Duty Calls French Fashion’s Finest

What better way to cheer yourself up on a cold February night than having a big fat medal pinned on your lapel, all in front of friends and colleagues and followed by champagne and canapés at the French Ministry of Culture. Last week I received a invitation from the ministry to attend the decoration ceremony of four recipients; two for the Chevalier dans l’ordre national de la Légion d’Honneur and two for the runner-up group, l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres, which I imagine is a kind of Legion d’Honneur prelude provided you live long enough and continue to engage in extraordinary activities. The mystery is why I was invited when I have no relation to any of the recipients: Marie-Thérèse Bachellerie, dite Marithé, the fashion designer; Christian Bonnet, tortoiseshell glasses artisan; Pierre de Macon, PR and Francis Nourhan Kurkdjian, perfumer (pictured, left).  

I’ve secretly longed to be decorated, but I can’t imagine how my name got on the invitation list. I replied ‘Oui’ quickly, in case the ministry changed its mind. In Paris, being slightly late socially is comme il faut,  but I started off early last Friday night to arrive just before 7 PM because the ministry’s invitation read ‘precisely 19h’ and considering it was before dinner on Friday that sounded serious. Sure enough I arrived with a group of short men dressed almost identically in boxy but slim charcoal grey suits with Napoleonic haircuts; Paris’s standard junior cultural politico look. They were obviously used to the festivities and as soon as we entered the ministry’s  gilt salle des Marechaux, which overlooks Le Jardin du Palais Royal, they began gossiping—if my French serves me correctly—about certain artworks former Minister of Culture Jack Lang might have taken with him after he left his post in 1993. They must have been kidding…


Francois and Marithé Girbaud.


The decoration recipients were having a last tête-à-tête with the cultural minister when I spotted François Girbaud across the room. He’s known as the man who brought blue jeans to France, and tonight rocked a kind of modern Toulouse-Lautrec look, complete with goatee. Girbaud and his collaborator and wife Marithé have been aging denim in the washing machine since 1969 when they first launched their brand. As the studly half of the design duo, Girbaud had been taking all the prizes for years while his very creative wife had backed him up discreetly with fantastic fabric treatments and design eye. Now, over 40 years later, she finally stepped up for the Legion d’Honneur.

It was all over in no time and I had a chance to hear Minister Christine Albanel’s overview of Legion d’Honneur recipient Christian Bonnet, the artful tortoiseshell glasses master. Suffice it to say he, one of four generations of Bonnets, has made the frames for everyone from Maria Callas to Yves Saint Laurent, Sacha Guitry, and former French President Jacques Chirac.

Last but not least was perfumer Francis Kurkdjian-at 40, the youngest in the group. France doesn’t reward youth; induction into l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres  is restricted to those over 30.  Kurkdjian concocted Jean Paul Gaultier’s first fragrance, le Mâle, in 1995 when he was just  26, turned him into a kind of olfactive prodigy.    The scent is still referred to as “a bomb” whose effects were felt around the globe according to Kevin on the scent blog “Now Smell This” who writes: “Almost overnight, the flowery, powdery, spicy, sweet and strong Le Mâle could be smelled in clubs and bars, in dormitories, gyms (yikes! fresh out of the bottle!), elevators, parks, taxis, airplanes, supermarkets, theatres, deserts and rainforests.” But Kurkdjian’s particular twist is his “olfactive installations,” perfuming the fountains of Versailles with the scent of metallic roses one memorable night and concocting other ephemeral smell-ins. He also recreated Marie Antoinette’s scent for a limited edition that financed the purchase of her Riesener country trunk for Versailles. Kurkdjian says he wears scent “only occasionally,” and his first memory is the classic cologne his grandfather “used to mix with water to lighten.” For him Gaultier is a story teller and he caught Marie Antoinette’s personality by reading Stephen Zweig’s bio. After creating a made-to-measure fragrance service recently and working with everyone from YSL to Dior, the young man is in a hurry to make the most of his 40th year: He’s set to launch his own perfume house this Fall.