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Paris Tips: Tripping to Le Bon Marché

Sister Wendy taking a shopping break with the “Sous le chapeau” sculpture by András Lapis Photos by T. Brack

A tribute we will pay! (Modes de Paris, 1948, T. Brack’s archives)

By Theadora Brack

Blame it on the vacuum left by the Olympics, but I’ve got a strong hankering for another round of window-shopping. So this week, I’ve decided to trek it to Le Bon Marché, the very first department store in Paris (in fact, one of the world’s first). This iconic darling not only changed up the rules of retail, but also set waves of shopping frenzies in motion and acted as a muse to artists and writers of the avant-garde set. Plus, this is where is the 1920 Olympic flag was made! Who knew?

So pack your charge plate and rose-colored glasses. A tribute we will pay!

Flashback: “The cathedral of modern commerce!” is how Émile Zola neatly described Le Bon Marché (“the good deal”) in his novel “Le Bonheur des Dames.” The store was the first to launch fixed pricing, welcome stations staffed with English-speaking personal shoppers, and self-service. Soon faire du lèche-vitrine (“window licking”) became all the rage.

Dig “Les Soldes d’hiver″(big winter sales)? Thank founder Aristide Boucicaut for getting the party started with his annual “White Sales.”

Brand New World

Though now taken for granted, at the time its newfangled open-door retail concept meant that even prostitutes could shop here with ease. Both seductive and alluring, Bon Marché’s open aisles of enticing wares were often blamed for bankrupting families and inciting spontaneous shoplifting.

Andrée Putman’s Stairway to Heaven

During the 18-Eighties: Ninety percent of the shoppers were women, sometimes visiting the new “walk-around” palace on a daily basis. They were hooked. Even as the Prussian army surrounded the city in 1870, American and English fashionistas didn’t flee but kept on shopping, because a trip to Paris without having shopped would be a “life-long regret.” For the love of a half-empty bucket list, I can relate!

Au Bonheur des Dames

Initially designed by Gustave Eiffel and Paul Sédille (who beautified Printemps, too), Bon Marché has maintained her radiant glow by getting a little work done now and then. It’s no secret that Andrée Putman (also credited with the extreme makeover of Guerlain’s flagship on the Champs-Élysées) recently updated the store’s look with sets of crisscrossing escalators. Surrounded by slender columns, the moving stairs’ geometric patterns smartly echo the skylight’s square glass panes.

Yes, Hem shopped here

Though no longer considered quite the palace of “good deals” it was back in the time of Picasso and Hemingway (who bought his knock-off suits here), Le Bon Marché is still the place to window-gawk and trend-spot. You’ll find classics like Balenciaga, Dior, Lanvin, and Sonia Rykiel, along with funky designs by Comme des Garcons, Paul & Joe and Sandro.

A Dior Hat in Napoleonic Proportions

Happy Hunting Grounds

On the ground level, be wooed by “Le Théatre de la Beauté,” which specializes in just-launched, innovative, and difficult-to-find beauty products. So prior to your visit, do a little research and pack a wish list! Make your friends at home green with envy.

Confession: Here is where I score my Annick Goutal perfume. My secret weapon ? It’s Petite Chérie but keep it under your hat! Mum’s the word! A fan for a decade, I usually buy the body cream because it’s less expensive and the scent isn’t as strong but still possesses staying power. Ask for their carte de fidélité. Return visits are rewarded.

Tip: Often Bon Marché sponsors free exhibits. Recently my sister Wen and I got to see the Christian Dior exhibition. Decked out in Dior’s signature white and grey, the exhibit was made up of photographs, iconic “New Look” ensembles, super hip multimedia projections on oversized accessories like chairs, mannequins and hat boxes. Missed Dior? Fret not. There will be more to come!

The Skinny

Le Bon Marché
38 rue de Sèvres
Métro Sèvres-Babylone (lines 12 or 10)

Dior’s Good Book at Bon Marché

After the Browsing

Feeling peckish or parched? In a separate part of Bon Marché, La Grande Epicerie de Paris (the world’s largest international food labyrinth) seems to have everything to satisfy every taste bud, both domestic and foreign. The Babylon Garden is just in front of the store, so stock up and prepare to nosh like there’s no tomorrow!

Also, just behind Bon Marché, you’ll find the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal. Here’s a chance to balance out your mortal sins with a visit to Saint Catherine Labouré’s shrine. For the strong-hearted, the “incorruptible corpse” of the lady Herself is on full view in a glass case at the front of the sanctuary. Among other things, she’s credited with designing one of the most popular of saints’ medals, which are available on-site.

Snipping from “Bon Marché Weather,” a poem by Gertrude “Lady Dada” Stein: “There are a very great many things everybody is buying. There are a very great many things you are buying. There are a very great many things they are buying. There are a very great many things I am buying.”

She lived just a hop, skip and jump away, so I’m sure she was speaking from experience.

Happy Buying!

Monsieur Dior at Bon Marché

My Secret Weapon

Le Bon Marché looking Ab-Fab in 1900

Le Bon Marché Looking Ab-Fab in 2012

Au Bonheur des Dames, 1943 (Movieposterdb.com)

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90 thoughts on “Paris Tips: Tripping to Le Bon Marché

    • I know!! I know!!
      There are a very great many things everybody is buying.
      There are a very great many things you are buying.
      There are a very great many things they are buying.
      There are a very great many things I am buying.
      I can’t get Gertrude Stein’s poem “Bon Marché Weather” out of my mind. Not that I’m trying. It’s catchy!! T. (Thanks to your recent post, I’m still pushing, pushing pushing. Thanks for the motivation!!)

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    • Thank you!! Yes, Wen was very game. After she landed, we immediately hit the ground with a short run, and then we toured and shopped until we dropped. We stopped rue de Rennes, Châtelet, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and Boulevard Haussmann. We also stopped by Musée de la Mode et du Textile. By l’heure bleue, we were beat.

      I also dig the statue and bench!! “Sous le chapeau” (under the hat) was created by sculptor András Lapis. It’s located in front of the Hungarian Institute at 92 rue Bonaparte in the 6th arrondissement. It’s the perfect backdrop of a photo-op!! T.

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  1. This is the most delightful article about a department store I have ever had the pleasure to read. It takes true talent to turn out exciting work such as this given the subject matter. I love the joy and passion you manage to project into your writing. I can only imagine how much crazy fun you must have when you’re ‘out and about’ given your attention to detail.

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    • Golly, gee—wham. You made my day. You made my week!! I AM grinning wide. Thank you. I always appreciate your thoughtful words and writing, too. Yes, your enthusiasm is contagious. Here’s to a week of productive writing for all. Enjoy the week!! T.

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  2. Reminds me of Harrod’s and even looks at bit like it from the outside, at least what I remember from it from some years’ distance. As for the Napoleon outfit, I love hats, but I don’t think I could carry that off (or have anywhere to wear it, for that matter.) It would look a bit absurd while riding horseback in Wyoming. 🙂

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    • Funny!! Nah, I think one could easily don the red hat while horse back riding. At least in a pageant, perhaps? I’d give it a shot!! T. (I’m off now to read more about Harrods. Oscar Wilde was a favorite customer!! During the 1890s, an escalator was installed. Customers with the jitters were offered brandy. I love this tidbit!)

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      • Too funny! I would think that would give them more jitters, if for nothing else than to get more brandy.) I like escalators but I would think the glass elevators or the ones on the outside of a building, could merit a shot of brandy. Have fun researching. Some years ago, when Megan and I were in London, we spent some time in Harrod’s and found the most delicious pork pie there. It was marvelous!! They have lots and lots of tea, too. Not far from there, we found a Japanese bakery that had the most wonderful Japanese goodies with red bean paste in them. Have you ever had that? It sounds terrible but is one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. Japanese sweets of all types are never too sweet in the way too many American sweets are.

        Megan’s Japanese teacher once or twice brought us bean paste delicacies her husband brought back from Japan. Unbelievable.

        Enjoy your research.

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      • Oh, goodness. Thanks for the gastronomical tips!! Shopping without treats and soda pops is not the same experience. If you think of the name of the Japanese eatery, drop me a line. I agree with you. They’re both tasty and pretty. Maybe I’ll be able to spot the shop with the aid of Google Earth. I’ll give it a shot. I’d like to visit both Harrods and Selfridges. It’s been way too long. Thanks for the brainstorming session!! Back to the research. . .T.

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      • Gosh,thank you for the lead and the research!! You beat me to the punch. I really appreciate it. The joint looks great. I will add it to my list. And yes, I’ll keep you posted on London treats and Chicago. Great idea!! Enjoy the week, T.

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  3. T’dora, how serendipitous! A friend just gave me a blue, special metal, “Mary medallion” from the shrine/chapel of Sister Catherine Labouré! According to brochure that accompanied my medallion, Sister Catherine died in 1876; I wonder if she shopped at Le Bon Marché for her shoes and such? Even Sisters shop, you know.

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    • Oh, YES. Even Sisters shop!! Slipping on my Nancy Drew tricorn cap now. Perhaps I’ll find a connection. I loved your story. Very serendipitous!! You’d enjoy both Le Bon Marché and the Chapel of Sister Catherine Labouré. She still looks great. Maybe it’s Maybelline or perhaps, just perhaps she’s a Saint!! Enjoy the week, T’dora

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  4. Great post.. I’m looking for new ideas for my upcoming paris visit and a visit here is now on the list.

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    • Merci!! Yes, add Le Bon Marché to your list. You won’t be sorry. If you’re interested in window-shopping and grand magasins, I also recommend Galeries Lafayette and Printemps on Boulevard Haussmann (Métro Saint-Lazare), along with the former Samaritaine at Pont Neuf (Metro: Pont Neuf, line 7). For the love of architecture, all three are worth the trek!! T.

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  5. The Bon marché is one of my favorite ways to wile away a Parisian afternoon! Great post!

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    • I agree!! Le Bon Marché is the perfect spot for testing fragrances. Their beauty and cosmetics zone isn’t as hustling and bustling as Galeries Lafayette and Printemps. I like its tranquil vibe. Plus, they have comfy leather sofas. Do you have a favorite Paris department store? I miss Samaritaine and its rooftop. Sigh! T.

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  6. What a great story. Would have loved to have seen it ‘in the day’. Imagining shopping trips that would last an entire day, a completely fulfilling day. Wonderful.

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    • Oh. YES. It would have been great fun to hunt for knock-off duds with Hem back in the day, eh? And then kick back with a glass of wine. Dialing my time travel agent now. The suit also rises!! T.

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      • HA! Need that number! I’m in London October thru Mid November…I AM going to Paris! NOTHING will stop me! And thanks to you…I know where to go! Yay.
        xo
        R

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      • Oh, la LA!! This is very exciting news. Watch out, Paris!! Yes, get the time travel agent on the horn immediately. Enjoy the trip planning. I love this phase. And feel free to ask questions!! T.

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      • Thanks T…I definitely will. I’m actually looking again at all your posts…making notes! YaY!

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    • Pam, I know!! The red garb immediately caught my little eye. I love the gold embroidery. Gosh, I fell hard. It’s a stunner!! T. (Le Bon Marché did a really swell job with the multimedia installation. Very clever. And popular. Whenever I stopped by, the galleries were packed to the gills. I loved the energy!)

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    • Merci, Pal!! Whenever I feel blue, I go for a window-shopping with camera in hand. It never fails to lift my spirit. The former Marshall Fields department store in Chicago also flaunts a gorgeous interior. I love it there. It would be great fun to create a portrait. Perhaps it will be a future mini-collaboration? B.

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      • You might not know…that the newly restored Carson’s on State Street is now a Target! Another beautiful, old building turned into a dreadful ‘shoplifter’s paradise’!

        Next time I’m down there (a week or two) I will shoot both…watch for the postcards, Mlle B.!

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    • Yes, I would have probably kept shopping. Guilty!! Are you an Annick Goutal fan? I also adore their Eau de Charlotte (chocolate) and Eau d’Hadrien (lemon).” “When my ship comes in,” I’ll try a beauty treatment at their spa in Saint-Germain. Located kitty-corner to Saint-Sulpice, it’s another quiet space for experimenting with fragrances. Spray-on!! T.

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  7. Dior, Annick Goutal (my favorite is Gardenia Passion) the vintage emphemra. I would have a very hard time in Paris.

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  8. Bon Marche. The most beautiful sound I have ever heard.
    Bon Marche. Say it loud and there’s music playing. Say it soft and its almost like praying.
    Bon Marche. I’ll never stop saying Bon Marche.
    The most beautiful sound I have heard. Bon Marche.
    West Side Virginia.

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    • Thank you!! Do you have a favorite department store in Paris? Theadora

      I’m now singing along with Nat King Cole. OH, my!
      East Side, West Side, all around the town. . .Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York

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      • Hi Theadora. My favourite Parisian department store is Le Bon Marche especially, the wonderful food section, Le Grand Epicerie. I love when I am in Paris to visit shops which don’t have branches in my home town (Dublin) such as Agnes B, Repetto, APC and Journal Standard de Luxe. Despite all the very beautiful buildings in Paris the one that haunts my memory is the Corbusier’s Villa LaRoche.

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      • I’m digging your list. Repetto and Agnès B. have won my heart and hard-earned euros. I love Repetto’s window displays. The shop near the Opéra is a favorite. Corbusier’s Villa La Roche is also amazing. I agree. The memory of the visit lingers on and on. Enjoy the week!! T.

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  9. Theadora,
    Your story on Le Bon Marche brought back some childhood memories. Of course, not of the Paris store but one in Lowell MA. It was an impressive Bon Marche – I think it had six or seven floors. My mother brought us there to get suits for confirmation. As a kid, I loved to go to the top floor and watch the men getting shaves and haircuts in the barber shop. When the barbers would hone their razors on a leather strap, it was like being at the circus. I wonder how many stores throughout the world were name Bon Marche?
    Thanks for awakening a childhood memory.
    Thom
    Ps: I think the store closed in the 70’s

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    • Dear Thom,
      I loved your story about the barbers and their fancy handiwork! Like Edward Scissorhands? I’ve been studying photographs of your Bon Marché. What a looker. “The largest department store in New England” opened in 1887. And yes, the sixth floor boasted a barbershop and a beauty shop. Great memory! According to newspaper reports, the beauty closed its doors at 5:30 PM on January 10, 1976. Tears were shed. It then became a Jordan Marsh Department Store. Now the historic building flaunts a bookshop and restaurant. Luckily, the signage survived the multiple tenants. It’s lovely. Adding the store to my “grand magasin pilgrimage” list.
      Again, thanks for sharing!!
      T.

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    • Merci!! It’s a great ’hood, eh? Do you have any café recommendations? Theadora (I’ve been enjoying your “Utopia” site. I loved the recent Burning Man shot. Amazing! I also dig your tagline: “Give me a lever long enough and I’ll move the world.” Nice.)

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      • Yeah, Bistrot du 7ème is a place I usually went for a cup of nice coffee. Definitely the best Café au lait in whole area! Thanks for compliments and checking out my blog 🙂 I’m very glad You like it

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      • Thank you for the Café au lait lead! Is your Bistrot du 7ème located at 56 Boulevard de la Tour-Maubourg? I’m looking forward to checking out the joint! It’s not always easy, breezy to find a great tasting cup of coffee. Adding it to my list. Merci!! T. (Yes, your “Utopia” site is pretty darn FAB!)

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    • Ah, thanks Richard!! One day soon. I promise! My sister was beat. Wen had just arrived, but kept up with me. T. (You are in the street portrait zone. I adored yesterday’s “Al” photograph. Folks feel very comfortable with you. It’s obvious. No walls or barriers. Bravo!!)

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    • Merci! I appreciate the “Beautiful” shout-out. I’m now humming the “I Feel Pretty” song from West Side Story again. Oh, dear. Theadora (And congratulations to you!! Your posts are consistently beautiful and inspiring.)

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    • tick. . .tick. . tick!! Your trip is just around the oorner. Yes, add Bon Marché to your list. It’s a great spot to try on scents in peace. It’s quiet space with plush, comfy sofas. Plus, there’s a park, a bookshop and a chocolate boutique nearby for the guys!! It’s a win-grin. I’m looking forward to reading your Paris reports. Feel free to ask questions. Cheers! T.

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  10. Wonderful post! Loved the historical background too! I bought my first leather Longchamp bag there years ago during the January Soldes! This post brought back great memories of that trip. XOXO

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    • Oh, la la, Nouveau Yuppie! I dig the story. Do you still have the bag? Color? Style? I try to shop only during the Big Winter and Summer sales. Well. I try!! T. (Thanks also for the kind words!)

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      • I indeed still have the bag. It’s a pearalized lavender leather hobo/crescent shaped bag and the strap has these cool interlocking rings that sit on the shoulder to look like a spider web. Longchamp makes the best bags, I think, but I’m biased towards anything French!

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    • Well, gosh. Thank you, Bargain Diva!! “Liebster” is such a great word. I appreciate the Lovely shout-out! T. (And congratulations to you!! I love your daily alerts. Thanks for tracking down the bargain deals for the frugal fashionistas of the world.)

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  11. theadora, wonderful atmosphere! a mix of past and present and your optimistic voice – a good start for my day!

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    • Ah, thank you!! I feel the same way about your moody-bluesy photography. Your work also rocks (flaunts!) a retro vibe. I always smile whenever I spot your top shot of James Dean. Sigh! Timeless. T.

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    • OH, Yes!! Add Bon Marché to your list. It’s worth the trek! T. (Harrods is pretty darn great, too. Do you have a favorite department store in London? Curious.)

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  12. This blog has SO much style! You made me smile again, though! – as a non-shopper myself, I found the concept and picture of ”shopping break” very amusing – I thought shopping WAS the break! And goodness, they actually have sculptures of hoping breaks!?
    Thanks so much for such richly researched postings.

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    • Thank YOU for the big giggle. Truth be bold: Bargain shopping is a favorite serious business. Breaks are oh-so necessary or the dogs (feet) start barking—as my grandmother would say!! T.

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  13. I *heart* the little Hungarian girl statue. (Helps that it is right by PH!) And what a beautiful run-down on Bon Marche – my mother sent me a documentary about it, must look up the name for you! Biz

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    • Whoa, Sunflower! Wait a minute. Stop the presses. Shut the patio door. There’s a documentary about Bon Marché? Thanks for sharing! I’m off now to track it down. If you think of the name, drop me a line!! T.

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      • Found it! It was hiding in my stack of books. Called Seduction and the City, subtitle The Birth of Shopping 🙂 Will happily post it to you if you like? (I love sending parcels!) x

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      • You are so kind!! I’d love to own the two-part documentary. It looks fascinating. Received excellent reviews, to boot. If I have problems trapping a copy to own, I’ll drop you a line. Again, merci!! T. (I’m still digging, digging your “Tangerine Drawings.” I always smile whenever I see one appear on the screen. They’re terrific.)

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  14. This morning I awoke to autumn. Turn your back on summer for one minute – and poof she’s gone. I wrapped a slinky but warm scarf around my neck. Then I remembered the lovely shop in Paris and the goodies to be found there. My daughter and I were staying at the Hotel Elysees Regencia – 41 avenue Marceau. It was a short stroll away to Alain Figaret to stock up on most exquisitely made pajamas, scarves, shirts and blouses. The pajamas are especially important. You never know when the house might catch on fire, and one simply must look ones best for the firemen. Virginia

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    • Summer. She’s a tricky one. Watch out. She loves the encore.

      Alain Figaret. Thanks for the nugget. I checked out his website. The scarves and blouses are magnificent. I’ve got my eye on the “Echarpe imprimé cachemire vert en modal.” It’s green AND fabulous.

      So here’s the deal: Monsieur Figaret has been creating shirts since 1968. His shops are scattered throughout Paris. A few years ago, he celebrated The “24 Heures du Mans” and Jacky Ickx (1969 winner) with a limited collection. You see, we have Jacky to thank for protesting the traditional (and dangerous) Le Mans start. It was then changed in 1970. Interesting!

      And speaking of danger, whenever I compete in a Paris foot race, I always position myself behind the pompiers (firemen)! Oh, la la. They encourage with winks and charm!

      T.

      Alain Figaret Shops
      21 rue de la Paix (2nd arrondissement)
      16 rue de Sèvres (7th arrondissement)
      18/20 place de la Madeleine (8th arrondissement)
      14 bis rue Marbeuf (8th arrondissement)
      30 avenue Franklin Roosevelt (8th arrondissement)
      Galeries Lafayette Haussmann Homme (9th arrondissement)
      Printemps de l’Homme Haussmann (9th arrondissement)
      99 rue de Longchamp (16th arrondissement)
      134 rue de Courcelles (17th arrondissement)

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