What makes a French woman so effortlessly stylish? Bryce Corbett meets model and muse Ines de la Fressange.
It's a late summer's day in Paris. In her pink-painted office above a designer fashion store in the first arrondissement, Ines de la Fressange is having a horror flashback.
"I was a granny amongst all these Russian teenagers," she drawls in her heavy French accent. "I was petrified."
Ines is recalling the moment two years ago she came out of retirement and stepped back into the international modelling limelight after agreeing to make a special appearance in a Karl Lagerfeld collection for Chanel.
"I remember stepping out onto the catwalk and thinking: "I'm 53 — I don't need this kind of anguish in my life."
She may not have wanted the anguish in her life, and she may be trying to convince herself her return to the catwalk had all the grace of mutton dressed as lamb, but she's fooling no-one. Whatever it is this middle-aged French woman exudes, it seems plenty of women want some it in their lives.
The dress she modelled proved so popular, Chanel was unable to keep up with orders. Her every public appearance in France is breathlessly reported. She regularly makes Vanity Fair's list of Most Stylish People (an honour she dismisses with a derisive laugh). And her latest endeavour, a book revealing the style tips of the Parisian woman (titled, what else? Parisian Chic) is flying off the shelves in the UK.
"The phone here never stops," she tells me with a melodramatic roll of the eyes. "I have people phoning all day every day asking me where I shop, where I eat, where I buy rugs for my house. It got to the point where it was just easier to sit down and write a book."
It speaks to the enduring appeal of a woman who, in her younger days, was selected by the French state to be the modern day incarnation of 'la Marianne' — the symbolic personification of the French republic.
She's a fashion model with an aristocratic background (her father was a marquis) and healthy disdain for the trappings of the fashion world. She's made — and continues to make, as a brand ambassador for the venerable French fashion house Roger Vivier — a tidy living from the rag trade, but manages to keep the sillier aspects of the industry at a healthy, French woman's arm's length.
"The truth of the matter is that Parisian women do not have a monopoly on style," she says. "There are elegant women all over the world. It's quite simply that fashion is such an integral part of the culture of the city in Paris — it's part of the fabric of everyday life. Even foreigners who live in Paris start to dress differently after a while.
"What few women understand is that you don't need a lot of money to dress stylishly and look good. French women are very good at matching an expensive item of clothing with something affordable. The important thing is to feel good in your clothes. Money doesn't need to play a role in how stylish you are."
I lived in Paris for ten years and can readily attest to the effortlessness with which French women carry themselves. As Ines explains, much of the secret of French women's style is the effort they go to make it look like they haven't gone to any effort at all.
"Shopping is something French women do discreetly," she says. "They don't do it with girlfriends, they don't make an all-day event of it, and they spend their money sparingly and carefully — buying a few pieces of quality tailoring that they can mix and match rather than lots of cheaper clothes.
"It may sound odd, but a French woman spends much less time than, say, a Californian woman getting ready to go out. They don't go for manicures every week or to the hairdressers all the time, they don't wear a tonne of cosmetics.
"It's very much a part of the French female psyche that they will want to appear to be clever before wanting to appear to be beautiful.
"The ironic thing about Paris being the capital of fashion is that while it is the home of all the world's most iconic fashion houses, French women are not obsessed with owning label clothing in the way women from other countries seem to be. You don't see French women queuing up outside Louis Vuitton waiting to buy a handbag."
The mother of two — whose eldest daughter Nine, 17, demonstrates in the book how to dress a la Parisienne and has recently appeared in a Bottega Veneta fashion campaign — believes while it is important to age gracefully, a woman should never let herself go.
"Age is no excuse for giving up and letting go," she says. "It's the opposite, in fact. As you get older, you need to be more vigilant about your sense of style, make more effort and not just let it all slide."
Ines admits however that when it comes to fashion magazines, the older female demographic is woefully under-represented and under-served.
"This obsession with youth is just crazy," she says "Even more so because older women are often the ones with more disposable income."
And her advice to anyone contemplating cosmetic surgery? Don't.
"I'm completely against extreme cosmetic surgery," she says. "Really obvious work looks terrible on a woman. I see them all the time at fashion shows and in the society pages of magazines and I have to look away. All it does is make a unique face common. It takes what makes each one of us an individual and turns us all into copies of one another."
And yet, she's not opposed to a little touch up. Such is the French woman's prerogative.
"Of course, if one is discreet, and one does it in moderation, I can understand why you might want to have a little work under the eyes," she adds, with the barest glimmer in her eyes.
She looks at her watch and declares she has to run. It's time to collect her youngest daughter Violette from school.
One last word of advice, I plead as she sweeps up her handbag. What would she say to any woman who looks in the mirror and feels flat?
She pauses at the door, long limbs unfurled, hair falling playfully across her face.
"Take a bath, have a haircut and throw out some old clothes," she says. "You'll feel better almost immediately, trust me."