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A Look Inside the Ateliers of France's Iconic Brands

Tipples, tiaras and bespoke soccer balls... Our editor-in-chief reveals the secrets of French beauty.

Leathermaker Berluti; examining the sediment

Left to right: If the shoe fits: Leathermaker Berluti makes custom footwear for men; direct deposit: examining the sediment before the disgorging.

With a bottle of bubbly in one hand and champagne tongs in the other, I await the signal to begin what must look like a game of physical skill. I’m standing 20 metres below the city of Reims, two hours east of Paris by car, in the repurposed limestone tunnels that Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin uses as aging cellars for the champagne that sets the world a-fizz. The staircase leading down here is lit up with the same familiar yellow as the labels of the champagne house, which was founded in 1772. This network of caves extends over 24 kilometres, and mountains of bottles (and the occasional coloured floodlight) lend the place a Fraggle Rock atmosphere that can give you the shivers. Well, it is a little chilly down here – these natural cellars range in temperature from 12°C to 20°C.

Hôtel du Marc; Mario Irla; Hôtel du Marc cuisine; Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin’s cellar stairs

Clockwise from top left: Guests of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin stay at Hôtel du Marc, a mansion built in Reims in 1840; riddler Mario Irla has worked for the brand since the age of 16; luxury comes served on a plate at Hôtel du Marc; stairway to heaven: the gold-lit steps that lead to Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin’s cellars.

In theory, my task is simple: disgorge the bottle I’m holding. This step in champagne-making involves removing the crown cap on the bottle so that the carbon dioxide can expel the sediment accumulated during the second fermentation. (After which, the “dosage,” a sugary liquor that helps balance the wine’s taste and acidity, will be added.) But I have to be nimble. The bottle is held upside down so the sediment doesn’t mix with the champagne. I am to carefully bring it upright while removing the cap and immediately placing my thumb over the mouth, before any precious sips are lost. But I’m not fast enough, and a quarter of my bottle spills onto the floor. “Do that 10 times in a day and you’d be fired!” says Mario Irla, laughing. Stroking his handlebar moustache, Veuve Clicquot’s “riddler” – and my guide in this labyrinth – explains that this age-old method is today reserved for grands crus. Nowadays, machines are used in the disgorgement process, no doubt to avoid the kind of spillage I just caused.

Hôtel du Marc’s reading room; a replica of Empress Marie-Louise's jewels

Left to right: Nicole the ostrich, named for founder Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, presides over Hôtel du Marc’s reading room. That hollow in the desk is designed to fit a champagne bucket, naturally; a replica of the jewels Chaumet crafted for Empress Marie-Louise in 1811.

Back up at ground level, a flute of Grande Dame 2006 helps me forget my clumsiness. The grand cru is silky and mineral, made from eight pinot noirs and chardonnays crocheted together like delicate lace. It’s as if I’m drinking haute couture, and I might as well be: If refinement were a religion, France would be the blessed Holy Land. To spread the good word, the brands that make up LVMH – which include such beacons of French luxury as Louis Vuitton, as well as other companies I am visiting this week – open their doors every few years to allow the public to marvel at their craftsmanship. Here, art-isanal excellence is the very essence of luxury. Passed on through generations and protected like a national treasure, it is the country’s de facto trademark. Just like a grande dame, France knows full well that she is more elegant than you. And she knows that you know it, too.

Grand Salon; Empress Marie-Louise; Béatrice de Plinval

A few gems from a visit to the jewellery house of Chaumet, including the Grand Salon (top left), Empress Marie-Louise (bottom right) and Béatrice de Plinval (bottom left), who founded the Chaumet museum, where pieces from the house, founded in 1780, are displayed.

And there’s nothing like a stroll through Place Vendôme,in the heart of Paris’ 1st arrondissement, to remind you of it. With its illustrious fashion houses and jewellery boutiques (not to mention the Ritz Paris, which Coco Chanel called home for over three decades), the square is both majestic and intimidating – all classical facades and Corinthian capitals and pilasters. “It’s military architecture, that’s why it’s so imposing,” explains Béatrice de Plinval, who managed the archives for jewellery house Chaumet for some 35 years. At the company headquarters, inside No. 12 Place Vendôme, she greets me in the Grand Salon on the first floor. The sumptuous room is where Frédéric Chopin spent the last four months of his life, amid gilded woodwork and art-covered walls. (When it comes to deathbeds, one could do worse.)

House of Chaumet

In the adjoining salon, tiaras are displayed like works of art. Created by Chaumet over the last two centuries, some were worn by Empress Joséphine, who is credited with bringing them back into fashion in the late 18th century. While France was trying to rebuild its empire, Napoleon’s wife was building stature – for both herself and the state – through her diadems and their galaxies of precious stones. The melding of nobility with craftsmanship in Paris, however, dates further back, to Louis XIV, who brought artisans here from around the country so he could satisfy his taste for opulence without importing from other European courts. According to Plinval, tiaras are still popular today (I’m clearly not hanging with the right crowd), but Chaumet also sets rings, necklaces and other jewellery in more modern styles for an equally privileged clientele.


Footloose and fancy: A shoemaker sculpts a wooden model used to create custom-made shoes.

I leave Chaumet, turn left and follow Rue Saint-Honoré, threading my way through the crowds that are making their rounds of the exclusive boutiques, when I do the unthinkable in Paris. I stop dead in my tracks right there on the sidewalk, drawing the wrath of the two women behind me, as well as some of the more creative insults I’ve heard. To my right stands the Louvre, and to my left the Place du Palais-Royal: two seats of high power in France’s history. And Place Vendôme is only a 10-minute walk away, as though the nobility had built a gigantic wardrobe a few steps from its residences. The French have always been so pragmatic.

Shoes; Virgile; Place Vendôme

Clockwise from top left: These shoes were made for walkin’; Virgile, one of the bootmakers in charge of Berluti’s made-to-measure workshop; the impressive, militaristic architecture of Place Vendôme.

I wasn’t expecting to see a soccer ball at Berluti. And yet a young woman is polishing one with the kind of care reserved for the most important collector’s items. In the process of making its bags and shoes, the men’s leatherwear company apparently produces a lot of leather scraps. It’s just as well they salvage them in an inventive way.

Were it not for cellphones set down here and there and cars roaring past the large windows overlooking Marbeuf Street, a stone’s throw from Hôtel George V, the bespoke shoemaking atelier I find myself in could be straight out of the 19th century. Virgile, a bootmaker with salt-and-pepper hair who is showing me around, introduces me to a shoemaker busy sculpting a piece of wood into a foot based on about 10 measurements taken from a client. He is crafting his work using a paroir, which looks like a paper cutter with a large blade. Because it is time-consuming to work with, the paroir has all but disappeared from the shoemaking industry, but Virgile claims it is more precise than a machine. “I don’t think a computer can make a Stradivarius,” he jokes, and the silence that dominates the space reminds me that the workshop is machine-free.


Left to right: The art deco stylings of the cosmetics house’s Champs-Élysées boutique; with makeup and more, Guerlain is quite the beauty spot.

In fact, it’s more like a welcoming apartment than a shoemaking shop. This is a place of studious labour: Sitting at a table covered with pots of glue and paintbrushes, four young workers are painstakingly assembling boots. Their future owners would do well to be patient. It takes three meetings with the client to create a pair of shoes; five people and more than 50 work hours are needed before they are ready to wear. Here, time is more than a convenience, it’s a key ingredient.

Guerlain boutique; marble staircase

Left to right: Architect Charles Mewès designed Guerlain’s Champs-Élysées boutique in 1914; well-marbled: follow this staircase down to the cosmetics brand’s basement restaurant.

“Real luxury is having the means and conditions to produce quality, lasting things,” Guerlain perfumer Thierry Wasser says as he leads me through the cosmetics house’s cheerfully art deco Champs-Élysées boutique. The 1930s-designed space is adorned with white-marble wall panelling, gold-inlay flooring and mirrored ceilings, and it strikes me just how much the right angles of the decor remind me of my bottle of Habit Rouge Dress Code, a scent I wear from time to time. Relaunched in 2015 by Wasser, the fragrance is a reinterpretation of the original formula created by his predecessor in 1965. “I was trained by Jean-Paul Guerlain, who learned the trade from his grand-father, who was born in 1874,” says Wasser. Though history is definitely in the air here, it’s anything but stuffy, and as I catch the lingering scent of vanilla on my scarf from my splash of Dress Code earlier this morning, I feel like I’m inhaling two centuries of perfumery.

Guerlain scents; Olivier Echaudemaison

Left to right: Scents of place from Guerlain; Olivier Echaudemaison, creative director for makeup at the French brand.

As I head toward the exit, I cast my eye on the Rouge G lipstick and its silver case; at first glance, it looks like a standard tube. Olivier Echaudemaison, creative director for makeup at Guerlain – he also worked with Jackie O. and Grace Kelly during his career – gently takes it from me and opens the case. And suddenly it behaves like a very elegant, frightfully chic Transformers figure: A mirror unfolds as if by magic, making it possible to apply makeup anywhere on the go. Now, lipstick might not really be my thing, but I still think – for a moment – about buying one. That sleek, bullet-shaped case conceals a mechanism made of 18 parts, all working together, quietly, behind the scenes. The luxury of simplicity never looked so good.

Travel Essentials

Glimpse the glimmer of high-end jewellery at Chaumet or admire the handiwork of Christian Dior’s petites mains during the next Journées Particulières, when more than 40 of LVMH’s luxury houses open their doors from October 12 to 14.