Paris most famous flea market, Porte de Clignancourt is officially called Les Puces de Saint-Ouen, but is known locally as Les Puces (The Fleas). Covering seven hectares, it is the largest antique market in the world, attracting weekend visitors of 120,000 to 180,000.
The history of Clignancourt dates back over 200 years, when rag and bone men scavenged through the rubbish of Paris at night to find valuable junk to sell on. Known as crocheteurs or pickers, their romantic term was 'pecheurs de lune' or fishermen for the moon. Many of these marketers set up temporary stalls within the Paris walls, in seedy proximities but because these neighbourhoods were full of larcenists, they were hunted out of the city walls to Clignancourt, Montreuil and Vanves, The largest of these flea markets is Clignancourt, but the other two exist to this day.
These rag and bone men gathered outside the walls of Paris at the Porte de Clignancourt and set up temporary stalls where they plied their wares. After some time, they formed groups of stalls to attract more customers. The more enterprising dealers began to 'trade up' in terms of goods and eventually it became popular for Parisian collectors and dealers to shop there for bargains.
The main entrance to the market presents you with two options. Rue des Rosiers from the right side which is adorned with every space and form imaginable selling Art Deco furniture, antiques, fixtures and fittings. Many artists and indeed Architects have been spotted here looking for items or inspiration.
Rue des Rosiers from the left side has a rather different feel. Its prominent Marche du Biron was formed in 1925, with two long rows of stalls and is known as one of the more expensive markets. It is here that the magical fashion deals can be sought. However, you can put aside the thought of stumbling across some covetable vintage Chanel, Lanvin or Hermes pieces for a knockdown price. These designer goods often command high prices as the customers and sellers here know what they’re dealing with.
The main strip for any fashion savvy cool hunter is to head to Serpette and Paul Bert where some of the biggest specialists have shops. (By specialists I mean just that. Hamish Bowles of American Vogue fame is a regular here for both research and acquisitions. He was spotted recently updating his private vintage Dior collection from their enviable stock.)
Biron has the most impressive and expensive vintage jewelry. From Chanel to Lacroix and Cartier to Hermes, its walls glisten with all the hues of their enviably stocked gems. Several doors down Dauphine has some interesting smaller dealers selling everything from hair clips to Vuitton trunks.
Isabelle Klein is one of the most infamous traders in the area. Her luxury vintage fashion boutique Les Merveilles de Babellou bears her childhood nickname, Babellou. This store has the ambiance of a bygone Paris boutique which transports customers to a time and place when Paris fashion was at its height. High fashion brands of the twentieth century like Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton and Hermes fill the store, beckoning all who enter to take a piece of fashion history home with them.
Babellou has two shops at the Paul Bert Market, where celebrities, stylists, and vintage fashion lovers can find clothing, haute couture, accessories, and jewelry that can inject the ultimate wow factor into any shoot or appearance, Rumour has it that none other than Kate Moss picked up her Vivienne Westwood pirate boots here several years ago and sent the footwear from crematorium to catwalk.
So, the next time you think of a shopping spree in Paris, try to spread your clothing compass further afield than Sant Germain de Pres and its proximities. Not only are you guaranteed a captivating and authentic taste of French couture curiosities but also an educational and entertaining day out. Just remember to leave room in your suitcase.