Paris’ best-kept vintage secret

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PARIS – Shortly after Rihanna wore a vintage pink Chanel puffer jacket for her pregnancy announcement, another example of the same coat appeared – at an auction in Paris, where it sold for 2,500 euros (2 $830), beating its high estimate by 66 percent. Not that it came from Rihanna’s closet, although the current owner has her own level of fame.

This piece was one of hundreds put up for sale by a single collector known as Catherine B: a flamboyantly haired, age-undetermined pioneer of the luxury resale game.

For nearly 30 years, Catherine Benier has been buying and selling the crème de la crème of second-hand Hermès and Chanel handbags, jewellery, scarves and other accessories in her Rive Gauche boutique, a listed monument which, out of just under 100 square feet, makes shopping an individual experience by default.

But although doll-sized, Les 3 Marches de Catherine B (named after the three steps of the storefront), is a destination of choice for a wealthy clientele, often famous, eager for limited editions and sought-after styles in crocodile porosus, lizard or butter. – soft and supple box leather used in the 1960s and 1970s.

When Les 3 Marches opened in 1994 with just a handful of scarves and other accessories, early customers included Catherine Deneuve, who lives nearby, and Inès de la Fressange. Ms. Benier has become known for paying for resale items in advance, unlike a traditional consignment store, which works on consignment. She also mingled with the nightly crowd at the legendary Castel nightclub around the corner.

Word of mouth did the rest. The store has become a resource for trend setters, editors and stylists looking for fashion week looks for their clients.

In a phone interview, interior designer Nate Berkus recalled meeting Ms Benier in the early 1990s, when he was interning in Paris for jewelry designer Dominique Aurientis. He bought a Hermès Plume carry-on, and although he no longer had the bag, the friendship lasted.

“Catherine is an original,” he said. “She’s such a complete connoisseur and character, it’s like attending a chapel run by a crazily dressed vintage high priestess. It’s always that story-rich experience and you walk away with a treasure every time.”

One of the reasons for her success, Ms Benier said, is that she “doesn’t just sell stuff”. Instead, she approaches inventory with a collector’s eye, presenting herself not as a vintage dealer but as a fashion antique dealer.

Another reason, constancy: she never strayed from her first two loves, Hermès and Chanel (at the time Lagerfeld).

“While craftsmanship is essential, for me luxury is more about tradition than elitism,” she said, citing Hermès for her family history and Chanel for the woman who started it all.

“True luxury is small and rare. It’s something you expect. I prefer that to instant gratification.

Until 2021, Ms Benier also sold vintage Chanel and Hermès clothes in another store, a few doors down from the 3 Marches, but earlier this year she decided to liquidate the stock – 600 lots including the pink puffer – via the Parisian auction house Gros & Delettrez and bet on accessories, his original obsession.

Self-taught, talkative and opinionated, Ms. Benier says she’s been interested in fashion for as long as she can remember, but not in “new” fashion. On the contrary, she prefers things with a backstory. Born and raised in the neighborhood of St.-Germain-des-Prés, she credits her father, a mosaic artist, with instilling in her a respect for exceptional craftsmanship and the belief that craftsmen put their soul into what they do. ‘they do. Her esoteric look, she attributes it to her astrological sign, Cancer.

“I have a very sensual relationship with objects,” she said. “They talk to me. When I sell a bag, it’s not just a bag, I tell the customer where it’s from, why it’s special. You are building a connection that does not exist in the virtual domain.

While she’s bought a few pieces at retail and auction, today Ms. Benier sources her supplies mostly by responding to inquiries. “Nothing is better than when someone calls and says, ‘I’ve got something for you’.” she says. “I always hope they will surprise me. Sometimes it’s worth it, and sometimes it’s not. »

“In life, there are things that belong to us, and then one day we have to part. Karma changes and you have to move on to let something better come,” Ms Benier said ahead of her own auction.

In pre-Covid times, during fashion week, a security detail would often block the tiny Rue Guisarde while a wealthy shopper skimmed several bags from the shelves. Occasionally, a customer would drop by to upgrade a bag by reselling an old one, which Ms Benier says is how she ended up returning the same black Kelly bag three times.

On a recent morning, a reporter had to wait outside 3 Marches while a customer in his twenties inquired about a rare miniature evening Kelly clutch in the window. Its price: 14,000 €.

Les 3 Marches is unabashedly one of the most expensive vintage shops in town. “My prices reflect the amount of the purchase,” Ms. Benier said in a neutral tone. “If something was worth money in the beginning, it’s worth second-hand money.”

Still, there are a number of deals available at prices well below current sale prices and below those offered on resale platforms such as The Real Real, Vestiaire Collective and Hardly Ever Worn It: A Vintage Kelly at 4 €800 or a Birkin at €7,500. — whereas if you create a wish list of bags at Hermès, the entry prices for these models range from €9,000 to €18,000. And a Chanel 2.55 is listed at €3,800 (retail, €8,000).

That is, if it is for sale in the first place.

Above Ms Benier’s desk is an array of objects ‘purely for the pleasure of the eyes’, including a wicker basket designed by Mr Lagerfeld that once belonged to flamboyant Italian fashion editor Anna Piaggi, a Lilliputian Kelly in black lizard skin originally commissioned by an anonymous Hollywood actress for her daughter and sunglasses enhanced with a Coco Chanel silhouette.

Also scattered throughout the store: lucky charms following the principles of feng shui. Tucked away in a dark corner is a giant diamond-shaped crystal paperweight. Glittering snow globes represent the elements of water. All but concealed is a 500 franc note (originally worth around $85) received from Linda Evangelista, who stopped by and bought a Chanel bandana at the very start of the store.

Ms Benier said she considered it the best possible omen and had never considered spending it.

Then there is his most prized possession, the original Birkin bag: “the first it-bag ever”.

Ms Benier bought the bag in 2000 for a sum she refused to reveal after it resurfaced at auction (original owner and namesake Jane Birkin had sold it at a charity auction for AIDS research in 1994).

“The goose with the golden eggs and the magic beans is nothing compared to my joy when I found out the bag was mine,” Ms Benier said.

“For me, the bag had no commercial value, because I never intended to sell it,” she continued. “For me, it was extraordinary, like finding Adam’s rib. It is the most beautiful and coveted piece in the history of fashion.

Since then, she has hijacked offers to buy the bag at all costs (including from Rihanna), keeping it hidden except for occasional appearances in exhibitions at MoMA and Liberty department stores in London and Galeries Lafayette in Paris. He is now on his way back to Paris after the “Bags: Inside Out” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Where he can go next is yet to be confirmed. She dreams of placing it at the Maison Gainsbourg, a newly opened museum in the house of Serge Gainsbourg, rue de Verneuil in the 7th arrondissement.

“The Birkin was born in 1984, when Jane was still living in this famous house. It’s like part of the family,” she said.

Then there is his collection of some 2,500 Hermès scarves, which Ms Benier says is one of the largest in the world. She can talk at length about the designs and their illustrators. The same goes for a treasure trove of Chanel fashion jewelry.

“I made my passion my profession, but not everything exists for the purpose of making money,” she said. “There is a memory that must live.”

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