Book Talk: Kate Betts on her Paris memoir
Before Kate Betts became, in the 1990s, one of the top editors at Vogue and then editor-in-chief at Harper's Bazaar, she was a postcollegiate American in Paris, learning the fashion ropes at Women's Wear Daily and desperate to absorb the social codes of the Paris elite. She's written a book about those romantic, ambitious years in the late '80s, "My Paris Dream: An Education in Style, Slang, and Seduction in the Great City on the Seine" (Random House, $27). It's her memoir of dating Frenchmen and covering the period's runway elite, from Yves Saint-Laurent to Karl Lagerfeld, as well as rising stars such as the Christians (Lacroix, Louboutin). Now the writer of Everyday Icon, a fashion blog, Betts chatted with Newsday about the magic and the challenges of those early years in Paris.
What do you remember most vividly from your first years in Paris?
Struggling to fit in and a feeling of isolation. I had no idea how hard it would be to learn all the social codes and break into that tight French circle. But I was very determined to have French friends and not fall into the American expat group that I worked with. Besides that, I'd say I remember the smell of urine in the Metro. Paris was not as pristine then as it is now. Also, I lived with a French family with two kids and the mother always had great smells in her kitchen -- chocolate cake, bread, omelets, huge informal dinner parties with a couscous or a coq au vin.
Americans often think the French are mean. What do you say to that?
The French are so wedded to their own sense of civilization. They have high standards for themselves that nobody can really compete with. Americans are far more relaxed and easygoing. That French rigor comes across as nasty but really it's a deeply entrenched thing for them. Their manners, every gesture, the way they raise their kids, eat. Once you break through that barrier, they are actually some of the funniest and most easygoing people.
You write a lot about trying to break out of your casual American fashion and adhere to French codes.
It's funny because most of my French friends were striving for that American ease, wearing Levi's jean jackets and Converse sneakers. But there's a difference between casual and too casual. In France I learned to wear classic clothes but then add a twist, a piece of jewelry or some color -- one piece that was going to make an outfit a little bit better. Also, you'll never find me wearing flip-flops in an airport!
When you came back from Paris in 1991 to work at American Vogue, what did you miss most -- and least -- about Paris?
I grew up in Manhattan, but coming back, it shocked me -- the claustrophobia, midtown at lunch hour. I missed walking in Paris and seeing the sky, the everyday beauty, the daily rituals like getting a coffee at a cafe on your way to work, just taking time for life. In New York, everything is assigned to a specific hour or day, like brunch or an exercise class. The French have a much easier flow between rituals. But I definitely did not miss French office culture. Back in New York, people called you back the same day and the FedEx arrived overnight.
Have you been back recently?
About a year ago, I was there to work on a final revision of the book and visit old haunts. It's a bit depressing now because the economy is in such bad shape and so many people are out of work. Stores are closing and there's a sadness about the country. But Paris is also more gentrified than it was when I lived there -- not just the center, which is basically a museum, but the other arrondissements, such as Belleville, where some friends of mine live.
What are some of your favorite Paris finds?
A set of Thonet chairs from the Paul Bert flea market. Lots of pottery from the South of France -- mustard jars, planting pots and plates. A Hermès chain-link bracelet, appropriately worn-down as the Parisians like them, not shiny and new! And two Azzedine Alaia suits I'll never wear again but I can't bear to part with, because where in the world will I ever find such a beautifully cut jacket with a silk lining cut on the bias?