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I Went to Paris to Unpack French Style: This Is What I Learned

Let me hit you with a little tidbit: According to Google, every month, thousands of humans around the globe search “French fashion.” Clearly, people want to about what they’re wearing in the land of wine and cheese. As a fashion editor, I’m well aware of the fascination too, and I wanted to dig deeper. What exactly is French style, and why do we find the concept so enchanting? What does it look like in practice? And most importantly, can this American editor pull it off? To help answer these questions, I quickly decided a trip to Paris during fashion week was necessary (bien sur) and reached out to one of the most influential French brands: Maje.

If you’re not already familiar, Maje is a staple in most French women’s wardrobes. In the chicest Parisian neighborhoods, you can’t go a few blocks without spotting one of its boutiques. Judith Milgrom founded the brand almost 20 years ago—and as I came to learn through speaking with her and wearing her designs, her vision has left an indelible mark on what young, fashionable working women wear in Paris.

Fashion was always destined to be part of Milgrom’s story. “I knew I wanted to do something related to craftsmanship, something artistic,” she shared. “I remember putting so much effort into my look when I was a teenager. I was stealing my father’s shirts and twisting them in a feminine way.” After moving to Paris and working for her sister’s fashion line, Sandro, Milgrom struck out on her own with an idea for something different than what the fashion industry was offering at the time in 1998. She explains, “Workwear was very formal and very codified at the time. I wanted to bring color and prints. I wanted women to feel confident and feminine at the same time. I believed that you don’t need to dress like a man to feel powerful and respected.” Today, that attitude is more commonplace. In the ’90s, it was game-changing.

In addition to seeing a hole in the market for stylish workwear, Milgrom also saw a pricing gap: “When I started, there was luxury fashion or mass market and nothing in between. I wanted to offer women the possibility to dress up and to be on trend without spending too much.” Let’s recap here: We’ve got norm-defying clothing. For women to feel empowered in their femininity. At attainable prices. Without sacrificing quality. It’s no wonder the brand was a success, or as the incredibly humble Milgrom would say, “We’ve been very lucky. Everything went so fast, but we were passionate, and we still are.”

After learning the line’s story, it was time to test out the Parisian clothes in the present. I took Milgrom’s advice on the subtleties of French style, which are reflected in the DNA of her brand. “I try to offer a masculine/feminine mix because I think that women today play so many different roles that it should reflect in the way they dress.” Noted—feel free to mix influences, and remember day-to-night pieces are key for a woman who “lives many lives in a single day.”

As for explicit advice for Americans comme moi? “Not everything needs to be coordinated.” More literally, I interpreted this to mean think beyond pairing a black bag with black shoes. More figuratively, if one piece in your outfit has one vibe, contrast it with another. Milgrom offered the example of wearing flat sandals with a long, sultry dress.

I call this concept French equilibrium. It’s about the push and pull of masculine/feminine, day/night, dressed up/dressed down. One easy way to strike the balance? The line’s newly launched collaboration with Schott, an American heritage brand known for its iconic bomber jackets. “Schott is a brand that is very urban and masculine, and collaborating with them allowed me to break Maje’s codes, which are very feminine and sexy,” says Milgrom. For my take, I paired a sweater from the collaboration with a pair of track-inspired trousers for an outfit that can clock in for the working girl but also go beyond the office.

And while this concept of equilibrium is a helpful lens to view French style through (and I adored wearing that bomber-inspired sweater with track pants), I still wanted an answer to my initial question. What exactly is French style? I asked Milgrom to sum up the sentiment in three words. Her first word, and the one that I think matters the most: confidence. Confidence to believe in yourself and your style. “I do my best to dress different women around the world. They’re active, they’re mothers, wives, lovers, and executives at the same time. I hope they feel beautiful, strong, feminine, and confident.”

When it comes down to it, french style is actually about a feeling, the feeling of confidence. I traveled to Paris to learn this, but the best part is you can channel that sentiment anywhere. Milgrom agrees: “Thanks to social media and the internet, I think that there are fewer and fewer differences between American and French style. Rather than big differences based on your nationality, I think that in the near future with the young generations, we’ll see different styles reflecting different tribes.” The tribe of confidence? That’s a notion we can get on board with.

This press trip was paid for by Maje. Editors' opinions are their own.