Something happens to the Eurostar for one week each October and February. It starts with the details. You notice that your neighbours look mysteriously more... polished than usual. What is it about that silver-haired woman opposite? She's wearing glasses you'd normally associate with a 20something. But it doesn't look wrong. Hang on a moment: it looks... cool! And where did she get that perfect bag you've never seen before? (Why is it so perfect? You don't know but you just know that it is.) Then she gets up and you see she's wearing the most vertiginous shoes with a kind of stiff mane sticking out of the back. Then you notice it's not just her. Who's that girl stepping out from the Business Premier carriage in front? No, she can't be... And who's that older guy she's meeting? You're sure you've seen him somewhere before. Is he... ? Oh, you can't see them any more. But - why is that peroxide-haired boy obscuring the view so preternaturally beautiful?
It's like you've entered an alternative universe where everyone's 100% more glamorous. A universe called Paris Fashion Week.
I'll be posting my Paris fashion week sketches every day this week. Tune in for more tassels, capes and overcomplicated hairdos...
I'm on the Eurostar from London to Paris in one of those carriages where each set of seats is arranged in a square so that the occupants can face one other.
We're just getting down to the line for takeoff. Even the French girl in lowboots and a frange* smoking a last cigarette at the carriage door is stubbing out, coming inside, when they arrive.
There's so much of them. And everything about them is quality. Their fabrics are thick; their watches are chunky, their mobile phones and music devices are slim.
They take possession of their square, expanding, overflowing the inadequate fold-out table, unpacking gourmet crisps, high-end bottled water and glossy magazines. One of the men goes to the buffet carriage for more: coffee, croissants, chocolate.
They are so prolific, so entitled, amazing me with their ability to order coffees and cakes and juice and sandwiches. Don’t they know that they could have waited and saved twenty, thirty euros that would have bought them all a lunch of rillettes and bread in a good cafe? Don't they know they could have bought better, tastier bread from the bakers' at the corner for less than a euro? But they order in at the bar and everything comes to them immediately, ready-made. They expect no less. They expect no more.
One of the girls gets out travel guides, brochures, Obama's autobiography, and a transparent plastic folder filled with clip sheets from expensively photographed travel mags and pages printed from luxe internet sites.
I crane my neck. She flicks past pages on Berlin, Barcelona - a self-made grand tour of the cool spots of Europe. She gets to Paris.
"OK," she says. This is where we're staying. She indicates to spots on the map with the authority of a tour guide.
"Here's Notre Dame. Here's the Eiffel Tower. We're on the Left Bank - beneath the river Seine. The Right Bank is more, like, expensive, more old-fashioned but the Left Bank is cooler, more studenty, younger, y'know... more relaxed."
I can hear in her voice every sweet vision of Paris conjured. When she says, Saint Germain, there are the clever people sipping coffee, letting drop the occasional existential phrase; when she says, Montparnasse, there are the lights outside the Coupole and Ernest Hemingway walking up the Boulevard Raspail to party with Josephine Baker. This is obviously someone who has never walked down the Boulevard Saint Germain to pay six Euros for a coffee in Flore; someone who has never crossed the river to Canal Saint Martin or Oberkampf or Belleville. How can guidebooks still be touting this 1950s myth of the bohemian Left and the monumental Right Banks? How can anybody still believe them? But these beautiful people have never been to Paris before. What else do they have to go on but dreams?
We arrive at Gare du Nord and I take the metro down to Saint Michel. As I dodge through the tour groups, the fast food outlets and the souvenir stalls toward the comparative calm of the rue Jacob, I wonder whether they've taken the same route, these future rulers of the World, so lovely and innocent in their wealth, adrift in a Europe they hardly know has already diverged from the entry in their guidebook? Perhaps I needn't worry. So young, so beautiful, so rich, so well-meaning and so full of expectation: who could fail to love them?
*fringe - the Parisian girls' haircut par excellence.
I notice it immediately. The groups of powerful-looking older women in black coats, big scarves and bags with plenty of hardware; buckles, bag-charms, chain handles. I even see a reasonably heavy-looking padlock.
Each group is attended by one or two unnaturally fashionable, very young men. They run along the platform as the train's about to leave, trailing flying accessories.
So what is the famous difference between French and British fashion players? Let's play the game of, 'Is she British? Is she French?'.
Ok. The French are wearing trousers; the Brits are wearing skirts. Their skirts are mostly knee-length and flare out a bit at the bottom. The French trousers are uniformly black. The Brits are wearing colour; the French won't touch it: strictly black, grey and cream. One crucial difference: British pashminas are bigger, MUCH BIGGER, I mean SO MUCH BIGGER than the French equivalent. They're so big that, if bounced from their hotel booking, I think the Brits could camp under them. The French compensate for this by adding odd rows of little bobbles, crinkled textures and embroidery to theirs (so long as they're in a neutral tone). Oh - and the British tend to wear novelty knitted and felted hats. Cute, huh?
That said, the Brit look is fantastically difficult to carry off - and some of them are even managing it.
The chic-est person on the train, however, has to be the guy below on the right...
The French woman beside him looks fantastically stylish too. She's in her 50s, smartly dressed but un-made-up. I can see (tiny) wrinkles and age marks which add to her allure. Bare skin is daring; in age, even more so. She looks bold and confident.
We approach the outskirts of Paris. She takes out a small mirror and begins to apply makeup with a sponge. Under it, her skin becomes uniform in texure and unnaturally peachy in colour. You know that if you got close to her it would no longer feel or smell like skin: it would smell like powder and feel like ultrasuede. And you know that, if you kissed her, you wouldn't be kissing her, and that little bits would stay on your skin when you pulled away.
She takes out a concealer pencil.
And, as we pull into the Gare du Nord, she slowly erases every trace of herself...