This Parisian thoroughfare is being gentrified, but the change is towards craftsmanship rather than commercialism. Jeffrey T Iverson enters the ‘gateway to Bobo-Village’
Over the last couple decades in Paris, the hilltop neighbourhoods of Le Haut-Belleville have become increasingly attractive to young professionals and new families in search of authentic, village-like atmospheres and affordable rents. One of the most popular areas, situated in the 19th arrondissement, forms a kind of triangle between rue de Belleville, métro Jourdain and the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, a quartier compared by French journalists to New York’s Chelsea district for its galleries and contemporary art centre (Le Plateau, 22 rue des Alouettes), its designer clothing boutiques, chic restaurants and fine food shops – in other words, everything you’d expect in a traditionally working class neighbourhood in the throes of gentrification.
Indeed, French daily Le Figaro has been quick to dub the picturesque commercial street running through the middle of this area, rue de la Villette, as the ‘gateway to Bobo-Village’. But to visit rue de la Villette today, one discovers a street not so much devoted to consumerism as to craft; a street that’s evolving for sure, but to the delight of its residents, profoundly Parisian street, with a band of dynamic business owners determined to keep it that way.
In 2017, Paris City Hall decided to create a new label to promote Parisian artisan manufacturing – Fabriqué à Paris (Made in Paris). For the launch ceremony, they chose a street that represented the rich diversity of artisans present in the capital today. Where exactly? Rue de la Villette. “The street, like the neighbourhood, is gentrifying like crazy,” admits Jessica Secheret, president of the rue de la Villette business owners’ association. “But today, what still fundamentally characterises Rue de la Villette is artisanat – craftsmanship.” Secheret herself is the creator of the boutique Les Folies Douces (No. 9), selling beautiful children’s clothing and stuffed animals designed by herself, and, of course, labelled Fabriqué à Paris. “Here you’ll find luthiers, painters, a cabinet-maker, an upholsterer, a cardboard craft school, a pop-up store with an endless stream of young createurs, and the boutiques of multiple Parisian fashion designers,” she says. “It’s truly a street of artists and artisans, with a synergy that’s only growing.”
Rue de la Villette is narrow, just 15 metres wide, with so little automobile traffic that you’ll often see people strolling down the middle of it. And yet it is, and always has been, a true artery of the city. Its name harkens back as far as 1730, when maps indicated it as the pathway connecting the village of Belleville to that of La Villette. Reminders of its deep history remain all along the street, where one can peek into verdant, cobblestoned courtyards and passageways like the Villa de l’Adour, a veritable window into Belleville’s forgotten rural past. Today still, rue de la Villette constitutes a link between the 20th arrondissement and the 19th, the bustling rue de Belleville and the bucolic Buttes-Chaumont park, and between two separate yet complementary halves of the same street.
Starting from rue de Belleville, at first the street seems to be all about shopping and soirées, with multiple designer boutiques, galleries, bookstores and chic restaurants and wine bars. But by the time one passes the poetically named rue des Solitaires, the tone changes, and we find a quieter half of the street; one dedicated to more, well, solitary enterprises. “It would be very hard for me to be situated at the other end of rue de la Villette; they have passers-by all the time!” laughs François Ettori, who runs a luthier workshop at 80 rue de la Villette. “Here we need time to work; we need silence. This isn’t a boutique: it’s an atelier.”
And to see Ettori cutting tiny, iridescent pieces of abalone shells with jewellery-maker-like precision to create mother-of-pearl insets for a violin bow, it’s clear he’s a man impassioned by his profession. Where the Italians were historically the masters of violins, the Parisian school of bow-making was once the greatest in the world, with vintage French bows fetching up to €150,000 today.
“In the 18th century, Stradivari started to build violins that could create powerful sounds to traverse the concert hall only because Vivaldi had started to write music for solo violin,” Ettori explains. “In the same way, in the 19th century, when Berlioz composed the Symphonie fantastique, the most innovative symphony of the century, he demanded new things of musicians and their instruments, and thus bows needed to be created that were stronger, faster, more dynamic. French bow-makers, you could say, were in the right place at the right time.”
Today, one fears that’s no longer the case. Ettori is now one of only around 50 remaining archetiers in France. Practising his art with pride and encouraging other craftspeople to gather together and remain in the capital has become a matter of principle for him. “Paris has always been a city of artisans. It’s incredible the number of professions that existed here at the end of the 18th century. When we are Parisian and we are conscious of our history, the least we can do is help to give that identity back to Paris, which is its deepest identity. After all, Paris is not just a place for selling Chinese vases and €15 salads!”
World of Craftspeople
Since Ettori opened up 20 years ago, a little world of craftspeople has slowly grown up around him, in some cases thanks directly to Ettori’s efforts of persuasion or help in securing a workshop. At No. 47, we find the atelier of Franck Lechner, piano tuner and restorer. Just up from Ettori, at No. 86, luthier Jérôme Lair restores and sells plucked string instruments of all kinds, from mandolins, lutes and Baroque guitars to electric guitars. A lover of 19th-century guitars in particular, he also builds exquisite copies of forgotten instruments, as well as bespoke contemporary guitars for a discerning clientele of musicians.
Moving south, one finds other workshops humming with activity. Some, like the atelier of the French brand Jack Gomme – designing leather bags and accessories in Paris since 1985 – are closed to the public except for occasional ventes privées. Others invite the public to step inside and roll up their sleeves, such as the École de Carton at No. 47, where students learn how to transform recycled cardboard into stylish chests, commodes and bookshelves. Visitors to No. 20 – home to the two gallery/workshops of the colourful, talented painters Kats and Danielle Choukroun – may well be inspired to pick up the brush themselves, and sign up for a class with Choukroun to learn the art of oil or watercolour painting. Likewise, at Atelier 44 (No. 44), carpenter and cabinet-maker Patrice Gaumeton restores and creates fine wood furnishings and decorative objects, and offers carpentry classes.
Patrice was encouraged to set up his atelier on rue de Villette after he bumped into a former classmate from his arts and crafts school there – the artisan tapissier (upholsterer) Daniel Perret. Perret had gone back to school in 2006 after a career as an economic analyst that left him burned out. “My whole life I had done jobs that didn’t really interest me,” he recalls. “But I always admired people like dancers who lived their passion, making a living doing something they love.” And since opening his atelier at 48 rue de la Villette in 2008, Perret is doing just that: making a living indulging his passions for restoring and upholstering furniture and creating decorative drapes and pillows. “My work is as diverse as the population that frequents rue de la Villette, and I enjoy adapting to the needs and budgets of my clients,” he says.
“Sometime it’s haute couture fabrics, sometimes it’s more basic. I’ll never be rich. But that’s not my goal. I entered this profession to work with my hands, and that fills me up in much more meaningful ways.”
Making a living from what you love seems to be a common denominator among the business owners of rue de la Villette. Up and down the street one finds independent ateliers and shops run with similar fervour, from the dynamic children’s bookshop Le Dragon Savant at No. 36 and the new boutique of the publishing house Borealia at No. 33 (founded by an amoureuse of Mongolia and countries of the Northern latitudes) to the antique shop Antica Box at No. 18 (offering transportation-themed decorative antiques from a collector inspired by aviation and maritime history) to the gallery Atelier de Belleville at No. 29, founded by a pair of aesthetes as passionate about Le Haut-Belleville as they are about its street artists.
As Nadine Lagalaye, owner of the boutique Davaï at 3 rue de la Villette, puts it, “It’s a street where everyone is living their passion.” Much like Daniel Perret, Nadine had found herself at a mid-career crossroads. “I was having a baby and I wanted to change my life, change my profession,” she recalls. “So I went back to school to study fashion design. I wanted to create clothes that could be worn at every stage in a woman’s life, that could follow the evolution of a woman’s body throughout her life.” And so was born her line of elegant, versatile dresses, skirts and jackets, all made from recycled haute couture fabrics (Japanese silks from Yves Saint Laurent, Italian wools from Louis Vuitton, cotton gabardine from Hermès)… And all Fabriqué à Paris.
‘Made in Paris’ has become the leitmotif of a whole crop of fashion designers who have settled on and around rue de la Villette in recent years. From Davaï and Les Folies Douces to Les Roussoeurs at No. 17 (founded by sisters Vanessa and Ludivine Méchain) and La Bâloise (just across rue de Belleville at 6 rue Jean-Baptiste Dumay, founded by Anne C. Wirth). It was perhaps only natural that these créatrices with common values would begin gathering together for annual fashion shows. More surprising, though, was their decision to use rue de la Villette itself for their catwalk, annually rolling a red carpet down the street, and inviting their own local clientele to model their garments for the whole of Belleville.
It’s the kind of joyous event the quartier has come to expect from rue de la Villette, where every month seems to be the occasion for another neighbourhood celebration, be it a Hallowe’en parade or an outdoor cinema. “At a time when you see streets around the world flooded by the same big brands, ours is a street that resembles no other,” says Jessica. “And that difference is the source of our charm. We just need to keep it that way!”
Boutiques, Galleries & Restaurants
Antica Box: 18 rue de la Villette, Tel. +33 (0)7 81 73 53 60
An antique shop created and curated by a true aesthete with dual passions for the golden eras of aviation and maritime transport and for distinctive decorative lighting from the late 19th and 20th centuries. The window display sets the chic-nostalgic ambience, where a pristine glass Art Deco lamp and an antique cinema lighting rig shine over a vintage train set and model aircraft and ocean liners.
François Ettori, Luthier: 80 rue de la Villette, Tel. +33 (0)1 40 33 47 64
François Ettori is a brilliant luthier who has restored, built and sold exceptional violins and stringed instruments for two decades. But what makes him truly unique is his talent for archetrie (bow-making), for which Paris used to be famous. Today only 50 or so archetiers remain in France, so complex and arduous this art is. And Ettori’s bows – which are crafted from rare woods, silver, leather and mother-of-pearl – are works of art indeed.
Atelier Daniel Perret: 48 rue de la Villette, Tel. +33 (0)1 42 01 24 14
Daniel Perret is an artisan tapissier (upholsterer), a passionate collector of exquisite fabrics and a master of couture and home decorating. He meticulously restores chairs from the Louis XIII era to the present day, but he also creates curtains, sofa covers and lovely decorative pillows (which he sells at bargain prices!) from fabrics by such designers as Ralph Lauren, Pierre Frey and Christian Lacroix.
Cheval d’Or: 21 rue de la Villette, Tel. +33 (0)9 54 12 21 77
French weekly magazine L’Express called Cheval d’Or the capital’s “most eagerly awaited address” of 2019. Why? Because Japanese chef Taku Sekine, of the gastro bistrot Dersou, and restaurateur Florent Ciccoli drew inspiration from Hong Kong’s modern pan-Asian cuisine and the French fancy for small tasting plates (yuzu and soy sauce sea bass carpaccio, divine bao pork buns…) to offer a restaurant unlike any other in Paris.
Louisette: 12 bis rue de la Villette, Tel. +33 (0)9 88 08 18 52
Belleville already boasts plenty of traditional Parisian cafés and brasseries, so the founders of Louisette have decided to offer a different kind of night out, creating the neighbourhood’s first bar à grignoter. A ‘snack bar’, you say? Here, as with the first Louisette, in the 14th, that means a chic lounge/wine bar with comfortable sofas and chill lighting, and a plethora of tasty small dishes and choice meat and cheese boards to nibble at all night.
Davaï (literally ‘give’ in Russian, but also meaning ‘come on!’) is the brand of Nadine Lagalaye, a generous-spirited, eco-minded fashion designer who wanted to create a line of clothing that could follow the evolution of a woman’s body throughout her life, be she slim, pregnant, or carrying a newborn. Her elegant, versatile dresses, skirts and jackets are Made in Paris with recycled left-over haute-couture fabrics.
Read the other articles in the Parisian Walkway series here.
From France Today magazine