PERFECT retail therapy
On a sunny Thursday afternoon in Paris, a queue was snaking down the Rue de Rivoli, outside the Museum of Decorative Arts located in the Louvre Museum building.
Photographer Jean-Paul Goude, who made Grace Jones an international icon and put Vanessa Paradis in a gilded bird cage for that Chanel advertisement, was attracting throngs of tourists, and it wasn't even high season.
Nevertheless, those who had signed up for a peek at the exhibition through boutique travel agency Via Rue Travel did not have to linger in the line. They were ushered in and treated to a chic lunch right there in the Louvre.
The Goude event, which ended in mid-March, was one of the more popular choices offered by Via Rue, specialising in opening up the worlds of Parisian fashion and shopping to its clients. Before settling on the Goude event, I considered signing up for a half-day trip outside Paris to sniff scents with a perfumer, or visiting the Fondation Pierre Berge Yves Saint Laurent, a space dedicated to preserving the history of the venerable couturier. Perhaps you would prefer a private shopping trip in Saint-Germain, a couple of hours at the Chanel atelier to learn how to make a signature camellia from one of the company's couturiers.
Paris may be synonymous with fashion, but for people outside well-connected and well-travelled circles any exposure to that world is cursory at best, with significant numbers of strings having to be pulled to gain any sort of proximity. It's almost easier to focus on more accessible aspects of visiting Paris - the restaurants, culture, and architecture.
However, Diana Suyat, a fashion stylist who has worked in the United States with Marc Jacobs, Kenneth Cole and Cynthia Rowley, has leveraged her experience and connections in the business to create what she describes as 'experiential fashion' for Via Rue.
'Fashion and style is a common interest of all our clients,' Suyat says. 'Our clients are very chic, modern women whose fingers are on the pulse of what's new in fashion, food, art and culture.'
ours, which tend to sell out weeks in advance, offer the sort of itineraries most fashion-leaning travellers would be hard-pressed to find unless they were big-spending consumers or somehow connected. There are private visits to Van Cleef & Arpels, where an expert will take you through the basics of diamond evaluation, or you can sign on to learn how to embellish a piece of fabric, Lesage-style. Chunks of time are set aside for special 'guided shopping tours' in, say, Saint Germain or the Champs-Elysees.
Then there are one-off offerings. Next month a five-day programme will be co-hosted by Jessica Quirk, popular personal stylist, designer, author and founder of the What I Wore blog. In September, visitors can shop with Keiko Lynn, a Brooklyn-based designer and vintage-clothing expert who operates under the label Postlapsaria.
Suyat says it is this mix of haute couture and a more insider, eclectic sensibility that draws women from all over the world to sign up for the tours.
'There's a certain lifestyle DNA that brings them together,' she says. 'They want to dig deeper into the different dimensions of fashion - the creative and the business side without the formality of a press event or class. They love new experiences and, in a way, our clients are fashion romantics.'
Suyat has also arranged trips for young people who are either considering an education in fashion in Paris or those who might be investigating a career change.
The draw, inevitably, has to be things that even a seasoned traveller cannot pull off herself. For the US$3,000 it costs for a week's stay, Via Rue will give travellers 'privileged access', Suyat says. 'On any given trip, our clients receive the opportunity to attend private shopping parties, visit couture ateliers, meet fashion editors, attend fashion and trade shows such as the Pr?t ? Porter and Coterie, attend workshops at design houses and meet fashion bloggers and industry players.'
Many of the events are exclusive and some will really only resonate with those who harbour an almost obsessive love for fashion. Olivier Zahm, for example, is a name that would only register with those familiar with his magazine Purple, which has a hardcore cult following that has, ironically, an almost anti-fashion bent. Zahm recently completed a short film in Turin for the Purple TV website in which Gucci and Fiat collaborated. It featured Betony Vernon, a European jewellery designer who makes erotic-themed baubles - feather puff rings and phallic-shaped earrings.
The highly stylised film follows Vernon to the home of Carlo Mollino, the late architect who also dabbled in the occult. While this may all seem like an oddly esoteric basis for a tour, Suyat turned it into just that: those who sign up for a trip to Milan retrace the footsteps of Vernon to Casa Mollino in Turin and then enjoy a private party at the Gucci boutique in Galleria Vittorio in Milan.
'We make a lot of preparations at our end to ensure that our tours are relevant and current,' Suyat says.
Still, there are some travellers to the City of Light who just want a front-row seat in the truest sense of the term.
'Invitations to fashion shows are always requested,' Suyat says, adding that she does her best to score something for her clients, although it is always at the discretion of the organisers. In any event, after the tour has finished, many visitors are inspired enough to decide they want to work in fashion.
'We've connected several clients for internships in Paris and New York,' she says.
These fashion-oriented tours are organised for clients from all over the world by Via Rue Travels in the United States. In addition to Paris, other forays include visits to the Prada store and Gucci cafe in Milan, and an all-day excursion to a designer outlet in Mendrisio. On a Rome/Florence trip, there is more outlet shopping in Tuscany, and trips to leather artisans. The company is planning similarly-themed tours of Stockholm, London and New York.