Saturday, October 22, 2011

Shoe shopping in Brussels: La Boutique de Mademoiselle François

I told you before that it took me a long time to get into shoes. Part of this is due to Brussels not being the best shoe shopping city. Not that there aren't any cool shoe shops around, it just takes a while to locate them. La Boutique de Mademoiselle François is an excellent example. It's a real gem, but it's a little out of the way. It's on the Verversstraat/Rue des Teinturiers, and Manneke Pis is only a stone's throw away. Still, I rarely see any tourists passing by. Maybe there's something in the guide books to keep them away. The street just around the corner is famous for its gay bars, and my savvy friend Stefan told me earlier today it's nicknamed 'Rue Vaseline'. Enlightening, right?

So maybe vast masses of people aren't keen on passing buy, but I bet the gays approve of Mademoiselle François' little empire. For my part, I was enthralled the first time I saw it. I had never seen such a romantic window display. Just five or six shoes, refined and precious, kept in a bell jar. (Whenever I see the words 'bell jar', I think of Sylvia Plath. I wonder if she would have kept from frying her brain in an oven, had she spent a little more time thinking about frivolities. Never underestimate the power of superficiality.)

It took me at least three more years to enter the store, because I figured the prices would be astronomical. When I started working for a decent wage last august, nothing kept me back, however. My first observation was that the store was just as pretty on the inside as the outside warranted. It's basically the fancy boudoir of a vintage maniac. If I ever were to open a candy store (a persistent childhood dream), this is what it would look like. Maybe not as much plastic legs sticking out of walls, but those are details. I wish I had some pictures of my own to share, but until I decide to invest in a camera, you can see some pictures here and here (old location, same atmosphere and props).

The shoes are pretty, good quality and they're actually priced pretty okay. They have a classic feel, and are mostly vintage inspired. I saw a few pieces today that looked like candy: very colourful, very cute. Not my immediate choice, but they made me smile. There's also a small selection of clothes. A few skirts, tops, and quite some dresses (15 or 20). Again very vintage-y, pretty fabrics and models. They look high quality, maybe even hand-made, I don't know. (Prices run pretty high: 250-350 euros.) But Betty Draper would approve, that's for sure.

I bought two pairs of shoes back in august: the most gorgeous black velvet heels and a pair of ballerinas with pointy toes that were so pretty they made me forget I don't really care for pointy toes. They were still on sale, and I think I paid a little less than 200 euros for both pairs. The lady at the counter (not the feisty owner Mlle François herself, unfortunately) even gave me 10 euros off on top of the discount, because I bought two pairs. I haven't worn the ballerinas all that much, and they still hurt my feet. But the heels. are just. so. comfortable. Wearing them feels like coming home. New shoes ALWAYS hurt, to the point where I think my feet will just go on strike and fall off. These heels don't. They hug my feet. I'm a little in love. So I feel honour-bound to share this with the world wide web. Your feet deserve it, really!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

F21 in Brussels: mixed feelings

I was strutting around town with a bright yellow plastic bag today. Took it to see some nice places, too – it even got to visit the Flemish parliament with me. I needed something to hold my books, papers and most important of all: my flashy pink lego lunch box.

One needs to gear up to watch democracy in action, obviously. There’s no shame in the lunch box – it was a birthday present and got me some very envious reactions from my female colleagues – but I was a little embarassed to show up there with this particular bag. Not just because I don't like looking like a crazy bag lady. It just happened that I grabbed the bag closest to me when I had to leave, and accidentally took a bag of a brand I’m not particularly keen on being linked with. You may or may not have guessed by now I’m talking about Forever 21.

Two Forever 21-shops recently opened up in Brussels and Antwerp. A lot of people were excited about it. I get the allure, especially for young and penniless fashionista’s. Who wouldn’t love a brand that makes clothes based on the best designer trends and sells them at a highly affordable rate? They’re quick too, because the collection is updated every few weeks.

I'd heard some pretty bad stuff about the company, though. Tales of bad working circumstances. Copyright infringements. They don’t just reference the big fashion houses. They make very close copies, and not just from the likes of Chanel and Prada, but from up-and-coming designers too. Over the last few years, they were sued over 50 times.

I was a little wary of the new store before the doors even opened. Still, I decided to join my little sister and go take a look. After all, I buy and consume things with a shady background all the time. I try to avoid it, but when the choice is between what’s right for the world (do I sound like I’m wearing goat wool socks in sandals right now or what?) and what I want, I usually choose for the latter. Don’t we all? I’ll feel a bit guilty about it, but comfort myself with the thought that ‘at least I’m conscious of the problem’. So I’m a hypocrite, but at least I know I’m a hypocrite. Which doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, but still, it hushes up my conscience. Maybe I should get a cricket.

Do you think Pinocchio would shop at F21?

I won’t expand on my exact impressions when entering the store. Suffice it to say that nothing there could have enticed me to think about buying something. Too big, too chaotic (everything’s neat, but it’s a cacaphony of styles), uncomfortable looking fabric (I hate the feel of cheap chiffon, it scratches and feels suffocating). It didn’t speak to me at all. I mean, how cheap is a store that won’t even iron its clothing before selling it?

I’m glad I was spared the dilemma. Maybe someday I’ll bump into something F21 that I do like, and I honestly don’t know if I would buy it or not. After all, I buy H&M, even though I’m pretty sure their clothes aren’t made under the best circumstances. (Neither are luxury brand-clothes, by the way.) But at least they try to keep up appearances. They do charity work. They don’t try to convert employees. I have to admit it irked me to see a lot of Belgian bloggers raving about the new F21 shops, and covering the opening events. I might shop in dubious stores, but I wouldn't feel good about actively promoting them.

What about you? Do you sometimes feel guilty while or after shopping? Do you factor in ethics in some or other way?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Salesperson Prototypes from Hell

I spent a lot of time on the subway today and instead of working on some job-related tasks or thinking about serious things like the state of the world, I was wondering what the worst traits are in shop assistants. These are the five things I came up with: too clingy, arrogant, ignores you, overly social and incompetent. I made a matrix out of them, describing what the resulting behavior of their combination might be. A sort of mini sociological study. I realise this might be offensive to both shop assistants all over the world and sociologists, but hey, I was bored. Click to see full size!

Do you always get treated well? Are you sometimes put off by bad personnel? Or do you just provoke them a bit for kicks?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Shopping in Gent: Twiggy - new and improved

Twiggy used to be a beacon of style in what probably qualifies as the most hideous shopping-street in Gent: Langemunt. Not that it’s ugly – it’s actually quite pretty. It’s the connection between two very pretty squares (Groentemarkt and Vrijdagsmarkt), and it’s not dirty in the least. But it has zero personality. There’s no cool stores, just chains and a Swarovski shop. Bad pop musics blasts out of a sound system throughout the street. It’s a touchstone of banality. You only go there for cheap underwear or belly dancing-costumes in the hidden sex shop.

(I was looking for a picture of Red Hot, the shop I'm talking about, but unfortunately the only thing I found were pictures of Anthony Kiedis and a few dodgy images.)

Thank god for Twiggy, though. It functioned as a kind of lighthouse in these ordinary surroundings – a light, minimalist interior with lots of quirky corners and a beautiful collection of clothes. Nothing daring or edgy, let alone radically new, but always classy. They closed up about a year ago, announcing that they would relocate to a different building, bigger and better. When I was walking around in Gent a few weeks ago I almost accidentally bumped into the new and improved Twiggy, but I didn't have time to enter. So last saturday, embarking on a quest to find the perfect tartan blouse, I picked the Notarisstraat 3 as my starting point.

Can I tell you how much I love the new Twiggy? The owners secured a beautiful grand 19th century townhouse that I'd never really noticed before. It's located at one of the most pretty places in Gent (granted, Gent has a lot of those). It's just off the Vlaanderenstraat, a street conveniently hosting some great stores and a bakery with divine éclairs cafés. Needless to say I had to buy one to make sure my sugar dosage was up for the exploration. I anticipated it would take a me a while to browse through the building, and I was right. You definitely need to take a certain amount of time for walking around Twiggy, not in the least because it's got three levels. The basement - pretty cool, they just took out a whole floor and there's still a fireplace hanging in mid-air - is dedicated to men's clothes. (The selection looked nice, even though the boyfriend wasn't convinced.) The ground floor has the cash register and a few rooms that are beautifully laid out with mirrors, accessories, carefully composed racks.

The list of brands is quite exhaustive. Fans of Acne, Isabel Marant, Marc Jacobs and Paul Smith will definitely find something to their liking. There’s a lot of Belgians in there too: A.F. Vandevorst, Rue Blanche, Véronique Leroy, Just in Case, Le Fabuleux Marcel de Bruxelles, ... This all translates into a LOT of clothes, but the effect is never overbearing. You can just browse at ease, marvelling at the surroundings. When I first visited, the interior was still kind of rough - some walls weren't painted, and I wondered whether is was intentional or not. After all, I also saw some loose electric wires dangling from a ceiling upstairs. The wires are gone now, but the walls are still rugged. It looks pretty cool.

The second floor is more or less the same, but it's a bit larger than the first. Overall it's a very nice effect. Like walking in the house of a rich lady who decided to sell all her garments because she was tired of her life, so she just kept a safari-style hat and travelled off to Africa. Like an old version of Sofia Coppola. If there’s one thing you have to admit about Sofia, it’s that she’s got class, so that’s without a doubt a good thing. The only think I didn't like were the improvised dressing rooms. I don't think they even qualify as dressing rooms - they're just curtains in corners, with lots of gaps for people to stare through while you're in your underwear, struggling to fit into a complicated dress in a way too confined space. And of course it's laundry day, so your panties will be a bit colourless and saggy, with a sexy hint of butt-crack showing. Just kidding. That never happens to me. Hm. Anyway, that problem's solved, this is what the dressing rooms look like now:

Should you decide to check it out, you might just bump into me, because I plan to be a loyal customer. If you happen to catch a glimpse of a crazy lady with washed out underwear, it won’t be me though, because I’ll come prepared!