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September 9, 2009

Foreign Beauty Report: Paris

Forget the stereotypes: French women aren't all sexy, unshaven smokers in chignons. Ying Chu discovers the secrets to modern beauty in the City of Light.

Eiffel Tower, Paris

Photo Credit: Barry King/Wire Image

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Messy hair, no makeup—you look very French," says Lancôme's artistic director, Aaron De May, over coffee at the Hotel Ritz in Paris' plush Place Vendôme. It was a humid Tuesday morning in July, and I had just rushed over from the 16th arrondissement, a residential neighborhood across town. The rumpled 'do? Thank the city's hard, heavily mineralized tap water and a hotel hair dryer that sputtered only cold air. The unmade face? Also unplanned—after hiking through the vast mazes of the Paris Metro, my makeup had completely melted off. And with that, I'd serendipitously discovered the easy, edgy sex appeal of Clémence Poésy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Vanessa Paradis—an about-face from the overt glamour that Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot once embodied. My mantra for the week: Just go with it.

After a careful scan of my glowy (er, sweaty) face, De May pulls out a stunningly bright tomato lipstick: "All you need is a slick of red." Simple enough. This lightens my purse—and my morning routine. But can a type A (blotting-paper-obsessed) American embrace such an effortless approach?

With the culture's rich heritage in fragrance, parfumeries—both classic (Guerlain, Caron) and new (Iunx, Francis Kurkdjian)—dot Paris streets like bodegas in New York City. "French women grow up with perfume," says Nathalie Duran, the chic 30-something creative head of Yves Saint Laurent Beauté. "We put it on like Americans apply sunscreen." (Is there anything less sexy than SPF? Yet it's all I can think about as I feel my skin scorching on the banks of the Seine.)

While traditional tastes veer to heady, spicy Orientals over the clean, fruity splashes favored stateside, today's Gallic girl, says Duran, appreciates both. So for YSL's latest creation, aptly named Parisienne, she paired a fresh, dewy rose and cranberry blend with creamy sandalwood and vetiver. The perfume is meant to evoke the morning after, well, a hookup. And this reveals another cultural divide: "That walk home is synonymous with having a love affair," says Duran, of what Americans typically call The Walk of Shame. "The people opening cafés smile at you. You don't have to hide anything!" When I spritz on Parisienne and head to dinner, my longtime Parisian friend Romain comments on how different I seem. (Is it the perfume? My matted hair?) I heed Duran's advice—"We never talk about beauty secrets with men; we want to appear effortless," I say, and change the subject, unsure if I come off as elusive or just aloof.


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