PARIS — One weekend, as he was scouring the booths of the Saint-Ouen Flea Market in Paris, the artist and decorator Vincent Darré came across an old parachute among the vintage furniture and dusty knickknacks. He immediately knew who to show it to.
“Every week Karl Lagerfeld would ask me, ‘What have you brought back for me this time?’” said Darré, who between 1995 and 2001 was part of the Fendi studio and helped the fashion designer with his research for both the Italian brand and Chanel.
“When I showed him the parachute, he replied, ‘Great, we’ll turn it into skirts,’ and he created a whole line of parachute skirts for one of his couture collections. It was very beautiful.”
It’s no wonder Darré, who has been a regular at the flea market since the age of eight, has been named ambassador of the French institution, presiding over its annual opening event to be held from Sept. 19 to 23.
“I come here every weekend — it’s like my holiday home,” said the artist, who after stints as creative director of Moschino and Ungaro gradually left fashion to become a full-time decorator, adding his surrealist touch to Elsa Schiaparelli’s salon on the Place Vendôme, as well as sultry nightclub Le Serpent à Plumes.
Named “Puces Mon Trésor” — “My Treasured Flea Market” in English — the five-day event aims to help visitors find their way around the massive antiques market, which has more in common with an actual village than your regular garage sale.
Located in an area on the northern outskirts of Paris, the Paris Flea Market, or “Puces de Saint-Ouen” in French, houses more than 1,100 antique dealers in 12 different areas. Particularly busy on weekends, it’s the country’s fifth most popular tourist destination, bringing in more than 5 million visitors a year.
“Usually people stop at the most well-known areas of the market, like Paul Bert-Serpette, which has the biggest offering,” Darré said. “So I created 10 different watercolor-painted installations, like little theater sets, which we dotted around the flea market for people to find.”
The watercolor installations can be found at the entrance of each market through Oct. 21. “It’s like a treasure hunt,” he said. “We’re hoping to get people to venture into Vernaison, the oldest part of the market, or Jules Vallès, which is a lot less touristy.”
Vernaison is Darré’s favorite part of the flea market — Woody Allen fans will recognize it from the scene in “Midnight in Paris” where Owen Wilson walks through its winding alleyways to browse the overflowing stalls.
“That’s where you find the cheapest things and where all the incredible stall owners are,” the decorator said. “Madame Giovannoni specializes in vintage bedding, all the decorators flock to Hélène’s booth to see her collection of antique fabrics….What I love the most is that the people speak like in old French films: They have a real Parisian flair.”
Despite having witnessed considerable change over the years — in keeping with current trends, Seventies-era design pieces have taken over most of the stalls — the place still holds the same magic for Darré.
“You always find the most extraordinary things: It’s like a museum you can shop in,” he mused, adding that his first purchase was a 19th-century Italian painted wood puppet he fell in love with as a child. “All the great antique dealers started here, and you often run into people from the fashion and art world browsing the stalls. Everything is unique.”
Ahead of the opening on Thursday, Darré had a couple of tips for any first-timers: “Get there early if you can and explore the whole thing. Don’t hesitate to shop around: If the item you covet is too expensive, it’ll probably be cheaper three stalls down. And turn your trip into a full day out: I always go to Bonne Aventure for lunch on their sunny terrace. The food is amazing.”