It is a conundrum of modern travel: The reign of big international brands has made shopping the world both easier and, well, less exciting. Why bother with a weekend spree in Paris, the reasoning goes, when so many of the labels on Avenue Montaigne are also available on Rodeo Drive?
We can think of several reasons. Beauty, quality, and rarity are still valuable currency in the City of Light, and a handful of boutiques have never lost their cachet among shoppers looking for truly unique items sold nowhere but here. From dresses to doorknobs, the offerings at these cult shops have one thing in common: They are all idiosyncratic, highly specialized, and très français.
Café Blanc, the aptly named Courrèges restaurant near Avenue Montaigne, sits next to the fashion label's flagship store—which could just as fittingly be called Boutique Blanche. The gleaming shop, now run by the designer's wife, is an all-white sixties space-age fantasy with clothes to match: patent-leather go-go boots, shimmering headgear, A-line smocks in colors of kryptonite and ozone.
In true Courrèges spirit, most of what hangs on the racks here can't be found anywhere else in the world. This includes Couture Future, the ready-to-wear line André Courrèges started in 1965—based on his couture creations—that is still produced today ($1,000-$7,500). Now as then, his trapezoidal dresses and sweaters can be made to measure. At 40 Rue François 1; 33-1/53-67-30-00.
GALERIE NAILA DE MONBRISON
This jeweler's name is passed around in the hushed tones usually reserved for secret societies. Indeed, Galerie Naïla de Monbrison, on the Rue de Bourgogne, is a very special place displaying one-of-a-kind and limited-edition pieces by some of the world's top contemporary designers. Monbrison's tirelessly on the hunt for items, personally handpicking each one. Some of her finds are works of rare gemstones; others exalt simple materials such as wood and glass—but all possess what she calls "coherence and originality." Monbrison's clients, whom she describes as independent women with an eye for contemporary art, demand it.
Four times a year the gallery puts on solo exhibits (the late Tina Chow, for one, held her first-ever showcase here), and the drawers are always filled with intriguing jewels. On a recent visit we developed an attachment to sculptor Giorgio Vigna's large magnetic brooches ($625-$870) and Taher Chemirik's silver and ebony rings ($1,000). At 6 Rue de Bourgogne; 33-1/47-05-11-15.
The clothing at Anouschka spans 70 years of fashion history—from the twenties to the eighties—but the shop is hardly a museum. Crammed into every spare inch of a typical 3,200-square-foot Parisian apartment, Anouschka's collection is a paradise for the connoisseur of vintage fashion. Dozens of Yves Saint Laurent belts hang alongside a black Chanel coat, circa 1962; a 1973 Madame Grès dress with immense balloon sleeves towers over a jumble of Hermès bags. Each item, chosen for its cannily au courant style, is in flawless condition ($250-$125,000).
The store is open only by appointment. The staff recommends you arrive with a good idea of what you're looking for; the inventory can be overwhelming. Designers call ahead to buy even rarer vintage haute couture, housed in a smaller apartment several floors above. $ At 6 Ave. du Coq; 33-1/48-74-37-00.
LES SALONS DU PALAIS ROYAL SHISEIDO
One might expect the Shiseido fragrance boutique, done in neoclassical deep purples in the Palais Royal, to overpower with scent. But in this emporium, where famed perfumer Serge Lutens performs his remarkable alchemy, you barely catch a whiff. The atmosphere is engineered to help customers avoid any such distraction—no music, dim lighting (too much can alter a scent), test strips pre-sprayed with perfume.
Shiseido presents some 22 heady, uncommon fragrances exclusive to this boutique. Each hews to one of four themes—wood, flowers, the Orient, or ancient aromas. We particularly liked the Fleurs d'Oranger, which manages to be both rich and fresh, as well as the six Eaux Boisées: extremely sensual but not too heavily spiced. The fragrances ($125) come in charming bottles—replicas of apothecary vials—that can be engraved. At 142 Galerie de Valois; 33-1/49-27-09-09; www.salons-shiseido.com.
LA PETITE ROBE NOIRE
The days when well-heeled Americans flocked to Paris for a month of couture fittings may be long gone. But Didier Ludot's shrine to the little black dress harks back to that more genteel time.
Just across the garden from Ludot's original vintage clothing shop, the boutique features an all-black selection of vintage cocktail dresses (and a few fur coats), mostly from the fifties through the seventies. Next to them is Ludot's own line of perfect little dresses ($930-$2,120): 13 designs inspired by the likes of Balenciaga and Givenchy. The dresses have such a timeless quality that devoted customers sometimes ask for a previous season's model (fortunately, a few are often in stock).
Ruling over this kingdom is the inspired Dominique, who is the closest most of us will ever get to a couture studio hand. She has a sharp eye and tongue to match, ready to tell her clientele whether a particular style is vous...or pas vous. At 125 Galerie de Valois; 33-1/40-15-01-04.
This cookware institution near Les Halles equips the kitchens of many professional chefs, which explains why the copper pans downstairs are large enough to accommodate a whole beast. There's no need to feel intimidated, though: Dehillerin's helpful, if sometimes sassy, staff will assist even beginners in finding that perfect mandoline or quirkily shaped turbot dish.
The cramped, narrow shop has been a family operation since 1820; if they stock it, it's for sale—and so reliable are the goods, you can buy them with your eyes closed. A bonus: They'll ship those heavy Le Creuset pans ($100-$250). $ At 18 Rue Coquillière; 33-1/42-36-53-13; www.dehillerin.com.
In the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, 107 Rivoli is a recently revamped and renamed shop that is far loftier than your average museum store. The breadth of fashion and decorative art books is remarkable and the examples of modern design are some of the best we've seen.
Besides being the only place in France for Nymphenburg porcelain (Dutch designer Hella Jongerius's pieces— $310-$1,430—are particularly beautiful), 107 Rivoli carries contemporary porcelain from Virebent ($20-$80), glassware by industrial designer Karim Rashid for Gaia & Gino ($70-$120), and its own editions of cutlery and china. Designs for the latter are culled from the museum's collections (the most recent addition, knives and forks modeled after artifacts tracing back to the Middle Ages, look surprisingly up-to-date).
Also catering to more conventional tastes, the shop sells reeditions of 18th-century faïence and copies of Marie Antoinette's Limoges pattern. At 107 Rue de Rivoli; 33-1/42-60-64-94.
An odd crowd-pleaser, this shop has been adopted by young Parisian families and top-notch French decorators alike. Specializing in doorknobs—for cupboards, drawers, front doors, windows—La Quincaillerie offers hundreds of designs, among them a chrome horn-shaped lever by Philippe Starck ($200 a pair), Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza's lovely ergonomic handle ($155), and the sleek iconic Lama knob by Italian legend Gio Ponti ($150).
To make sure the stock stays current, the Quincaillerie team regularly attends design fairs across Europe; chances are that many of the discoveries will never make it Stateside.
Since lock dimensions aren't universal, the staff recommends bringing in handles, fabric swatches, wood samples, or anything else to simplify your search. $ At 3 Blvd. St.-Germain; 33-1/46-33-66-71; www.laquincaillerie.com.
Hotel Sezz just opened its doors in the 16th Arrondissement, near the Eiffel Tower. Designed by Christophe Pillet, the sleek, gadgety hotel has no concierge or receptionist: Each guest in the 27 rooms is assigned a personal assistant who takes care of everything for the length of the stay. 33-1/56-75-26-26
Serving tapas and drinks on the Rue du Mont-Thabor, Ferdi (33-1/42-60-82-52) is the new perch for the fashion flock, owned by the sister of fashion icon/retailer Maria Luisa Poumaillou. Just opened: Gaya par Pierre Gagnaire (33-1/45-44-73-73), the master chef's newest kitchen, on Rue du Bac.
The Paris Photo fair (November 17-20) draws 106 top dealers to the Carrousel du Louvre. This year's focus: Spanish photography. Over in the hip Third, Lieu Commun (33-1/44-54-08-30) brings together Matali Crasset's avant-garde home goods with clothes by Ron Orb and music from F Communications.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.