Jun 032010

Some Parisian visitors coming from the U.S. have discovered the wonders of European skin and hair care.  We’ve seen the sunscreens, the moisturizers and other products on non-U.S. websites, message boards and elsewhere.  Although the Internet have made these products more available to U.S. shoppers, some are curious to go look for themselves.  You may save a little in the process.

The question is–where do you go?

Pharmacy located off the Champs Elysee

The first answer is a pharmacy, which are designated with a green cross.  These stores carry most low-to-mid priced ranges of products such as Avene, RoC, Vichy and La Roche-Posay.  Although you are free to browse, the pharmacist or sales person can assist.  Keep in mind that pharmacists in France have extensive training and knowledge, and frequently sought out as sources of advice before a doctor is consulted.  Therefore, unlike U.S. drugstores, the customer’s relationship with a French pharmacist can be more interactive.

A Neighborhood Pharmacy in the Saint-Germain

  • If you do have an ailment and don’t see what you want on the shelves in a pharmacy, do ask.  Products that Americans are used to seeing on shelves are kept behind the pharmacist’s counter.
  • Note that U.S. brand names may not be available in France, but comparable products are.  For example, I have found French versions of Dramamine, Tums, Tylenol and Neosporin through discussions with a French pharmacist.
  • In the U.S., drugstores carry everything from t-shirts to toasters.  Not so in France. Rather, pharmacies carry health-care type items.

Second, a Monoprix or other large supermarket.  These stores carry groceries, clothing, office supplies and are a lot more like a U.S. drugstore than a French pharmacy.  There is usually a good selection of low-to-mid priced European skincare.

Third, some large department stores have sections for lower-priced makeup and Euro skin care. I’ve previously discussed Le Printemps.  The Galeries Lafayette carries Revlon, L’Oreal, Art Deco, T. Le Clerc, BeguineBourjois and other lower-priced brands.  Shop carefully, some are identical–although more expensive–than in the U.S.  Also, the French Sephora carries a few lower-priced lines.

Drugstore lines in Galeries Lafayette

Fourth, there are health and beauty stores, which usually have a wonderful selection, gifts with purchases and sometimes promotions.  These are sprinkled throughout, and usually contain the word “parapharmacie”, “sante” (health) or “bien etre” (well-being) somewhere on the storefront.  The staff in these stores are usually quite knowledgeable.  Most of these stores focus on health, skin care and health.  There are usually only one or two makeup lines (such as T. LeClerc).

Fifth, many lines have brand-specific stores.  Sometimes these have no U.S. presence at all, like an all-organic line that I stumbled on in the Marais.  Others are more widely know, such as Yves Rocher. Another is Biologique Recherche, located on the Champs Elysee, reputed to have some of the best skin care in the world although this is reflected in the pricing.  I’m dying to try their P50 toner.  Your best bet for these is to look up the address on the company’s website.

Entrance to Biologique Recherche, 32 Champs Elysees

Keep in mind that some types of products are simply not available in France at all.  For example, skin lightening products that contain hydroquinone cannot be sold under French law.  Finally, keep in mind that most stores are closed on Sundays in Paris.  Although there exceptions for locations that include cultural or historical features (which seems to sweep in several stores on the Champs-Eylsees) and some essential stores (which applies to a few pharmacies), most department and other stores are not an option (except for a few weeks of the year) on Sundays.  Instead, head to a museum, the Eiffel Tower, or other incredible site.

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Jun 022010

Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche is a department store that has a boutique, high-service feel.  The store is located across from a beautifully lush park, and has an intimate feel.  I liken it to a Bergdorf Goodman and Barney’s, because the stock is highly edited, high-end luxury and the scale of the store does not overwhelm.  Are you looking for the perfect t-shirt?  You will not have to wade through racks in different departments.  Le Bon Marché’s buyers have found them and they are, indeed, perfect.  Their website gives some of the feel of the store.

The store itself is a little jewel, scrupulously clean and has an amazing and original accessories and makeup area on the first floor (or zero as the French would say).  In addition to boutique rooms for clothing and accessories from Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton, there are tables of beautiful and artistic jewelry designers that you won’t find everywhere.  Their statement necklaces were gorgeous.  Their scarves are amazing and creative– I found an elegant silk turquoise-and-fuchsia scarf imprinted with a large cupcake drawing (how cute is that?) for a friend.  Unlike U.S. department stores, they had a large selection of imaginative hats.

The makeup section is large and luxurious.  The Guerlain counter has its own little room, and the Chanel section is serene, spacious and accessible.  They were the only store that appears to carry the new Tom Ford lipsticks (45 euros in France, $45 in the U.S.).  I picked up a gorgeous pamphlet that described several interesting and informative beauty classes sponsored by various brands that were offered throughout the month.  I wanted to go to all of them.

Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche makeup floor on a weekday afternoon

Their shoe department is to die for.  Not just the best lines—but the very best pieces from the best lines.  Again, edited.   Breathtaking, edgy clothing.  The store seems to cater to young, upscale, hip French families, and those looking for something modern-classic. Books and stationary seems to have been mostly purged from U.S. department stores, but  the third floor of Le Bon Marche includes has a large book area (almost entirely in French) and a small art gallery with exhibits that change every few months. The basement has a large toy section for gift shoppers.

The Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche is an entire building devoted to gourmet French food.  As well-edited as the fashion, the gourmet floor has a selection of fruits, vegetables, dairy, bakery and gourmet meats. There are beautiful wines and liqueurs.  It’s all gorgeous–the berries look like jewelry and the bakery items as pretty as designer shoes.  There is an “imported food” area that includes things from Great Britain, so if you are missing peanut butter or Euro Kit Kats, you will find a very limited selection here. You don’t have to be a foodie to love this store–I am not one but I still find this store fascinating.

A few words about food–European growing regulations are different (read- “more restrictive”) than in the U.S.  Things tend to be more “pure” than in the U.S., fewer hormones and less (if any) genetic engineering.  I don’t know if this is the reason that European strawberries taste like those that I remember from my childhood, but I suspect that this is true.  The difference in really noticeable for fresh dairy, fruits and vegetables to me,  even though I tend to buy organic in the U.S.

Second, be careful about what you choose to bring home.  U.S. customs, and even different U.S. states, have import restrictions.  Also, sometimes the food is allowed, but you might have a delay at customs. Most of the concerns arise with non-pasteurized fresh cheeses, and the fact that drug smugglers used to pack things in cheese to mask the smell from the U.S. customs authority dogs.

The neighborhood around Le Bon Marché is interesting to explore.  I like to take a route that runs through the beautiful St. German on the Rue des Saints-Pères.  This street has several fashionable boutiques in its vicinity, including Paul & Joe clothing (one boutique for women, another for men), Baby Buddha, Maud Frizon shoes, Anne Fontaine clothing, Les Chemins Blancs clothing, and Sonya Rykiel everything.

Paris’ Mac Pro is also on this street, if you are inclined to get a makeover with a French twist.

Bottom line, if you are looking for a non-touristy, French experience in a department store, which a dash of gourmet thrown in, put Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche on your list.  Exploring the St. Germain area will bring you additional designers that will enrich your experience.

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May 312010

Le Printemps on the Boulevard Haussmann

Sometimes how we use our time is not in our control.  If you are on Paris on business, with family or a tour, or (let’s face it) would much rather see all of the wonders and sights of Paris rather than shop, you may only have an hour to do any European makeup shopping.  If I were in that position, I would head to Le Printemps on the Boulevard Haussmann for that hour.

Why?  Here are there reasons:

  • It has the all major makeup brands;
  • Of the stores that I know, it is usually the least crowded;
  • The staff is patient and excellent;
  • The stock levels are quite good (especially if you want those popular items like Lancome’s Erika F.); and
  • The second floor (or, as the French would say, the first floor because the ground floor is the “zero” floor), has an entire range of European skin care, from inexpensive pharmacy lines to some premium lines.

The store is located on the Boulevard Haussmann, in a historic building that dates from the 1920’s (although the store was originally founded in the mid-1800’s, the original one burned down and had to be rebuilt).  Printemps is right next door to the Galeries Lafayette (worst case, if Le Printemps is out of stock on something, you can quickly pop over to Galeries Lafayette for the items).

Le Printemps is comprised of two buildings–the first, “Mode” is full of fashion and accessories.  It’s an enormous treat, full of luxury boutiques and floors of other gorgeous things.  These include a first floor Laduree stand for incredible macarons, and a second floor Laduree restaurant and bakery for a more complete selection.   The second one, “Beaute” includes beauty, skincare, gourmet foods and housewares. They have a glorious selection of Mariage Frères teas, and a really interesting kitchen department.  On a prior trip, I had to wrestle with myself to keep from buying a De Buyer “Make Your Own Macarons” kit (I had already bought the one for crepes, and it was life-changing).

I headed in:

The first floor has all major beauty brands, of course the European versions of them.  There is also a manicure bar stocked with a rainbow of Essie choices on this floor.  Here, I found an incredibly helpful Chanel sales associate who showed me the new Chanel duo’s in more detail.  To help me narrow my choices from the six available, he asked which Chanel eyeshadows I already had.  After I told him, he laughed at me and said, “Well, you are probably going to end up with all of these so the real question is where to start.”   True that.

We settled on Khaki-Clair, which has a deep gorgeous matte green and a soft shimmery white highlighter, and Misty-Soft, a matte medium brown with a shimmery shadow that is a deeper, nutty version of the shimmery side of Nars All About Eve.  I’ll post more about these when I’m back home with my regular camera.

Upstairs, I loaded up on Avene skincare, including Diacneal and Cleanance K, which both work wonders at keeping my skin clear.  There are other less expensive brands here too, including La Roche Possay.  I dutifully ignored the Keihl’s room, given that the brand is widely available back home.  I also investigated Institute Estederm skincare, having heard about the line on Lisa Eldridge’s website.  I picked up a few tubes of the ones rated for “No Sun,” which is said to act as a complete block.

On my way out, I swung by the Dior counter, which had most of the items that are familiar to me in the U.S.  Seeing nothing new, I headed out to see some of the non-makeup delights of Paris.

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May 272010

The Champs-Élysées can be a controversial topic–once a field of greens and gardens, the avenue has become a prominent location for historic events, including parades and the final piece of the Tour de France, as well as a site for various retail stores and tourist attractions.  The site of the Arc de Triomphe visually dominates the street.   Crowds of people are attracted from all over the world.  Although unquestionably French, the street has an international feel.

The avenue is lined with stores, many of which are large retailers and some of which are French-based.  Sephora’s largest store in Paris (and perhaps its largest store anywhere) is there.  It just two doors down from the Guerlain boutique, so if you go to one it is worth seeing the other.

I have been going to this store nearly every year for the past ten.  The traffic volume that this store gets is unprecedented–there is an enormous, multi-lingual and multi-cultural crowd in their nearly every waking hour. The Champs-Élysées is populated by people carrying Sephora bags, all the way.  It is a credit to the valiant efforts of their staff that such a hands-on styled business is able to function.

The front foyer area includes a featured brand that changes out every few weeks.  This typically includes several counters, makeup testing and application areas and large, splashy graphics.  Here is one for Giorgio Armani:

Sephora’s Champs-Élysées store carries several brands not carried by the U.S. Sephora, but still familiar to U.S. buyers. These include Chanel makeup (Euro versions only), Bobbi Brown, Armani makeup, By Terry, Shu Uemura and MAC.  It also includes some French brands, such as Institut Esthederm.

In the main store area, the perfume section lines both side walls going about halfway back.  In the middle are featured brands, such as Bare Escentuals, an enormous mens skincare section, Sephora exclusives and Sephora’s own brand. The back is skincare, and somewhere inbetween are the other main beauty brands, including Nars, Make Up For Ever, Shu, Dior, Givenchy, YSL Bobbi Brown and the rest.

As far as I know, this store is the only Sephora that carries MAC.  They carry all  non-Pro products, just as any U.S. department store does.  This time, they featured MAC’s Back to the Beach collection (and yes, Marine Life was in stock). The MAC sales associates seem to work only in the MAC sections;  formerly, one had to pay for MAC items separately here but now all of check-outs have been combined.  This MAC used to carry a special lipstick, called “Sephora Red,” it was a pretty shade similar to the Sephora accent red used in their graphics.  I could not locate one this time around, although I did ask a few of the MAC staffers, perhaps it has been discontinued.

When I first started visiting this store, they had amazing selection of Paul & Joe and other boutique lines but those are long gone now.  The staff is multi-lingual and most seem to know English.  There are plenty of Sephora staff around at all times, just as in the U.S. your browsing will be frequently peppered with offers of assistance.   Half of what I wanted was out of stock, so I left without buying this time.  Although the staff is helpful and pleasant, there does not appear to be a way to keep the supply going with the constant demand.

Generally, you will not find tremendous bargains here.  Most of these items are available in the U.S., and depending on the exchange rate the prices are lower in the U.S.  If you plan to visit, I would absolutely focus on items that are not available in the U.S. because otherwise you are better off buying at home.  That being said, the samples can sometimes be quite generous.  Also, the store does arrange for VAT tax refunds (which helps even out the price disparity considerably).

Of course, there are many Sephora locations in Paris.  Most are surprised to see a tiny Sephora in the basement shops under the Louvre Museum (art…and makeup!).  There is another across from the two large department stores, Le Printemps and the Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Hausmann.

Here is another on the Rue Rivoli–this one has a very good Guerlain display:

In both the Boulevard Hausmann and Rivioli stores, the crowds are fewer and the stock level is far greater, however some of the brands (MAC, particularly) are absent.

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