question time: aissa, the chic pragmatist
I can't remember when I started reading Aissa's blog - called Journal d'une Afropeene in its earlier incarnation - but I remember loving her casual yet polished look, and impressed by how she wore It clothing without looking like a fashion victim. Aissa, whose blog is now called The Chic Pragmatist, is a great example of how simple clothing can be worn with great flair and style.
She is also a thoughtful commenter on many blogs I read, and here, she shares her thoughts on the much-lauded "French style", being influenced by blog mini-trends, and what she loves about Paris.
Where are you from, and what do you do?
I was born in France with African and Caribbean roots, so to combine all these identities I like the afropean (afropéenne) term and I currently live in the suburbs of Paris. I’m what French call a “banlieusarde”.
As to what I do, I have a master in law and a post-graduate degree in management of developing projects so I intended to work in NGOs, but actually I’m in the legal system.
Tell me about an early style memory, and what prompted your interest in style and fashion?
Well it’s the Holiday season (note: when this interview was done), so here’s a little personal Christmas story. I remember quite vividly when aged around 8 years old Santa brought me books and a “simple” doll instead of the Barbie I wanted. I felt such betrayal! I had this little notebook where I drew silhouettes of looks I liked and had imagined how I would have dressed her, outfits I would have coaxed my mom to sew for her and all that vanished with awful disappointment. Needless to say that my bitter tears and howling granted me my wish in the end but I was also the butt of jokes from my cousins several Christmases later.
I can’t truly say what factor prompted my interest in fashion and style. My mom says I inherited it from my grandmother who liked beautiful clothes and accessories, took great care of her appearance and I guess to some extent it’s true. It’s a “subject” I always felt comfortable in, like English, Arts. I don’t think there are clear explanations to an attraction.
Describe to me a favourite/definitive outfit and when and where you wore it. Why is it significant to you?
I was about to write about an outfit including a green parka, flowery blouse, grey skirt and boots. It was my first outfit post on the internet for which I received so many positive feedback whereas all day, in real life, no one had laid a kind eye on me. I found that completely bewildering. This outfit was my first foray in the online fashion community.
But my mind keeps getting back to 2 summer dresses, both from Isabel Marant Etoile’s line. One was a blue raw silk short one with a cut out-lacey see through front panel and the other a simple grey bustier dress. A few years ago, I would have (maybe) bought them and left them to rot in my closet unable to assume and express my femininity, to show so much leg and bare my shoulders even if I loved myself in them. In a way, wearing both dresses helped me to not be afraid to put myself forward and shy away from what I truly (want to look) like, to push my own style and body boundaries.
Why did you start a blog and posting your outfits? How have you found the experience? What kind of direction are you seeking for your blog?
A few years ago, a friend kept insisting that I should start a blog. There were already lots and without any grand idea to bring to the concept, I couldn’t see the point. Then I got a decent enough camera and out of boredom, on vacations, I started a blog. So the process of blogging was pretty much random.
It turned out addictive to “be” within a community of people who share the same interests, who appreciate the effort you put in your looks. It’s like a stranger smiling at you and complimenting you can make your day but multiplied. It’s such a boost for the ego but after a time having so much attention, commercial proposals felt disturbing because as I said to you, I’m a very shy person at heart. I was also a bit scared of what people at work would think if they found out about my secret blogging life and I privatised my first blog.
In the end, after much thought, I wondered, what’s the point of blogging if not to share? The Chic pragmatist is my personal space, I’m setting the limits of what I want to show and tell and I’ll deal with the rest.
So I’m just recently finding a balance. I’m posting less but I try to write more and spike discussion and exchange rather than just showing new purchases, outfits but as for a precise direction, it’s pretty blurry and is coming one step at a time.
Who inspires you, and why?
Style-wise, I’m inspired by women with sober style. I look up to a few celebrities: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Thandie Newton, Keri Russell, Michelle Williams. They look unpretentious, real and don’t try too hard. First, all of them are talented women who have maturity in the way they dress and behave. They can wear jeans and sneakers like any kid would but the way they style it is not first degree teenage wear. Second, they’re not slave to trends.
Describe your style 10 years ago, 5 years ago, and how to compares to now.
Dressing for me now is all about confidence and comfort. 10 years ago, I was a student, working a part time job, “partying”, my life was messy and so was my style I feel. My (un)conscious goal was to show myself up. Showing that I knew what was in or out, that I owned the trends and could dress accordingly. I really wanted to fit in. I believe that I acquired a bit more subtlety and gained a better knowledge of what I like or not and how I want to look like.
5 years ago was a turning point. I landed my first “serious” job which meant some financial capacities but also restrictions style-wise. The balance between the professional world and my fashion aspirations was precarious and to quench weekdays frustration, I turned to a more fashion oriented look.
Now, my style is simpler. I’ve let go of a lot of my preconceived ideas about style and fashion, and also grown a tougher skin. I don’t look for appraisal, feeling good in what I’m wearing is enough.
"French style" and "Parisian chic" has become a shorthand for a certain look - very Isabel Marant, very Emmanuelle Alt or Geraldine Saglio. What meaning do you think the phrase has? Is there a true "French style"? I find it interesting because maybe just 10, 15 years ago, French style to me eyes, very made-up, very together, and now it means laid back, insouciance. Also, how much of this style exists outside Paris?
I usually find the way French style or Parisian chic is defined in forums and blogs one dimensional and mythical.
I guess history, a few national icons, great and influential designers and more recently streetstyle and blogs are to blame for this deformed view of Paris supposedly chic style.
Paris is like any other place in the world with badly dressed people while others look like and act like they are in a Vogue Paris editorial, and the vast majority who wears very normal clothes with care yet surely have more important matters in mind than to look prim and out of a Jacques Demy movie.
I was mentioning the loop effect internet has in reinforcing the myth of elegant Parisians and wanted to bring attention on the fact that 99% of these pictures focus on specific areas of Paris (the chic and/or hipster arrondissements) where fashion insiders and/or lots of upper class people live, work and buy. It’s even clearer during fashion weeks as all the shoots take place in the Marais or Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré where you’re more likely to find perfectly groomed beauties carrying Chanel bags, wearing Céline and Louboutins at every corner than in Belleville. I’m sure the same can be said about New-York, London or Milan.
Nevertheless I do believe there’s a French style. You brought out 2 kinds of styles, 2 types of women and both style approaches coexist. It’s a matter of age, social background but whether it’s the made-up polished style or the carefree and loose allure, the constant is the understatement. Even if the whole look is carefully planned and orchestrated, it must not look so (too much).
French style is about clean and elegant silhouettes at its best but it’s also the fear to be different resulting in condescension or even intolerance at its worst. Where one can wear whatever outfit in London without the blink of an eye, French can be quite judgmental and snobbish.
The pregnancy of good taste/bad taste concept here makes it harder to be outside of the box, to stop thinking in terms of fashion rules. I think it’s one of the most common negative remarks I hear from foreigners - that French style is boring, dull. I disagree. I actually think it takes more creativity to find the right balance and achieve that quiet elegance. Style as I see it here is more about subtle details (a touch of color, a print, noble materials, beautiful fresh make-up) on an otherwise simple silhouette rather than a showy in your face look.
One thing I feel is that this phenomenon means that suddenly a lot of French brands look the same - Maje, Sandro, The Kooples - and probably because some of them are owned by the same companies . Do you think this has an impact on street style in Paris?
You’re right all these brands don’t have a strong identity. Indeed Maje and Sandro are owned by the powerful LVMH group... They all look the same because according to what’s in at the moment, they just replicate it, quite well, still I think their approach is very similar to Zara or H&M with steeper price tags.
These brands create a lot of buzz and certainly have numerous loyal followers but I feel their impact is quite limited on Paris streetstyle first because of their price point, which doesn’t make it affordable for the vast majority and second, as I was mentioning above, they essentially rip off the same designers than mass market retailers do and quality, at least for Sandro and Maje that I used to buy 4-5 years ago, is not exactly stellar. Honestly I don’t see the point to pay 3 digits price tags for such items when you can get your fashion fix at Zara for much less or save a little more and get the original.
Actually, when I think of Paris streetstyle in term of brands with an impact on it, only one really stands out: Comptoir des Cotonniers. That’s in my opinion the most common French brand that is worn all over France, from teens to adult women. I think a lot of women own at least one item from them. It truly captures what I see every day, elegant, basic, classic style with a subtle hint of trendiness.
Blogs tend to give rise to "mini-trends" where suddenly it seems like everyone wants the same item, or likes the same designer. Have this ever happened to you? Do you feel that this can dilute personal style?
Oh it’s quite funny sometimes! These manifestations of similar interests truly make you wonder about telepathy!
Blogs are powerful tools, it’s so easier to connect, identify with a real person wearing a certain item from a brand/designer and what you see is what you get. No Photoshop, supermodel body, drop-dead beautiful setting to embellish the article, or false miracle promises, to the point where I tend to put more trust in a blogger commenting on a beauty product than a journalist who depends on brands for financial backup.
Of course, there are some items that weren’t on my radar that I ended getting because of other bloggers influence. Nevertheless, I always keep a critical eye, now.
But I admit that it was hard and I made a couple critical mistakes. My biggest one was the Chanel ballet flats that I bought after much consideration yet simply didn’t belong with me. I truly loved them and wore them proudly a couple of times but they didn’t feel quite right. I was submerged by these pictures I had collected of stylish bloggers and celebrities wearing them and I lost sight of myself, what I truly feel good in. I should have known better.
One thing I've become greatly interested in is where my clothes come from, and how they are made. How does this factor into your personal shopping habits? What are some things you look out for in your favourite brands, designers etc?
What I’m looking for in all cases is durability and versatility. Clothes I can wear at work and on week-ends, that don’t shrink, fall apart after a wash and/or a few wear. One of my pleasures at the turn of a season is to bring out cherished items. I have dresses, skirts, blouses, shoes that I keep in my closet year round that can be worn in any season.
As for the manufacture process, I just bought trousers from Zara made in Morocco but aside from that, how to know if labour for this item was justly remunerated, that the materials used were fairly paid, what about chemicals? The lack of information is frustrating. I always look at the location of production but it’s not necessarily significant when a dress can be cut in China and still have a “made in Italy” tag just because buttons were sewn in Roma. The power struggle within the retail industry is so entangled with worldwide variables, financial and social stakes, I feel like our individual actions are limited.
The big conscious difference for me is that after a massive and eye opening clothes clear out, I’ve stopped hoarding and changed my shopping habits drastically. I turn to consignment stores, eBay for second-hand quality clothes, avoid window-shopping when bored and I always keep in mind what’s already in my closet, there are only 7 days a week, 5 days of which I’m mostly in work attire so it leaves 2-3 days in a week to truly enjoy the fun stuff and honestly, I barely wear what I already have in my closet.
Do you think your style would be different without the internet?
I’m collecting tonnes of pictures for inspiration, wish-lists, I purchase a lot now though internet, I take part in online fashion communities, share my interests via a blog. It’s hard to imagine a world without that medium, yet I grew up in such place and time where I built most of my tastes and inspirations pre-internet.
In a way, that tool made it easier for us fashion lovers yet I can’t shake the feeling that style, the influences and inspirations incorporated in the way I dress don’t have anything to do with internet.
Style’s a personal process, an individual vision. Sure internet can help but overall it’s about yourself, your tastes and the way you want to present yourself to the world.
My love of grunge, the 70’s, menswear, Wax and Batik materials, the spectrum of blue, tough boots, sneakers, Neneh Cherry’s style in the 90’s, Helmut Lang’s moto jeans, Demeulemeester drapes, natural hairstyle and minimal makeup, etc. are not inherent to the internet. So I don’t think my style would be that different without the internet.
Which are some of your favourite blogs?
I really prefer bloggers who have a life other than jet-setting around the world. No I’m not jealous! Ok maybe a bit. I just feel more connected to a woman, making ends meet, sharing a bit of her life through her love of fashion.
- Yours. No I’m not a sucker, and Garderoben’s because I feel we like the same kind of aesthetics style-wise.
- Res pulchrae and Prêt à Porter P for their strong vision of their own style.
- Tomboy style and Vintage Black Glamour for inspiration
- La lionne’s funky style
- Emmy’s because her space’s a breeze of fun and loveliness
- Beauty: http://www.blackbeautybag.com (I love Fatou’s blog, it’s full of good advice for black and natural beauty) and Into the Gloss.
- More general: Ugly Sally: - the author cracks me up with her opinionated views on daily life, fashion, relationships, Threadbared for in-depth discussion on fashion and Jezebel is a must-read.
Name 5 things in your closet you will never give or throw away.
- ASOS leather jacket: I’ve had it for the past 4-5 years. It’s very reminiscent of Rick Owens style jackets. It fits like a glove, works with everything and makes me feel like a cool badass.
- Comptoir des Cotonniers coat another oldie. Slightly oversized, in light black wool. It’s timeless and again works with everything, anytime.
- Isabel Marant suede boots: Even if they’re overexposed now, I’ve had them for the past 5 years and still love them.
- Lanvin boots. I spent too many times searching for them to even think of putting them away.
- Lanvin ballet flats: comfortable, timeless.
- Narrowing down my closet to 5 things was hard but it turns out what’s important to me is outerwear and shoes!
I’m having a bit of a fall-out with the whole Paris area right now. Lots irritate me. Still I love:
- The sightseeing. Leaving the office and walking by the side of the Seine towards the Pont-Neuf at night and catching the Eiffel tower all enlightened to get to my metro station is always breathtaking and mesmerizing.
- The food. Most restaurants and bakeries are really good and I’m not talking about Ladurée or La Pérouse but the ones just around the corner! I’ve never tasted better croissants anywhere else in the world. My week-end doesn’t feel the same if I don’t have any from my favorite baker. I love a good tartare with French fries. And I could go on and on.
- The different arrondissements which take you worlds apart, the 10th, specifically Passage Brady where I get Indian and Pakistanese products, Barbès for African products, the 13th where I acquire my indispensable jasmine tea, the 19th with La Villette park, the Buttes Chaumont, Cité Universitaire in the 14th, the haut-Marais with some of my favorite stores….
- The easy access to culture: When I want to see Cézanne, van Gogh, Degas, or Renoir’s work, I’m a few subway stations away from my favorite museum, the Musée d’Orsay to enjoy that luxury. I love the space, light and the collections.
- I guess it’s also part of culture in a way so I’ll add the wide range of fashion offer. From worldwide brands with flagship stores, local market places to designer boutiques and department stores or bazars.
- Sundays. Almost everything is closed, the pace is quieter. Going to the market in the morning for fresh products and/or a roasted chicken. Late lunch or brunch. Depending on the season/weather browsing one of my favorites bookstores WH Smith on Rue de Rivoli or Shakespeare & Co opposite Notre-Dame, going to the Quai Branly museum or for a walk in the Montsouris park. I used to hate Sundays but I appreciate the fact that there’s this day that’s not (necessarily) about producing or consuming.
Pictures courtesy of aissa