You've most likely encountered the phrase "French-girl style" more than once. You may have read a few articles on how to achieve the effortless je ne sais quoi. For example, CR Fashion Book describes the quintessential French girl's wardrobe as consisting of "ballet flats, well-worn leather handbags, basket bags à la Jane Birkin, perfectly-fit jeans, tailored black blazers, silk scarfs, lingerie camisoles for daytime, crisp white button-down shirts, little black dresses (of course), and a signature fragrance to top it all off."
French-girl style is also often synonymous with icons from the past like Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, and Françoise Hardy. It's what inspires Emily to live out her Parisian fantasy in Netflix's Emily in Paris. But the expression "Paris Syndrome" exists for a reason. It refers to the disillusion that some tourists experience when they arrive in the capital. Suddenly, they realize that every aspect of French culture and society—including "French-girl style"—was idealized or exaggerated. In short, it does not really exist.
Of course, some Parisians are inspired by Jane Birkin's sense of style, but that only accounts for a small portion of French women. In reality, the French population is way more diverse than it appears in pop culture and social media—especially in a city like Paris. France's most populated city has over 2 million inhabitants. In fact, the Paris region overall counts over 12 million residents—and the city's fashion reflects that diversity.
Olivier Rousteing, the creative director of Balmain, is one of the rare French designers of color to present his work at Paris fashion week this season. His work exemplifies the French style, as it truly exists. "When I started out, I was the little prince of Paris fashion. I wore striped t-shirts and tried to fit into the mold of what was expected of me. And then, one day, I decided I wanted to assert that even though I wear striped shirts and I like listening to Serge Gainsbourg, I also listen to Kanye West and Beyoncé's music," he told the French magazine Numéro. "Ten years ago, I would have to pick between two Black models. There was no way I could choose more than one for an entire show," he said. Today, "we are in a moment of rebellion and revolution," when it comes to French fashion.
Below, French women of color give their take on "French-girl style" and explain what French fashion means to them.
Zoé Vya on Diversity in the Fashion Industry
Zoé Vya is a French-Vietnamese designer based in Paris. Previously an accessories designer at Balenciaga and Lanvin, Vya recently launched her own brand, which focuses on upcycling, hand-made customs, and environmentally-friendly designs.
"When people talk about French fashion, everyone has this image of the super chic Parisian woman with a beret and red lipstick—but when you go to Paris, it's obvious that no one dresses like that apart from tourists," she explains. "It's often white women who are included in this image and who are being represented—even though France is a very diverse country. In Paris, there are Asian people, Arabic people, Black people... a little bit of everything. There isn't a single type of Parisian woman."
"You can find a little bit of everything in French fashion, not just minimalist style," she adds. "For example, haute couture draws more and more of its inspiration from the streets, from the projects—and that's also French fashion. Outside of Paris, a lot of people wear tracksuits and sneakers. It's something you can notice more and more on runway shows these days. I think that the stereotype of the Parisian woman doesn't represent French fashion accurately. It's an aesthetic that tourists like... and that some French and European influencers play with to gain popularity."
It's often white women who are included in this image and who are being represented—even though France is a very diverse country.
"There are designer brands that aren't diverse at all. Any foreign influence on their designs will be based on stereotypes," she explains. "Some brands will have Black models walking the runway, but there will not be one person who is Black or mixed in-house. On one of my jobs, I did not see one Black person working there. The only people you saw were the people delivering the mail or cleaning the office… It's only done for the brand's image, but in-house, there's zero diversity. I experienced this first hand. I am half Asian, and I was the only person of color in the whole building working for the brand."
"But it really depends. There are brands that will focus on diversity. For instance, Jean-Paul Gaultier picked a model who wears a hijab last year. It was the first time that a designer brand represented people who wear the hijab in a photoshoot. Jean-Paul Gaultier photographs a lot of transgender people, gay people, people of all backgrounds, and all body types," she adds. "This type of initiative normalizes a lot of things in fashion. People are starting to do that more and more—but then you wonder if it's for the right reasons. Whether it's for marketing purposes or not, it's still a good thing."
Taqwa Bint Ali on Her Definition of French Fashion
Taqwa Bint Ali works at the office of creative direction at Jean Paul Gaultier. She got her start by becoming the first hijabi woman to model for the brand in July 2020. She is also the founder of Zarafet Galleries, an online platform that promotes modest fashion and aims at better representing Muslim women in France.
"To me, French women's fashion is actually quite masculine but with a touch of femininity. I think that a lot of French women would say they prefer Dior menswear and Louis Vuitton menswear. It's about oversized men's clothing and is very vintage, but there's always a feminine accessory like a bag, jewelry, or heels. I think it's a blend of the feminine and the masculine. French women's fashion is genderless and very vintage," Ali explains. "They mix streetwear and high fashion. For example, a blazer paired with Adidas sweatpants and Gucci loafers… That's very French. It says: 'I made an effort but not too much of an effort either.'"
French women's fashion is genderless and very vintage.
"The world of fashion in France is really starting to pay attention to what's happening on the streets. When I see runways shows like Balenciaga or sometimes Chanel, I notice some looks that I could also see in the street. All those brands are leaving their etiquette behind. You'll see sneakers or bomber jackets on haute couture runways. You can tell that runways are being inspired by street style."
It's like some kind of fantasy that they still contribute to because it's part of the whole magic. If the myth or cliché of the typical Parisian woman still exists, it's because brands contribute to upholding it too.
"I feel like there's still this thing where they don't want to break the myth of the 'French girl' and French etiquette for foreigners, as if it were an enchantment they didn't want to stop projecting," Ali explains. "It's like some kind of fantasy that they still contribute to because it's part of the whole magic. If the myth or cliché of the typical Parisian woman still exists, it's because brands contribute to upholding it too."
"There's an elitist aspect of traditional French fashion that keeps on existing. Beyond the models, the influencers, and the image, it's the staff that is most important. They're often old white people, and it's them who are making all the decisions. That's why it's taking time for things to change."
Safya Drissi on the Relevance of French Street Style
Safya Drissi is a fashion influencer who also works in communications and web design. She started sharing her outfits on Instagram after noticing a lack of representation of people who look like her on the platform. Drissi is a Black woman of Moroccan descent who also wears the hijab.
"To me, fashion is about wearing an article of clothing that you love and that makes you feel good," she says. "As long as I see something that I like, I buy it, and then I match it with my style." Drissi is also an adamant thrift shopper. She picks clothes designed for women and men alike. "What gives you a sense of style is your personality and how you style an article of clothing. Attitude has a lot to do with it, too," she shares.
Today, giving a strict definition of French women's fashion is ridiculous. I often hear about 'Parisian style,' but it doesn't really mean anything anymore.
"Today, giving a strict definition of French women's fashion is ridiculous. I often hear about 'Parisian style,' but it doesn't really mean anything anymore. If you walk around Paris, you'll see that Parisian women are diverse. You won't just find this style that is a bit classic and romantic. Something I love doing, especially when I walk around Paris, is looking at how other women are dressed because it's so inspiring. There are, of course, women who have that Parisian style, but you also have a bunch of different styles—a little bit tomboy, unisex... with lots of colors, or the opposite, with very neutral or dark colors. It's super enriching to look at all that. I would have a lot of trouble defining French women's fashion because I think that today we all have our own interpretation."
"When people talk about French fashion, I believe it's still rooted in Parisian style, a style that is classic, chic, or romantic, and it doesn't go beyond that. Urban and street style isn't necessarily highlighted," she adds. "Our inspirations are diverse and varied. Some people will have a very minimalist sense of style, similar to Japanese aesthetics. Others have a style that is very urban—a bit '80s or '90s, inspired by American rappers," she explains. "A lot of us play with oversize and unisex fashion or emphasize the importance of accessories. I find that super cool."
For examples of French street style during Paris Fashion Week, check out Drop Paris' Instagram account for inspiration.