The scent of cigarette smoke is in the air as I enter the eastern shop of Les Trois Marches de Catherine B on rue Guisarde in St. Germain. Directly in front of me, above the desk of Catherine B (formally, Catherine Beunier), is a small painting by Parisian painter André Renoux entitled Les Trois Marches (1985). Catherine and her publicist, Mireille Nagourney, greet me warmly. "The painting, as well as the shop, is very dear to me because my great-grandfather used to get his beard cut at the shop when it was still a barber shop. My father had his hair cut here on his wedding day."
Rows of Chanel tweed jackets.
Admittedly, the painting isn't the first thing I notice. As Mireille introduces me to Catherine, my eyes glance up, down and around, not knowing where to expend my first ounce of concentration. The east shop is packed floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall with accessories, while the west shop contains clothes, shoes and outerwear as well.
One cannot help but be overwhelmed by the significance of Catherine's collection. Carrying only vintage Hermès and Chanel, the shop is a dream to lovers of the brands. "I have the utmost respect for these two houses," she says. "The only luxury brands that still produce in France." Iconic pieces from both houses can be found here, often, in shocking abundance: Kelly bags, Hermès silk scarves, Chanel boucle jackets, right down to limited edition collectibles that are very difficult to find elsewhere. Every item has been selected and purchased by Catherine with great appreciation for their historical value. Even the very first Birkin bag ever made (naturally, for Jane Birkin) is in the shop. "I came to own it after it was put on sale at an auction benefitting a philanthropic organisation [Les Encheres de l'Espoir - "The Auction of Hope" - for AIDS research]. I won the bidding." (It's not for sale.)
Although stock in the shop is always changing, if you were to walk in today, you would be able to find a pair of Chanel biker boots and a Chanel umbrella from 1995, a Chanel necklace with planet-shaped charms from 2002 and an Hermès anis-coloured Kelly bag in Gulliver leather from 1996. The most recent item in her current collection is a Hermès Lilanga scarf (a collector's item); the oldest, an Hermès croc clutch from the 1930s.
The original Birkin bag.
The shop has been around since 1994, but Catherine had always loved Chanel and Hermès and "was already unofficially buying and selling items. I always wanted to have a shop and opening Les Trois Marches made things official." One may have heard of Catherine, but to meet her is to know that the shop is not just a business, it's her passion. She speaks warmly and extensively about her work. "It's always a pleasure," she says. "Pleasure and passion became a business."
She is well-known in the industry and, she says, is trusted by Chanel and Hermès. "I have a very good and solid relationship with both houses and I am often in touch with them. They both send me clients looking for vintage collections or who wish to sell me their own items." Clients come from all over the world to buy and sell, all of whom share a common interest in the treasures Catherine sells in her shop. I take her word for it that her clients' ages range from "seven to 77-years-old," while trying to picture (the guardian of?) a seven-year-old negotiating the sale of the Hermès china she recently inherited. She describes the Chanel-oriented buyer as younger and "attracted to a modern aesthetic. She/he is part of the 'happy few' wanting something fun and fashionable." The Hermès buyer, on the other hand, "gravitates towards more classic items that withstand the test the time. It's not so much about being fashionable." (I fall in the latter group. I admit that I barely glanced over at the wall of Chanel accessories while in the shop.)
The stock isn't the only thing that surprises me - the prices do as well. The prices of the bags are often on par with modern-day creations, or sometimes more. Why? Catherine sighs and says with a tinge of disappointment, "They don't make them like they used to." She explains that the demand continues to increase for handbags from both brands. "To meet production requirements, the houses now produce what are called industrial leathers, such as Epson. There is no question that the quality of natural leather is much more superior to industrial leather." In a way, the prices reflect the better quality of the older items, and of course, their rarity as time passes and fewer remain in existence. Perhaps that is one reason why Catherine's shop focuses on true vintage. She also "likes items that tell a story; their smell, their touch, [that] they're an actual part of history."
At such prices, how does she guarantee what's real and what's not? The process she takes in authenticating items comes from her in-depth knowledge of the collections, she explains. "After buying and collecting for so many years and meeting people that work in the trade [models, seamstresses, designers, etc…], I've learned a great deal. And I've been in business for almost twenty years! You learn a lot in that time period." She has received more than a few tongue-lashings for informing indignant bag owners that their purse was not the 2.55 they believed it to be. She says that not many fakes cross her desk, and she believes those that do are not on purpose. "Everything I do is in the open. I give receipts for all my purchases in case there is any debate about authenticity."
So what are the tell tale signs? "For purses, I look at the finishings, which are hand sewn for Chanel bags. Counterfeits cannot reproduce the same quality of craftsmanship. The packaging is easily recognisable when counterfeited because the quality just isn't there. For scarves, there are a lot of fakes, but more on recent designs and I really specialise in older vintage designs." She proceeds to show me the details of an orange Birkin bag, from the feel of the leather and the specificity of the logo on the hardware right down to hand-sewn stitches at particular points on the bag.
|Photograph courtesy of
Les Trois Marches de Catherine B.
Given her dedication to her work and respect for craftsmanship, her thoughts on the effect of counterfeit goods on the luxury goods market are not surprising: "It creates great financial hardship on the luxury goods market. Not just the brands, but all the small factories that they outsource to, like the Chanel button makers or the knitters of Chanel tweed. It calls into question the French 'savoir-faire.'" And savoir-faire is something that this self-described "fashion antiquarian" has in spades.
On my way out, Mireille tells me that the Renoux painting is the most precious item in the shop to Catherine. Ten years after Catherine purchased her shop, she discovered that the painting was back on the market at a Parisian gallery. Catherine purchased it right away - for keeps. "Now I own both the shop and the painting! As we say in French, 'la boucle est bouclée!'"
She has come full circle, indeed.
Les Trois Marches de Catherine B
1 rue Guisarde, 3 rue Guisarde
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