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The Heavenly Scented City

The most popular article by far in the Secrets of Paris series has been the Holiday Shopping article. So this month let’s talk about shopping for perfume and cosmetics.

The latest in beauty products and perfumes

No one comes to Paris without at least thinking about buying beauty products, especially perfume. Why? Because it’s the perfume capital of the world! Even before I came here I was seduced by the heady Quelques Fleurs (A Few Flowers) made by Houbigant. Pricey stuff, but much cheaper than the American stores offer. When in Paris, you’ll notice a few perfumes you’ve never seen before. Many are launched here for up to a year before they make it to the US. Some never make it at all, but remain the secret of French women and connoisseurs. To find these, take a good look at the latest perfumes before you leave your hometown, in local magazines, etc. You can even ask if there are any perfumes coming in the next few months, to look for them abroad. Once you’re in France, you can ask in large perfume and cosmetics stores if they know which brands aren’t available in the US.

Where to Shop for the Masses

I would never buy perfume from those pricey tourist shops on the Champs-Elysées or near the Louvre. Although there may be some good discounts, especially around the Japanese tax-free shops near the Opéra. But if you’re going to buy perfume in France, try and at least enjoy some of the atmosphere and selection. Buy where the locals do.

My two favorite shops are Sephora and Marionnaud (website in French only). Both are found everywhere, since they’re chains, and offer a huge selection of cosmetics and perfumes for men and women. Sephora is great because everything is out where you can test it and play with it without having to talk to any sales people. All of the perfumes are lined up alphabetically along the walls, and there are plenty of gift boxes of all the latest scents. There are even little paper wands so you don’t have to cover every inch of your arm with different scents, and cotton balls and make-up remover if you want to play with the lipsticks and eye shadows while you’re there (which come in the major brands and Sephora’s own inexpensive label). Free samples are always included in your bag at the check-out. If you’re a real perfume freak, you can try and ask for more perfume samples, they usually have all of the new ones. The Marionnaud chain is more like a typical department store, where some things are out for you to test and others you have to ask for. My favorite is the one at Le Madeline behind the Madelois men’s superstore. It has the largest selection of creams, perfumes and makeup. Prices at both of these chains are pretty competitive.

Department stores are nice for the scenery, if you can handle the occasional hard sell or complete disdain of the woman behind the counter. Bon Marché, Samaritaine, Galeries Lafayette and Printemps are the four best. The high-end brands (Helena Rubenstein, Chanel, Boucheron, Guerlain, etc.) will usually have their own little kiosk, just like in the States, while the less expensive brands (Nivea, Bourjois, Revlon, etc.) are all grouped together on shelves where you can browse. Sneaky tip, Bourjois is made by the same people who make Chanel, so you’ll find the same colors, in a slightly less expensive texture, and what fun! Prices in les Grands Magasins aren’t known to be competitive, but don’t forget you’re paying for the scenery.

Parfum for the Few

If you’ve got some money to burn and want a truly decadent experience, head to the arcades of the rue de Valois at Palais-Royal and into the Shiseido salon. You’ll find their own line of cosmetics and perfumes, along with those of my favorite perfume maker of all, Serge Lutens. I have his Ambre Sultan, heaven in a bottle! Another store I love is the Annick Goutal store across from Saint Sulpice (near St. Germain-des-Pres). All of the major clothing designers have their own perfumes and often cosmetics (Versace, Armani, etc), found in their own boutiques around Ave. Montaigne and Rue (and du Faubourg) St. Honoré. I love the Kenzo perfumes, and they’re more affordable than the actual clothes!

Of course, with the internet you don’t need to go to Paris to find specialty perfumes (like Creed) and cosmetics (like La Prairie), but you’ll never have to worry about cheap imitations. No matter what anyone tells you, there are plenty of French companies that absolutely refuse to sell their products anywhere on the net. So caveat emptor!

Fragonard Museum

Finally, don’t leave Paris without visiting the Fragonard Museum at 39, Bd des Capucines (Metro Opéra). Housed in an old 1930s theatre, you can get an inside look at how perfume is made. Another branch is just two blocks away at 9, rue Scribe, highlighting the history of perfume over the last 3000 years. Both are open everyday but Sunday, 9am – 6pm. There is, of course, a gift shop.

The latest place to be seen in the city happens to be a make-up bar called Viseart, located in the trendy bar-hopping district of the 11th arrondissement. In a club lounge type setting, you can get anything from standard classic or funky ‘night out’ make-up session for 80ff. If you buy the products the session is free. A cool place to go with friends between the bar and the club, Viseart is open every Friday from 8pm until 11pm, starting again September 8.

This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged. 

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