Thursday, July 19, 2012

From France to New York: A Love Affair

Claude-Noëlle Toly in her chic boutique, Le Fanion. (We absolutely love her trousers and her trés, trés  parfait -- very, very French hairstyle.)

Ed. Note: You may recall, I promised you something very special. Here it is. Written by Carrie Tuhy of the absolutely divine blog Second Lives Club -- if you do not know it, please rush over and follow -- it is truly meant for us. From the writing to the subjects to the esprit, the Second Lives Club speaks to us. I love today's post. I think you will too. 

            Claude-Noëlle Toly grew up in Dieu Le Fint, a tiny village the South of France.  At 21, she and her then boyfriend flew to the United States and began a hitchhiking trip that traversed the country. The boyfriend didn’t last, but her romance with the U.S. did.  “I fell in love with America and Americans.  I felt so at home here,” she says.

The next year, 1982, to her parents’ distress, their younger child and only daughter packed up her belongings, sold her car and moved to New York City.  One of her first jobs was as a waitress at Chez Bridgitte, a legendary Greenwich Village restaurant—more like a lunch counter with nine stools -- started in the 50s by Marseille native, Brigitte Catapano, and known for its homey atmosphere and delicious Boeuf Bourguignon. 

While working there, Claude-Noëlle met a Columbia University student and Francophile who always left her big tips. In 1986, she and the student-turned-business partner opened Le Fanion, a corner boutique in the heart of Greenwich Village that sells decorative pottery, paintings and antiques from France.
Pottery, plates, furniture and charming chandeliers.
Le Fanion’s chic and original offerings, prized by loyal and fashionable customers, reflect Claude-Noëlle's roots and tastes. They range in price from a polka dot eggcup for $17 to a $27,000 chandelier dripping with jewel-like crystal fruits and flowers.  The shop’s ceiling and walls are filled with twinkling chandeliers and sconces made the old-fashioned way and newly electrified: the bronze frames are sand-cast, the crystal ornaments hand-ground from bars. There are also hulking 19th century armoires and zinc-topped café tables.  Even the fir columns supporting her loft
office are imported from the French countryside.

Pitchers, pitchers, pitchers -- and a few plates.
About a dozen artisans in the villages that surround Claude-Noëlle's hometown make the pottery – pitchers, plates, cups, bowls and other whimsical items, some with charmingly naïf drawings of cows, pigs and sheep. She discovered them by driving around the French countryside, stopping at farm after farm. “This was before the Internet or cell phones," she recalls.  Sometimes there would be just one or two farmers making a couple pieces over a season.
She still collects the pieces herself during buying trips four times a year and visits to her mother stilling living independently (hiking!) in her 80s. Claude-Noëlle credits her mother with her discerning eye and her sense of style, despite a “super conventional, good girl” upbringing. “I was raised to be a teacher -- or a secretary. That would be glamorous,” she says. “Until I came to New York, I didn’t know you could be a hat designer or do props for movies."

 When she first arrived in New York City three decades ago, she couch-surfed with actors in the old, unDisneyesque Times Square until she found a roommate and an apartment. Those early experiences were life-expanding. Growing up, she had never even visited France’s capital city.  “We were told Parisians were mean. They would beat us up.” 

Today, she owns a flat in Saint-Germain-des-Pres where she stays to recoup after her transatlantic flights and occasionally rents to longtime customers. The décor in the shop and her apartments—she also has a small studio on Bleeker Street in New City (which once was home to Pierre Deux’s first store but is now dominated by Marc Jacob’s multi-shop empire) is reminiscent of her family home. The furniture is mostly 19th century cherry and walnut pieces. Her parents collected antiques.  “People in the country just lived with this furniture,” she says.  

Claude-Noëlle mingling with her clients.
Equally as fashionable as the shop’s merchandise is the gamine proprietor who has a bequiling Audrey Hephurn-in-Funny Face quality. Her personal style is informed both by her origins and her adopted country. One recent afternoon we talked about French and American women while customers of both nationalities ‘ooh’ed and ‘ah’ed  as they shopped in her store:

Le Fanion -- Claude-Noëlle's boutique feels and looks like Paris.
On Style: Maybe necessity creates style. When I was a kid it was more common than now to make your own clothes, to knit your sweaters because it cost less than buying everything. For sure, it helped me have a more unique style. I try to not spend a lot on my clothes. I’m not big on designers; I prefer something a little different to a name. I like clothes that are fairly simple, making an outfit more personal with an accessory--a scarf, or a necklace. I used to buy vintage, but now not much anymore. I buy preferably on sale, very different places: Anthropology, Agnes B, Levi’s, and small boutiques when I travel.  I don’t think it’s inbred in French women.  My mom is very stylish and made our clothes. Other moms were not.

On French Women: I think we are more natural and grounded in reality, which is also true of the whole culture and country. Being a more agricultural society until recently and also a much poorer nation than the U.S., we were closer to a simpler past. I think it's changing, and that's a big subject . . . for another time!  We are the country of Descartes: practical, common sense... France doesn't have Hollywood. Instead of Marilyn Monroe, we had Edith Piaf....We don’t have the cult of youth that exists here: a woman in her 40s is considered very sexy (in France) -- not finished! Therefore maybe you're more encouraged to take care of yourself. Having a mistress is an accepted notion. Maybe women are more stimulated by this. Either to be one or to refrain their husband from looking for one! 

On American Women: U.S. women are very inspiring for their independence and their tough spirit. To me, that's the ideal: the pioneer, free, liberated woman. I think she was an inspiration for the whole world. I have always found American women to be very kind, very sweet and very “girl power”. French women are more competitive among each other, have less solidarity. They are less open and less relaxed with each other than their American counterpart. I've learned from American women to be more sister-like and more loving towards other women.

 On role models: The American woman I admire most is the pioneer woman: strong, reliable, courageous, always welcoming and solid as a rock, not complaining. In general (what) I admire and enjoy about Americans is they are easily happy, easy going, adaptable, jovial, friendly. Another type of woman that French women admire is the California healthy style: Farrah Fawcett or Jane Fonda.  But that style might be a little dated now.

Some Differences:  I think France has been less permeated by corporate influences –for example, corporate products and advertising convincing you that you need what they are selling-- so it allows people to be more real. American women, I think, used to be more real but now have been reduced to a cartoon image of what a woman should look like. Authenticity is always more attractive than fakery. How can you be attractive when your face isn't yours, your boobs are not yours, your lips not yours? Being too removed from reality is not attractive.  Sweating when it's hot is okay. Feeling sad is okay.  I always find it more attractive to be natural -- that’s why children are so charming -- than to be artificial. And I think Hollywood and magazines have created an image that cannot be met by most women -- or men, for that matter.  Being natural and comfortable with who you are makes you confident and attractive. Trying to fit a mold just doesn’t work, and it shows. 


The enchanted home said...

FASCINATING! I sooo enjoyed this. Smart woman, charming story and for a French woman, she has much of the qualities that she sees in Amercian women....the independence, fortitude and a tough spirit to have thrown caution in the wind, left France to come to the U.S.! Her shop looks totally charming and she appears to have a life many dream that in France women are considered to be very sexy in the 40's.......vive la France!!!!!
She hit the nail on the head with her impressions of women on both ends and the differences, I so agreed with.

Francine Gardner said...

This was a great interview. i can't believe I have never been in her store! i have to run around downtown (NYC) for clients, i will try to stop by. new York is actually a small town when it comes to the design filed, and we both have followed the same path, it is quite incredible that we never met. I opened Interieurs nearby in Soho, importing antiques from the south of France, but as the business grew I changed the location. Thank you for the introduction, Francine

Lost in Provence said...

An amazing, amazing post! Wow. So much to think about I know that I will be rereading it but I was practically cheering to read such spot on yet not in the least bit snarky observations. Loved it all. Merci Claude-Noëlle for being you, and to Carrie and Tish for sharing her outlook with us!

That's Not My Age said...

I read about Claude-Noelle swimming in the Hudson River & thought she was fab! So it's good to find out more about her. Next time I'm visiting my brother in NY I'm definitely going to her boutique. It looks fantastic.

And we have the cult of youth in the UK too!

déjà pseu said...

What a fabulous post! And what a wonderful life she's made for herself. I'm bookmarking this so we can visit her shop next time we're in NY.

Linda McMullan said...

What a lovely post! I can hardly wait to get back to NY and seek out her lovely boutique. And hopefully, meet Claude-Noelle herself.

And, three cheers for the comments on "real women" - without fake boobs, faces and lips. Perfect.

BigLittleWolf said...

Delightful! I recently re-discovered Second Lives Club. It's delicious!

(And I second Linda's comment above. Let's hear it for real!)

A Well Styled Life said...

This was terrific! I loved the comparisons between French and American women. So true how Americans have been "permeated by corporate influences"!
It degrades our confidence at the time when we should be feeling our best.

(and I'll I third Linda's comment..real is perfect!)

Thank you for this great post.

I clicked over to Second Lives Club...loved it too.

kabayoz said...

Tish, you promised this will be special and you delivered! All I can say is that Claude-Noelle's observation is right on the money. Love her "nom de plume"...the Second Lives Club. She's brilliant, intuitive and my humble opinion.

A wonderful post...thank you Tish and Claude-Noelle!

hostess of the humble bungalow said...

Thank you for this wonderful introduction!
Her life sounds fascinating and I'd love to shop in her chic to read her blog now.

SE said...

Okay, this is one on my favorite blog interviews EVER! Thank you, Tish- and I appreciate her honest comments about why so many women feel they must 'do' something to themselves to be more attractive. How do we get rid of the endless marketing and corporate influences? A discussion for another day, I guess. I will scoot over to the Second Lives Club...

Anonymous said...

interesting woman I did enjoy this post..shoe question: where in Paris would you look for reptto ballet flats..? I learned of these wonder shoes by reading about them here on your please help me out thank you very much.......

Tish Jett said...

Dear Anonymous,

You can find Repetto ballerines in many Paris boutiques, including the Repetto boutique at 22 rue de la Paix, the original shop I think.

Galleries Lafayette has a huge -- if not all -- selection of models.

You will love them, I'm sure. A bit of advice: they run small so perhaps you will need to go up one size.

Sheila Carter said...

Fabulous post....Spot on! Made me proud of my American Heritage, just wish the men felt the same way as our French regarding age and what is sexy.... Thank you !!!

Shybiker said...

Great profile! What an interesting woman. And Bleecker Street is my favorite part of New York. So diverse, so bohemian. I'll have to stop in her shop.

Judith A. Ross said...

This post made me so happy! Thank you Carrie for sharing Claude Noelle's shop and her valuable perspectives on age. Like "lost in Provence" I'll be re-reading this post a few times.

I don't know my way around NYC very well, but I'll be there in early August. Maybe I can skip out of the conference I'm attending for a little field trip to her shop!

Merci beaucoup, Judith

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