Julie de Libran’s insider Paris

Sonia Rykiel’s artistic director shares her favourite sites in the City of Lights with Avril Groom. Portrait by Léa Crespi

Julie de Libran in Le Bar at L’Hôtel
Julie de Libran in Le Bar at L’Hôtel | Image: Léa Crespi

I am something of a nomad. I was born in Provence and brought up between there and California; I’ve studied and worked in Milan and Paris; and my sister lives in London. I could have settled in any of those places, yet I feel at home in Paris. It has inspired me since my days at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture fashion school. And, of course, it’s always been at the heart of Sonia Rykiel.

The Palais de Tokyo
The Palais de Tokyo | Image: Getty Images/Moment RM

I live and work in the sixth arrondissement, the Left Bank artists’ area of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and Montparnasse, and I spend much of my time there. I love the architecture – it is part of the old quarter, its narrow streets interspersed with big boulevards such as Saint-Germain and Raspail – and cultural life. Artists, writers and politicians still drink at its classic cafés and discuss ideas over food. The shopping is great too, with its designer fashion stores and little ateliers selling handmade jewellery, its modern art galleries and long-established antiques dealers, all within walking distance. Having lived in warmer places, the only thing I’m not wild about is the weather. Winter can be dreary, but I like the proper seasons and the south is only three hours away by train.

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This area is famed for its boutique hotels, but it is also home to its own grande dame, the historic Hôtel Lutetia, with its art-nouveau origins and wartime role. It is just across the square from the city’s chicest department store, Le Bon Marché, and though it is currently closed for renovation, I can’t wait to see how it is restyled.

Ralph Lauren’s restaurant Ralph’s
Ralph Lauren’s restaurant Ralph’s | Image: Courtesy of Ralph Lauren

My other favourite among the great Parisian hotels is Le Bristol; it is traditionally elegant yet calm and not overbearing, and the service is the same – really efficient but not stuffy. The spa has the best masseur in Paris, called Peter.

Palais Galliera during the Alaïa exhibition
Palais Galliera during the Alaïa exhibition | Image: Pierre Antoine

Of the little Left Bank hotels, my number one is L’Hôtel, which I discovered years ago, ironically when I was working for Prada in Milan and we did a photo shoot there. Each room is designed differently and everyone has their favourite – mine is 36, Mistinguett. I love the way each one opens off the central tower and its style reflects the hotel’s wonderful raffish history, which included visitors from Salvador Dalí to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Its basement hammam and steam room is a well-kept secret; it is guests only and you have to book a visit, but it’s wonderfully relaxing after a day’s sightseeing. As a contrast, I like Hotel Montalembert, which is cool, modern and buzzy yet has very serene rooms.

Jewellery boutique Lydia Courteille
Jewellery boutique Lydia Courteille | Image: Jacques Pepion

Much in the sixth is easily walkable, though you can hire a Vélib’; I cycle to work on one. I would suggest a stroll around the local streets, such as the Rue de Grenelle, where you’ll find the fashion stores, and the Rue de Lille and Rue de l’Université, which are best for antiques, art and jewellery – more for browsing and ideas than buying; there are some very valuable items there. My favourite shop is 7L, Karl Lagerfeld’s bookshop – you can imagine the diversity of the books he chooses.

Château de Fontainebleau
Château de Fontainebleau | Image: Getty Images/Hemis.fr RM

If you want to imbibe the intellectual Left Bank atmosphere, spend time at La Hune, one of the city’s best bookshops for the arts, sciences and humanities. You may find yourself browsing next to a famous name from any of those fields. From there it’s a short step to the Café de Flore, still a gathering place for artists and writers. I love to meet friends there for a drink, and for a light lunch I’d recommend its Club Rykiel, a sort of club sandwich without the bread, invented by Madame Rykiel. I’m a fish-eating vegetarian and one of my favourite lunch spots is Blueberry, a little restaurant whose combination of citrus flavours with sushi is unlike anything I’ve found elsewhere. Another great lunch place, in a city that can be hard on vegetarians, is Guenmai, a charming decades-old vegan restaurant-cum-organic food shop run by an ultra-knowledgeable lady who makes really delicious meals.

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One of my favourite jewellery stores, Karry’O, used to be nearby until a couple of years ago. Karry has one of the best eyes for vintage pieces – individual and eccentric yet beautiful. I found her at PAD London and we have kept in touch. The shop has now relocated (though without Karry herself) to the Rue Saint-Honoré, a short postprandial walk across the river. Just along the way is the dark little treasure trove of Lydia Courteille, who is inspired by foreign travel and antique stones and showcases her own dazzling designs alongside vintage pieces. This renowned Parisian street is also fabulous for window shopping – the displays are food for the eyes.

A visit to some of Paris’s best museums stretches the mind and the legs. My top picks are in relatively close proximity. The astonishing art-nouveau cast-iron and glass Grand Palais, built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900, is a building worth seeing in its own right and hosts major exhibitions; I am especially excited about the upcoming Jean Paul Gaultier retrospective. Then it’s a pleasant 15-minute walk to the 1930s-built Palais de Tokyo, another great monument. Just opposite is the beautiful Palais Galliera, which reopened in 2013 after a full renovation and whose exciting director Olivier Saillard I respect. The two venues teamed up for the 2013/14 Alaïa show and the staging was brilliant.

The Left Bank comes alive in the evening, when fellow drinkers and diners are a mix of local bourgeoisie and starry names from art and politics, who all live around there. You could start with an excellent martini at Rosebud, a small bar whose owner recently took over from his grandmother. It looks like a stylish old-school hotel – opulent deep blue with fabulous cocktails and waiters in white jackets. As I love fish, I might move on to Le Duc, a local institution that resembles a rather shabby sailing boat, but serves the best carpaccio. If I have friends staying, especially Americans, I might surprise them with dinner at Ralph’s, Ralph Lauren’s second restaurant and a slice of top-quality New York with all‑American food and an interior that echoes the brand’s signature aesthetic. I love the crispy olives, the tuna burgers and the popcorn they serve with coffee – very rare in France.

For a more cultural evening, there is the Théâtre de Poche, a small place in Montparnasse that specialises in finding new talent, from actors to comedians – the latter can be very funny, if you can cope with French humour. Or take in a film at La Pagode, an 1890s eastern fantasy where the setting makes for a special experience and the choice of art-house films is pretty good. I go clubbing rarely – usually when I’m invited to a fashion event – but one place I’ve always had a nostalgic attachment to is Castel, the great 1960s Left Bank hangout. It had become really tired, but last autumn it was redesigned by Thomas Lenthal and André Saraiva. It now has the same intimate setup over four floors, but is much slicker, with great music, brilliant French fries and so many memories.

Sunday mornings in Paris for me include several rituals. One is to visit the flea markets, which have become much more popular in recent years  so you need to go early to find bargains. My favourites are the street stalls at the Porte de Vanves and Marché Paul Bert at Clignancourt, which has the best-quality pieces. The banks of the Seine – traffic free on Sundays – make for a great walk, or you can rollerblade as I used to for relaxation when I was working at Louis Vuitton. For less public exercise, I do Pilates at Rituel Studio, a beautiful loft-like former art studio, and  underwater spinning at tiny La Maison Popincourt, which is a novel way to get fit.

Later I love to wander Le Marais, the historic Jewish area, where everything is open on a Sunday. One of my top stops is the little Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, which, as the name suggests, isn’t just about hunting; it is currently showing the work of contemporary Irish sculptor Claire Morgan, who incorporates materials such as dandelion and feathers into her pieces. Whole families become flâneurs in Le Marais, enjoying the scene with a little slow shopping and café sitting. For lunch I like L’Ami Louis, a tiny, narrow restaurant like a train carriage serving large portions of very traditional food with a degree of ceremony. To continue this dream-like view of a Parisian weekend, I’d spend the afternoon in the Bois de Boulogne, not just to see the incredible new Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton, but to take a boat on the Lac Inférieur for a gentle row in one of the most peaceful and rural settings in the city.”

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