She knows exactly how to appreciate the quirky charm of the the type of attic apartment found in Paris where sloping roofs and exposed beams give the place a cosy cabin-like vibe. And it’s precisely because of the acute feeling of intimacy that vintage and contemporary fashion expert Pénélope Blanckaert has chosen to make her home in one of them and base her world within it. A world that swears by eclecticism. Here, the golden velvet of a bourgeois sofa sits happily alongside with the leopard print of a Madeleine Castaing-inspired carpet, and where past and present press cuttings and her children’s toys are strewn with gay abandon. A cheerfully chaotic home where, as you’ll have gathered, her passion for fashion is everywhere you look. Even where you least expect it, like the old cut velvet from antique furniture that had been used to make skirts and now lives again as seat pads and cushions. Enjoy this visit to the whimsical home of an avant-garde second-hand fashion expert.
Pénélope, would you introduce yourself, please?
I’ve always loved fashion. As a child, I used to spend hours immersed in 3 Suisses or La Redoute, calculator in hand, adding up the prices of all the outfits I liked. I cursed the Bonpoint culottes in navy blue gabardine and the Start Rites imposed on me by my mother, and dreamed only of transparent tights and patent shoes. As a teenager, I wandered around in a Harley Davidson and skull scarf, Schott bomber, Reebok and Cimarron jeans. I was already aware that the way you dress gives you self-confidence. In my opinion, that’s the primary function of clothing. Working in fashion was an obvious choice, but I couldn’t draw. So I couldn’t go to a fashion design school, so I opted for a business school after my A-levels. Martine Leherpeur then took me on at her agency and had the wonderful idea of directing me to the French Fashion Institute (IFM), where I was like a fish in water; it was, at last, my world.
You’ve quickly found your place in this world.
An internship with Yves Saint Laurent rounded off my course at the IFM. Coincidentally, at the same time there was a major auction devoted to the company’s 1970s and 1980s; it was in this context that I discovered fashion auctions at Drouot. I met Françoise Sternbach and Dominique Chombert, who introduced me to the profession of expert. Shortly afterwards, when I turned 30, I set out on my own and opened my own firm. The Internet was in the process of changing things considerably, and this enabled me to take an innovative look at the profession, developing iconographic research with dating and imposing the idea of a context in which images became predominant. It was, and still is, a word-of-mouth profession, and it’s complicated to get into. When I started out, it was my girlfriends’ mothers who entrusted me with their clothes for sale, mostly pieces from the 1980s (Beretta, Alaïa, Mugler, Japanese designers, etc.). These were relatively recent models, so they weren’t very common in auctions which, at the time, devoted most of their catalogue to haute couture. Resale platforms were only just emerging, and the general public was not yet familiar with second-hand clothes. Auctions were in the vanguard, aimed at an audience of insiders and collectors. At the time, the houses were unaware of the value of their heritage and archives.
What I’ve always loved about this job is the fabulous encounters with women who have a unique relationship with their wardrobe. Clothes are intimate, they carry secrets and memories, they say something about the woman who wears them. The Artcurial auction house then asked me to set up the Fashion Arts department, and in particular to develop a number of Hermès Vintage sales in Paris and Monaco. After four years, I felt the need to express myself differently and regain my freedom.
What I've always loved about this job is the fabulous encounters with women who have a unique relationship with their wardrobe.
How did you see your job as an expert from that point on?
It was time to reinvent it: as well as adding value, descriptions and contextualisation, the pieces were staged to show they were wearable today. I visualised a “model”, a mannequin in a shop window, wearing a wig and dressed in the looks I had put together: period pieces brought up to date with wardrobe basics – jeans, sweatshirts, and so on. The mix of decades, materials and colours, as well as a slight change in proportion, changes the way vintage is perceived and interpreted and makes it more accessible to today’s young women. At the same time, these models make auctions more democratic, reconciling museum pieces and wearable clothes, and not forgetting costume jewellery, shoes and other must-haves – Chanel, Hermès, Dior or Vuitton bags. I like to inject humour and fantasy into the editorial images I create; I regard it as recreation! Expertise is just one part of the job, which is completely different now, thanks to the whole new artistic dimension, from photography to styling. In addition to auctions, and as an accredited expert, I’m also involved in valuing the assets of major fashion houses and private individuals on behalf of insurance companies.
The different paths I followed to work in design led me very recently to styling for ‘real-life’ brands. Bending the rules, spicing up the classics, taking a different approach, that’s what I like! Delving into the archives and drawing fiercely contemporary ideas from the past of these fashion houses with their rich history are fascinating exercises. My job also gives me the precious freedom to forge lasting creative partnerships with artists like Christophe Brunnquell, photographer Jérôme Macé, writer Angèle Rincheval Hernu, artistic director Marc Bonnet and my wonderful colleague Hortense Bellessort.
Tell us about your childhood. What sort of environment did you grow up in, and how did that influence your view of what is beautiful?
I had a happy and privileged childhood. I was born in Paris, and I spent part of my youth in Lyon with my mother, who didn’t work much, and my father, an industrialist who had been passionate about art since he was a teenager. My brother, sister and I wandered around museums with him from an early age, playing hide-and-seek and running through the great galleries where our footsteps and voices echoed before the staff stepped in to scold us.
The walls of our house were covered with works of art of all kinds, and the floor was littered with sculptures. My parents hung out with a lot of artists, and my father even turned parts of his textile factory into studios for some of them. He was a true collector, acquiring a work because he understood it and supported its creator. He was very close to some of the gallery owners, including Jean Fournier. He passed on his love of art to me, and it’s important to me to pass on to my children the freedom to express their tastes. Handling the “beautiful”, however, requires culture; one’s eye develops significantly with experience.
For us, furniture wasn’t the main issue. However, I do remember some very uncomfortable electric blue upholstered chairs, a bar made of manhole covers, metal and lacquer coffee tables, a crimson upholstered velvet sofa and a bentwood set by Frank Gehry. All the different eras blended together; it was very eclectic, a bit like my home. No decorator has ever done my parents’ interior, which was very personal and very much about them. My mother, a virtuoso knitter and seamstress, had her sewing machine, fabrics and trimmings to die for and sewed all sorts of things, including Marimekko curtains, which she then turned into blinds and tablecloths. In the early 1980s, she even set up a brand of pyjamas for children, L’enfant rêve, well before the wave of success in children’s fashion. For each birthday, she knits me a jumper based on Sonia Rykiel’s knitting patterns and now uses the pattern I’ve decided is ideal in a different colour every year. She used to pick us up from school in her blue Autobianchi, dressed like a student in jeans and Carel ballet flats. It was in the mid-1980s, and I was fascinated by businesswomen’s tailoring worn with high heels.
Getting back to beauty: I wouldn’t talk about ‘beauty’ in terms of fashion and decoration. For me, beauty goes beyond that: the beauty of nature, of the soul, of art. Beauty is much more than looks or charm; it transcends aesthetics. The beauty of love, certain fleeting moments, sometimes emotions, the laughter and the affection of my children.
What about designers and artists? Whose work has influenced your work and your approach to interior design?
Some pieces have stayed with us through all our moves, and they’ve had a very powerful influence on my thinking. They are key images in my childhood imagination.
These include paintings by Simon Hantaï, a blue sculpture by Anthony Caro, paintings by Georges Noël… And, above all, my favourite: Pierre Buraglio, an artist from the Supports/Surfaces movement who uses collage in particular. On special birthdays, my parents have given me Pierre’s work, always connected with clothing. His work had a significant influence on the way I expressed myself later on; using collage was the antidote that freed me from my inability to draw. Because art is considered sacred in my family, my creations were kept in boxes for a long time. Nowadays, I’m digging them out and even mixing them with the artists exhibited on my walls.
I relentlessly accumulate press cuttings, especially copies of the daily Libération, my favourite and only newspaper, envisioning a future life in the countryside surrounded by dogs, donkeys and pigs. With the ultimate luxury, time.
All the different eras blended together; it was very eclectic, a bit like my home. No decorator has ever done my parents' interior, which was very personal and very much about them.
We’re here in your Paris apartment. Tell us how you first came across this attic gem.
All the apartments where I lived alone when I was younger were attic apartments; what has always been important to me is the silence, the light and, above all, the feeling of reassuring shelter.
My friends think that this place is a replica of one of my first apartments in the rue des Canettes, the adult version. I’ve always lived in a succession of small, slightly quirky rooms under the eaves, except when I was married, and we moved into a more middle-class apartment.
Like my previous homes, this one was a no-brainer: the second I walked in, I could see myself living here, and I was mentally reorganising the space. I immediately felt I would be happy here, and that my children would grow up in a shared, open and protective environment.
Velvet, leopard print, fringes, upholstery: materials and prints all find a place in your home. Tell us about these distinctly couture aesthetic choices.
The walls are white or grey simply because the objects, the works of art and the everyday items are already an explosion of colour in their own right. I ban all prints and prefer antique white sheets and tea towels that I dye if they are stained, and my collection of hotel bathmats… With one exception: the La Serviette Paris towels designed by Benjamin Bottard.
And the fantastic print here: the panther spot carpet on the floor and on the fully carpeted staircase. This daring approach led to a fairly simple constraint: my living room couldn’t look like a nightclub. I immersed myself in Madeleine Castaing’s books, which inspired me to mix garnet and bottle green. These velvet shell armchairs, which on their own are of no interest, work well in this room, complementing the green velvet AM/PM sofa and reflecting the animal spots in their mirrored base. My dressmaker had made me some skirts in cut velvet from antique furnishings, which were quietly falling to pieces in the back of my wardrobe when I realised that the colours matched those in my living room perfectly. So, the talented upholsterer Charlotte Decroix took them apart and transformed them into square cushions, buttoned seat pads, and bolster cushions for the sofa.
What does this interior say about you and your personality?
My apartment is very cosy, protective and safe. Comfort is essential to me when it comes to decorating. I want to create a feeling of well-being. Aesthetics never take precedence over functionality. This place is like a gigantic bedroom, a boudoir tucked away under the Paris rooftops, an intimate little place.
It’s a mix of bourgeois taste, but it’s crazy and very quirky, too. The interior designer and ornamentalist Pierre Marie spoke of his mother’s deconstructed elegance. It’s a notion that speaks to me, this idea of the natural order of things, of spontaneity. At home, the different elements come together and take shape, as they do in collages. For example, I’ve got sheep masks that double up as wall lights; I put them there, just like that, and they’ve settled in! I like to hijack objects and give them a function other than the one they were designed for. And the same goes for my vision of fashion: I decorate in the same way as I dress. My idea of aesthetics is not isolated pieces, but objects that interact, materials that respond to each other, and colours that tell a story. And it all works together, in the end. I don’t go looking for objects or furniture; they come to me. My living room was empty for a long time, then filled up as I found new things. Nothing is set in stone; the apartment is transformed by the vagaries of everyday life.
The important thing for me is to be in an environment that stimulates my imagination, my children’s imagination and possibly that of people passing through. Perhaps that’s why there’s so much here! I’m a hoarder, and I don’t like parting with things. Each one is imprinted with a memory; there is a bond between them and me. Relics from my childhood, souvenirs from my travels, little animals… Life is continuity, and passing things on is part of that continuity. My grandmother, who was very stylish, gave me a multitude of crystal decanters that sit alongside my collection of teapots, poodle knife rests that sit alongside Laguiole knives and Wedgwood porcelain that sits alongside Muji bowls. I use all this old-fashioned crockery on a day-to-day basis, and it goes in the dishwasher. An accumulation like this can be distressing for many people, but it doesn’t bother me. And I’d go so far as to say that the more it overflows, the more reassuring I find it. This apartment is my den; it tells my story through its plethora of objects.
It is also a place where families can live together.
Above all, it’s the apartment I share with my children. I don’t entertain many visitors; the living room is a place for construction, experimentation and expression. There’s Lego and other little characters everywhere, even in my bedroom, which doubles up as a football pitch. My bed is overcrowded with the cuddly toys I give my children before picking them up myself. It’s a real passion! My latest purchase is a Jellycat broccoli for my daughter Céleste, which I hope she’ll soon leave lying around!
This place is like a gigantic bedroom, a boudoir tucked away under the Paris rooftops, an intimate little place.
A must-have piece in the TSF collection?
I really like the Carlotta range and particularly appreciate the interplay between materials and colours. I like the coffee table with burgundy lacquer legs and green marble best… perfect for my living room!
Can you recommend any Paris addresses in the 9th and 10th arrondissements?
Lots! On the retail front, the Coopérative Latte Cisternino (46, rue du Faubourg Poissonnière), for their mozza, rocket and ham wrap. Pâtisserie Tholoniat (47, rue du Château d’Eau) for their semifreddo, which they first created in 1965. Yebisu, the fishmonger (81, rue du Faubourg St Denis) for their huge soles. If I want a delicious oat latte, I go to Café Soucoupe (33 rue du Faubourg Poissonnière). For roasted cauliflower and broccoli to die for, I head to Miznon (3 rue de la Grange-Batelière). If you want to enjoy small plates of raw fish, there’s only one place to go: Sur Mer (53 rue de Lancry).
But let’s talk fashion! At Super Vintage (11, rue des Petites Écuries), you can always find a bargain for ten euros when you drop in. If you like the idea of colour blocking, Thanx God I’m a VIP (12, rue de Lancry) is the place to go. The best selection of vintage clothing and accessories from the 1970s and 1980s I know of is at In Situ (rue de Metz, by appointment). And let’s not forget the cheeky little knickers at Henriette H (24, rue du Château d’Eau)!
I’ll finish with a spot of art… at Les Douches la Galerie (5, rue Legouvé) for the wonderful exhibitions its founder, Françoise Morin, puts on.
Where can we find you in the coming weeks?
With our nose in auctions: in collaboration with Millon and Drouot, we are organising three online auctions: Fashion Auction Selection, Fall 2023, with bidding closing on 9 October at 6pm; Winter 2023, with the catalogue online since 27 September and bidding closing on 6 November at 6pm; Fashion to auction VII, with the catalogue online on 24 November and bidding closing on 4 December at 6pm.
Photographs: Constance Gennari | Interview by Juliette Bruneau @thesocialitefamily