picked women from everyday life instead of traditional-looking models, which are the norm in France. It was beautiful to see them wearing my clothes. France has started to shift a little toward this mentality.
Do you have a favorite French or American clothing design or style?
Valerie Steele: I dress like a ninja: Black pants, a black top and sneakers because I’m running around all day. I’m addicted to the French brands Céline and Lemaire; I’ve got many pairs of Céline slip-on leather sneakers and Lemaire pants. However, if I had to pull one piece out of my closet, it would be a pair of black Celine wool pants.
Anne Fontaine: My favorite French piece is the white shirt, obviously! French designer Yves Saint-Laurent and his masculine-feminine clothes inspired me when I first began creating. I love American leggings. People just started wearing leggings in France but it’s not the norm yet. I recently launched a casual line of everyday clothes and included leggings — I think that living in New York influenced that.
What is the worst fashion faux-pas according to you?
Valerie Steele: One of the biggest mistakes is not having a clear idea of who you are, which results in wearing clothes that don’t go with your personality or your lifestyle.
Anne Fontaine: This is the French spirit: When you are yourself, you look beautiful in what you wear. Living in New York, I love the kind of people who wear crazy fashion because they’re like that inside as well, which makes them so beautiful.