Photo: Frenchescar Lim
Nejla Metam-Finn, 38
The co-founder of e-tailer www.thefifthcollection.com, which sells curated luxury vintage, was born in Algeria. She moved to Switzerland when she was eight, then went to college in Paris when she was 18. She has lived in Singapore with her husband, 41, and daughter, six, since 2011.
Ah, the Frenchwoman: the subject of some 12 million articles, books, blog posts, and forum threads (source: Google search) devoted to analysing why she’s so chic. Well, here’s one more. Our take is to get a real sense of her style not from icons, influencers, models, or ambassadors of French brands, but from four real Frenchwomen who work and live here, and aren’t necessarily Parisians (or friends of Karl Lagerfeld). And we can finally put a finger - no, 10 fingers - on the je ne sais quoi quality so synonymous with French chic.
- It’s about being elegant and chic. It’s never about the latest look/item/trend or designer brand.
Cherifa Ben Slamia: “We have a saying in France: ‘She would be dressed up in nothing’ - just a white shirt and jeans. These items wouldn’t be from famous brands, but there is something about [the stylish woman’s] look that makes a difference to the white shirt and jeans. The French grow up with a sense of style and elegance. Our mums would say: ‘Whatever you do, put on a little bit of lipstick, a little bit of perfume - the little things that would make you elegant and chic.’
“Even when the Frenchwoman does boho, it’s in an elegant way. My look is ‘bobo’ (short for bourgeois boheme), which is a more elegant version of hippy, and very Parisian.”
Photo: Zaphs Zhang
Cherifa Ben Slamia, 42
Born to Tunisian parents in Amiens in the North of France, she studied in Paris and moved here four years ago with her husband and their three sons (13, 10 and four). She has worked for advertising agencies in Paris and Tunisia, and is now general manager of design agency Circle Square.
- Know what really suits your body and age, because not everything you like will look good on you.
Cherifa: “You have to be able to know and understand your body to be able to know what really suits you, because not everything in the shop, and not every trend, will look good on you. Before you buy anything, see if it fits your size and shape; that it’s not too big or small; and has little details that will make the difference. That’s what we mean by having elegance.
“It’s not an exclusive ability - unlike taste - that you are born with, or not born with. It’s something you can work on.
“People [in Singapore] do very short shorts. We wouldn’t wear them, because for us it’s not elegant. I am 42, so I wear shorts that cover half the length of my thighs. In my opinion, short shorts are not something that I can wear now.”
Carole Domanage: “Even if you are super pretty and young, don’t do an overly sexy look, because that’s not elegant. We do show [a bit of skin] sometimes, but just a little bit. Showing too much isn’t elegant.”
Julie Tardieu: “Choose colours to flatter your skin and hair colour as well.”
Photo: Zaphs Zhang
Carole Domanage, 39
Originally from Nice in the south of France, she lived in Paris for five years, and in London for 10. She moved here four years ago with her husband and two children (a daughter, five, and a son, eight). She will soon be opening Rose, a wine bar in Nice specialising in rose wine.
- “Classics” and “basics” are not bad words.
Nejla Matam-Finn: “The Parisian woman is very good at building from solid basics - ballet flats, jeans, Breton tee, Chanel 2.55. She doesn’t necessarily have tons of things, and doesn’t have to empty her closet every year to start from scratch. She edits what she has, so she knows how to mix and match it.
“It’s like building a house: You start with a great foundation before you reach the roof. If you buy the funkiest handbag but don’t have the rest to make it work, it defeats the purpose. All you end up with is a messy, overloaded wardrobe, which you can’t play Lego with.
“We can do a lot with well-cut jeans, a nice white tee and a scarf. I’m in jeans every day. I even cheat at events: I go in black jeans and nobody realises it. The jeans can be anything from skinny ones to a pair that is practically destroyed, to a pair that I call my PJs because they are super baggy.
“I am also obsessed with T-shirts, but rarely with logos. My other obsession is scarves. I collect them. I have a lot of Hermes scarves. My mum gave me my first, and I always have one in my bag - you can wear it in your hair, and wrap it around your shoulders when the air conditioning is too cold. You can do so much with it.”
Carole: “I invest in basics. I have many versions of jeans and white tees - you cannot go wrong with these.
“You need a black dress too, even two or three of them. And a little black jacket from Chanel, or a lookalike. I got one from Zara years ago, which I am still in love with and wear often. And invest in shoes - never go cheap with shoes.
“My point: Do over-invest in basics. For example, you can’t just get amazing white tees from the first shop you see. You’ve got to make time to find ones that work for you. Go to different places and explore all the options to find the right basics that you can accessorise with, play with, and that you’d be comfortable in.”
Photo: Zaphs Zhang
Julie Tardieu, 39
Born in Rouen in the north of France, she moved to Paris when she was 18. She lived there for nine years, during which she earned a masters in finance. She relocated to Singapore at 27 with her boyfriend (now husband) and worked here as a banker for six years. Her two sons (five and eight) were born here. She now runs www.editionlimitee.com.sg, an online homeware and fashion store she started three and a half years ago.
- Give it a twist (literally) to put your personal stamp on it.
Cherifa: “The Frenchwoman grows up giving her basics just that little twist which is a little bit disruptive, and would make that difference.”
Nejla: “It could be heels with socks. Or a super-bold lip. It’s about having one thing that’s you, and mixing things up.”
Julie: “Or it could be pairing feminine with masculine. Anyone can buy a full look, with shoes and bags to match the outfit, but what is nice is making it your own. Add something - anything - to give it a twist. It could be a belt, jewellery, sparkly shoes, a gold bag, a neon-coloured handbag, a cuff, or a silk scarf.”
- But make it effortless - in an “imperfect perfect” way.
Julie: “I may wear a sexy dress to an event, but I’ll match it with, say, a denim shirt knotted around it. I don’t like overly sophisticated looks, where I am 100 per cent perfect.”
Carole: “French people care about the way we look, and the way people see us. We make all the effort to make others believe it’s effortless, that ‘I didn’t do this on purpose’, although it may be perfectly put together.
“We call this the natural elegance of the Parisian woman. ‘Simply chic’, as we say. It’s a very authentic look, with a balance of being very inspiring yet not trying too hard, being too girlie, or too sexy. It’s about getting it just right so it’s charming, and never too hot.
“The key is to believe you are pretty. This is very important in French culture. We are encouraged by our mums, cousins, and friends to feel pretty, because if you don’t feel pretty, or if you doubt yourself, you lose the attitude and the charm is gone. So you need to really believe in yourself, even if you don’t have the best features.
“Charlotte Gainsbourg, for example, is not perfect and doesn’t have the best features, but she has attitude and charm. Frenchwomen crave that attitude.”
- Buy good-quality stuff, take care of it, and wear it over and over again.
Nejla: “I think the French, like the Italians, care about the cut and the material of their clothes. It is not about the brand. When I shop, I just want really good-quality things that are well cut for my body, not the latest It bag.
“Part of it is also the way we grew up: Our mums taught us that we shop to celebrate milestones. We buy ourselves one big piece, and it stays with us for a long time. For my 16th birthday, I got my first luxury handbag - an LV bucket bag. I still have it, and the last time I used it at work, my colleagues thought it was brand new. Funnily enough, the bucket bag is back now. When I was 18, I got a Cartier Love bracelet as a graduation gift from my entire family. I have never taken it off. And everything still looks new: My first Chanel can still be worn, 16 years later. It’s really all about material and cut.”
Julie: “The fabric is very important to me. The print, colour, and cut. You know how, sometimes, you find something that seems perfect. Then you put it on and the cut is poor. It doesn’t fit, so there is no point [in getting it].”
Cherifa: “I have shoes from 10 to 15 years ago. I have stuff in my wardrobe that is 15 to 17 years old. When my colleagues ask ‘Is that a new dress?’ I’ll say ‘No, it’s 17 years old; I’m recycling’, and they look at me as if I were an alien.
“I keep the things I care for, because I strongly believe that fashion goes in cycles. Trends come back again and again. Every few years, the same styles come back a little bit differently, and you’ll always have stuff in your wardrobe that you will reuse years later.
“I have items I didn’t wear for 10 years, and now they are mega-trendy. I am so happy to have them. They are unique, nobody else has them, and they are not in the shops because they are from 15 years ago.”
Carole: “I want to scream when I see shoes that are not well maintained. In London, where I worked and lived for 10 years - women would wear Jimmy Choos and Louboutins, but they wouldn’t maintain them properly. Shoes should be the essence of femininity, a reflection of you.
“That applies to clothes as well, but many people don’t pay attention to the importance of wearing something that fits them. You completely lose credibility and charm when you wear something that fits badly.”
- Buy second-hand or vintage.
Nejla: “The Frenchwoman is not afraid of buying a vintage chair and repainting it to make it her own. It’s a very French attitude to make anything your own. We may have some items from a designer brand, some items from Ikea, something we made, and a mix of things we acquired from our grandmothers. And then we make them our own, and it works.”
Cherifa: “We tend to buy a lot of things second-hand, from flea markets. We don’t spend a lot of money on something just because it has a designer brand and it’s new. I go to this website, www.styletribute.com, by Stephanie Crespin, a Frenchwoman. It is famous among the expat community in Singapore. I think she gets her second-hand pieces from local women, because about 80 per cent of what she has is brand new. It’s fashionable stuff at very fair prices. I got a new, super-sexy, black Moschino evening dress for just $250 from there.”
- Be comfortable, so you feel and look confident.
Nejla: “I like to be very comfortable in what I am wearing. I don’t like fashion to wear me; I like to wear my fashion. I want to be myself. I want to be able to breathe.”
Julie: “You will look good if you feel good in what you are wearing - that is where beauty comes from. If you are in a really wonderful but too-tight dress and you can’t breathe, then you’ll look terrible.”
Carole: “Be comfortable in your clothes, and wear clothes that fit you. I believe that if you are not at ease, or are in pain, or can’t really move, people will notice it. So make sure you are always very comfortable - you should feel very natural.”
- Less is more.
Cherifa: “Some people at nice shops or restaurants look to me like they are dressed up to go there. That’s the opposite of ‘less is more’. I feel that they opened their wardrobe and put on everything - the Chanel, the Louboutins, the lipstick - which is contrary to what the Frenchwomen would do.
“Caroline de Maigret and Ines de la Fressange are archetypes of French elegance, because they are so natural. They don’t put on too much. They only wear one piece that is going to make a difference, and never too much of anything else.”
Carole: “My mum always says, ‘Don’t over-accessorise. It should feel effortless’. She’s right. ‘Less is more’ has been the way I’ve lived my life. I don’t overdo things or try too hard, because people will sense it. Parisian/French people convey natural elegance and beauty, naturally done. So either do your lips, or wear a big necklace. Don’t do everything in one go; that would be tacky. And you don’t want to be seen as tacky.”
- Keep it natural - even your makeup and hair.
Nejla: “I usually don’t wear makeup at all. And I am allergic to a lot of mascaras, so I try to avoid it. If I look really tired, I apply a bit of concealer. I care for my skin, though I don’t have a 15-step routine. The first thing I do in the morning is to spray my face with Caudalie Grape Water to rehydrate my skin. Using a facial spray in the morning is something a lot of Frenchwomen do. Then, I cleanse with one of my favourite cleansing oils, from Muji - it’s great, and really cheap. Then I rinse, spray with thermal water (I use either Avene or La Roche Posay), pat with tissue paper, apply some serum mixed with my hydrating cream, and finish with sunscreen. Then I am good to go.”
Julie: “I have had a lot of white hair since I was 30, and I like it. Not because I enjoy having white hair, but I prefer to accept and like what I am - and so does my husband. Among my friends, I am probably the only one who doesn’t dye her hair. I’d rather spend time doing other things than being at the hairdresser’s forever.
“Saying I don’t care doesn’t mean ‘I don’t care if I look awful’. It means I don’t care that I don’t look perfect.
“One thing that makes me happy is perfume. My favourite scent is orange blossom because it is so fresh, and I choose this scent for everything, even candles that I place around the house (I got them from India). My orange-blossom scented soap is from Grasse (in the south of France). I use a shampoo meant for kids that has the same scent, I have an orange blossom spray from Fragonard, and I use neroli (orange blossom) essential oil, which gives me a sense of peace and makes me happy.”
Carole: “I have never paid much attention to my hair, but I do take good care of my skin. I started using eye care when I was 25, maybe even earlier. Some brands I really like are Estee Lauder - I’ve used its serum for years - Clinique, and Nuxe, a French brand that I use quite a lot. Since I moved here, I’ve also discovered cold cream. It’s amazing. I use it twice a week and I love it - everything from the smell to the texture.”
Cherifa: “My daily routine, if I am not too lazy, is some blusher and eyeliner. That’s it. No mascara.
“Since I moved to Singapore, I haven’t put creams on my face because of the humidity. I use micellar water in the morning and in the evening to remove makeup.”
Uniqlo x Ines de la Fressange Fall/Winter 2017
Where they go to buy what
Frenchwomen rarely reveal the stockists for their wares, because that's one of their je ne sais quoi traits. So don't lose this insider shopping list:
Nejla: Uniqlo for well-cut ones in nice, breathable material. American Vintage as well - I have one T-shirt in particular in every shade that suits me.
Carole: Massimo Dutti for very classic plain ones.
Nejla: Pye's shirts in Hong Kong are very well-cut.
Julie & Cherifa: American Vintage for comfortable cotton basics.
Julie: Sandro and Comptoir des Cotonniers.
Carole: Uniqlo for its wide range.
Julie: French label Patricia Blanchet for its comfortable ankle boots.
Carole: Converse and Superga for basics everyone should have. Jimmy Choos because they are so comfortable. Roger Vivier because its shoes are so iconic and feminine - it's one of my favourites.
Carole: Zara, of course.
Cherifa: Paris & Me at Cluny Court for Paris-sourced, easy-to-wear mid-range brands. Its pieces are priced like Zara's, but they are more unique. Rue Madam at Ngee Ann City.
Uniqlo x Ines de la Fressange Fall/Winter 2017
Labels for quintessential French style
Digesting the 10 commandments of the French style will take some time. This is the shortcut. Well, we are Singaporeans.
- Uniqlo x Ines de la Fressange: Ines de la Fressange is as chic as Chanel's 2.55, and the first to collborate with the Japanese retailer to bring French style to the masses. This F/W'17 marks her eighth collaboration with Uniqlo. What to expect from this month's drop: classic cable-knit pullovers, overcoats, and parkas mostly in neutrals, anchored with a twist - fresh accents of vivid orange and yellow.
- A.P.C.: The 30-year-old French label has perfected timeless, non-ostentatious clothes with classic silhouettes, in neutral hues, that make great building blocks for every wardrobe - not just a French one.
- Sandro: The opposite of A.P.C. Go to Sandro for pieces with a Parisian twist. Examples: dresses and leather jackets.
- Maje: Created in 1999 by Judith Milgrom, the younger sister of Sandro's founder, Evelyn Chetrite, it's about youthful French style.
Photography: Frenchescar Lim and Zaphs Zhang, assisted by Sherman See-Tho and Angela Lim
Styling: Bryan Goh
Hair & Makeup: Christian Maranion, using Inga Cosmetics, Den Ng/Prep Luxe Salon, and Angel Gwee, using Dior
Locations: Shop Wonderland & Cafe Gavroche
This story was first published in the October 2017 issue of Her World magazine.