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The École des Beaux-Arts, which has hosted an array of fashion shows and parties over the years, is a sprawling complex of buildings, mainly from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, prized for their elaborate frescoes, moldings and statuary.
Lauren’s restoration effort telegraphs his growing affection for Paris, which he calls a “second home.”
The designer recently selected Paris for a major exhibition of his vintage racing cars. That 2011 showcase at Les Arts Décoratifs attracted 155,000 visitors.
In the interview, Lauren lamented that his romance with Paris blossomed late.
“I feel sorry now that I haven’t spent more time in Paris through the years because I find it very exciting and beautiful,” he said. “It grew on me. I used to go to London all the time. I could relate to it because I speak the language…I don’t speak French so it’s a little harder, but as I have been coming back more and more people speak English, and I feel a strong reception here.”
Lauren confessed to being “slightly intimidated” showing in Paris “because there are a lot of great designers here, they do wonderful shows. But this is not a competitive show.…It’s for consumers, to show them what I stand for and what I do.…I think it’s one of my best shows, and I am very proud to bring it here.”
Asked if he would ever consider unveiling a new women’s collection in Paris, he acknowledged, “I have thought about it from time to time. The logistics are complicated.”
In fact, so smitten is Lauren with Paris that he recently entertained the idea of living in the French capital.
“It would be an interesting change to be able to partake in living here and thus working here. But it’s a public company, it’s complicated,” he said of his New York-based fashion firm, which posted fiscal 2013 revenues of $6.9 billion. “I think everybody thinks of living here one way or another. But I am thrilled to do the show here, thrilled to express myself.”
To be sure, France remains an important market for Lauren, one of his largest in Europe. The designer was a pioneer American in opening his first Paris store, on the Place de la Madeleine, back in 1986, the same year he unveiled his Manhattan flagship in the Rhinelander mansion.
In 2008, Lauren also christened a 6,500-square-foot women’s boutique on the tony Avenue Montaigne, home to Harry Winston, Fendi, Gucci, Chanel and the historic boutiques of Christian Dior and Nina Ricci.
“It’s been a very receptive place, people have been wonderful to me,” he said of the French capital. “It’s wonderful to be accepted in a country that I respect and has such great beauty, art and history.”
Lauren said he’s particularly fond of the Saint-Germain neighborhood, and some of its iconic residents, like Deneuve and Anouk Aimée.
“I’ve had a great crush on Catherine Deneuve for many years,” Lauren said, also noting Aimée’s “A Man and a Woman,” from 1966, remains one of his favorite movies. “These are iconic people.
“Without a doubt women in France are beautiful. They wear their clothes in a very understated way,” he added.
As for the Saint-Germain neighborhood, Lauren said he feels right at home because “it’s artistic, it’s got history and it’s more low-key. It’s not the prime, fast-moving area. It’s got a sense of life and living. It’s a beautiful place to be. I’ve always loved the Left Bank,” he said.
During this Paris sojourn, Lauren dined at new Paris hot spot Monsieur Bleu in the Palais de Tokyo museum, praising the impressive setting and interior architecture.
What’s his favorite restaurant in the French capital?
“Ralph’s,” he said. “My wife and I look forward to coming here because we love the hamburgers.”
Were he to start his career all over, could he be tempted to enroll in the Beaux-Arts?
“I don’t know if I could ever pass the entrance test,” he said with a chuckle. “It probably would have been a dream to be able to do that and if I could have gotten in. To get the quality of being surrounded by France and Paris, it would have been a great treat.
“I guess this is the school I would have wanted to go,” he continued, calling his sponsorship effort “the best way to be part of the school.”