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Less is more, layers maketh the woman… and other wisdom Lisa Armstrong has gathered from chic women across the Channel
Lisa Armstrong shares chic lessons from the French
Aged 19, I moved to Paris and spent a year discovering precisely why you should be careful what you wish for. Paris is not easy. It’s several hundred microaggressions a day, especially when you’re a young woman. Mind you, as an older woman, Paris comes into its own. Women in their 60s, 70s and beyond are not invisible in the way they often are in Anglosaxon countries.
Four decades after I lived there for a bit, I’m still learning from their approach to beauty. Before 2020, I visited the place at least once a month for work and absorbed many of their habits by osmosis. It’s only now, when I haven’t been for over a year, that I appreciate how much of my approach to beauty is borrowed from the French. Like most Parisians, for instance, I wouldn’t dream of having a French manicure. Never was anything so misnamed. Exaggerated white tips, nail extensions and nail art – just say non. Nails should be short and either pale pink (Essie’s Sugar Daddy or Chanel’s new Le Vernis in Daydream) or Chanel’s Rouge Noir. No need to mess with other shades or finishes.
If that sounds bossy, well Paris is bossy. And apartments are often small, with capsule bathrooms. Products must be ruthlessly edited. The average Parisian’s make-up bag contains fewer than half the products of her British counterpart, according to fashionnetwork.com.
Make-up accounts for 15 per cent of the French woman’s annual beauty spend, compared with 29 per cent in the UK.
That restraint means they can spend on the best. The French brand Sisley sums up this approach – its products are all understated, extremely effective, delicious to use – and eyewateringly expensive. A Parisian will have one or at most two Sisley items in her armoury and scour the rest in those excellent French pharmacies where they stock Avène (for all the skincare you could want, but notably its antiageing Physiolift serum, available here for £31.50 at boots.com), La Roche-posay (top-class sun products) and Cerave (excellent fragrance-free moisturisers).
I’ve noticed many Parisians use concealer or a tinted moisturiser rather than foundation. They’re obsessed with antiageing skin products and don’t want to mask the fruits of their labour. Typology, a valuefor-money, online-only, Petaapproved, Paris-based brand that launched last year, has just introduced an excellent concealer with niacinamide to soothe and depuff. It comes in six shades in a handbagfriendly tube.
Also in that diminutive French cosmetics pouch: a nude or pinky lip colour that can double up for cheeks (RMS Beauty’s organic Lip2cheek in Demure is gorgeous) and perhaps a red lipstick as well (Chanel remains the aspiration). For eyes, it’s about loads of mascara. Lancôme Lash Idôle, the one with the curved brush, is Caroline de Maigret’s favourite. Add a soft, creamy kohl pencil and a velvety eyeshadow in a biscuity shade (Dior eyeliner in Intense Brown, £22, and Mono eyeshadow in Mirage, £27, for an easy smudgy look), and you’re good to go – apart from some highlighter. This has to be Sisley’s Stylo Lumière. It does the job so beautifully and subtly, there’s no risk of strobing.
The particularities of French hair should be universally adopted. French women, whatever their age, rarely have crispy manes. For them, the cut, usually layered, is everything – they’ll spend a fortune achieving that wash-and-go, just-out-of-bed look. Just add a gentle shampoo and conditioner such as Klorane’s Almond Milk and a fine mist of Sam Mcknight’s Cool Girl Spray (£25). Sometimes you need a Brit to give you a French hit.