The Prix de Diane is hit by the recession, discovers Anne-Elisabeth Moutet in Chantilly
You really know there's a recession on in France when the House of Hermès - of FF40,000 ostrich skin 'Kelly' handbags and FF1,450 horsey print silk scarves fame - decide they won't hold a luncheon this year at the June 13th Prix de Diane, which they have been sponsoring for yonks, my dear, and will give their guests PICNIC BOXES instead.
This, in Paris, is the equivalent of Royal Ascot going grunge. Especially since I'm told the vintage car competition, Le Gratin Du Panier, won't happen either. (Usually, when the Right came back to power, people showed off the 1937 Rollers they'd been hiding from the Socialist taxman, surely not the other way round?)
In past years the Hermès tent village, erected right in the middle of the delightful Chantilly racecourse, has been host to all sort of suitable charities, of the kind that mix properly with morning coats and exotic ladies' hats. (The year before last, the late lamented Audrey Hepburn showed up in her UNICEF ambassadorial role, and everyone sighed, remembering her Cecil-Beaton-designed black and white Ascot outfit in My Fair Lady: the perfect woman in the perfect place.)
For Chantilly in mid-June IS the perfect place, and you can bet Parisians toffs will bravely rough it and make do with sandwiches. It will be the spirit of the Blitz again, or perhaps the spirit of the Blitzkrieg, or Dunkirk if it rains. But the show will go on.
You notice I haven't mentioned horses yet. That's because, except for a handful of owners and serious punters, horses do not count at all at the Prix de Diane, unlike at the Arc de Triomphe in September, where they get serious about these things. The Diane is all about having a nice garden party with about 1,500 PLU, showing off the most outlandish hats (having acquired Motsch, France's wonderfully fuddy-duddy answer to Lock's, Hermès now has a stake in that, too), drinking lots of bubbly, being photographed for Point de Vue and Vogue, and airkissing six times per minute people you pretend to be astonished to meet here: 'Mais tu es là! Quelle surprise!'
One shows up around 11:30 a.m. or noon, having ineffectually sworn to be on time to avoid the traffic on the A1 from Paris, and having been delayed by 1) the sudden disappearance of one glove, 2) finding out that you don't fit your morning coat anymore to the tune of a stone or more, 3) having lost one of the children after having finally got them all properly dressed up, or/and 4) losing your way when trying to bypass the traffic on the autoroute by taking the Survilliers shortcut. (DO NOT park too near the enclosure, because it means you'll be stuck behind the poshest traffic jam of the year when you try to make your getway at the end of the day.)
The Prix de Diane - devoted to Spain this year, with the possible attendance of members of the much-admired Spanish Royal Family - is definitely the high point of the Paris Season. The word evokes a series of parties in the English tradition: teas, little dinner-dances, picnics al fresco, opera outings, garden-parties, country fetes, culminating with the big May balls (in June.) This charming picture, relentlessly fostered by every PR agency in town, belongs to another, gentler age. Two-thirds at least of any of those parties supposed to constitute The Season are in fact commercial affairs, sponsored by anyone from a champagne house (the Carré Rive Gauche Antiques Fair) to a hotel chain (the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp.)
A certain amount of social editing is therefore required before throwing oneself into the bop till you drop scene. You can live without showing yourself at either Auteuil or Deauville (it is actually strongly advised to avoid Deauville altogether), but nobody feels like giving the Diane a miss.
At the time of writing, it was still uncertain whether the traditional evening cocktail party in the Prince de Condé's splendid stables - where Milos Forman shot the first duelling scene in Valmont, and which look a lot better than the château de Chantilly itself, the latter having been rebuilt in the XIXth century while the stables are the original Louis XIV ones.
Having recently gone public on the Paris OTC Bourse, no doubt Hermès feel they can't give their shareholders the feeling they're wasting their future dividends. Perhaps this will comfort at last the HSP (short for Haute Société Protestante) families who've been owning the company for 150 years, and may have felt a bit uneasy at their own success during the Roaring Eighties: certainly the company resisted going big, even if it means you have to wait six months for any handbag that doesn't happen to be available right now in the boutique's windows in the colour of your choice.
Such considerations probably won't affect the success of the party next Sunday 13th. Tips: it's a lot more chic to picnic alongside the racecourse than behind the main tent, even (or especially) if this means you'll be in everyone's way. DO bring a plaid blanket (or a red-and-gold one to make the Spanish Ambassador happy). DON'T take Cristal Roederer bubbly in your hamper because the clear bottle tends to get warm faster than the dark Dom Pérignon or Krug ones. (Additional points this year for bringing vintage Rioja instead, but with the sun you may get very drunk very fast. Remember it's not done to be sloshed before at least the second race.)
DO take off your shoes to walk on the grass if you feet are killing you by mid-afternoon (last year, Hermine de Clermont-Tonnerre set the tone by actually spending the last two races slumped on the grass with her two fet in two champagne buckets filled with ice cubes.) DON'T go alongside the enclosure ropes to throw brioche crumbs at the hoi polloi massed there, making remarks such as 'Mon Dieu qu'ils ont l'air pauvre!' (also heard last year).
DO watch out for the green badges (meaning Jockey Club) on the best men. DO NOT go and sit on the Jockey's stands, on the flimsy grounds that they're about the only place from which one can see a horse for a split second however, since you're likely to be thrown out politely but firmly by one of the members of this arch-elite (who regard the rest of the scene as rather mixed). DO go and gatecrash the little sponsored dos in various tents: there will be more free drinks, and you're the public they're trying to impress anyway. DO wangle as many extra tickets as possible: 'The secret is to take several friends, so you have your own little party inside the party,' says Dominique de Lastours, who being a 28-year-old personable Marquis is something of an expert social butterfly on the Paris social scene. Dominique and his friends do gate-crash "but we behave a lot better than the English gate-crashers. We never break anything and we keep very polite. Sometimes, I assure you, we set a better tone than the actual guests."
I have a soft spot for Dominique, whom I've seen at the best (or the most publicized) parties. The Prix de Diane is a welcome relief from his usual haunt, Castel's, he says, "because the food is a lot better and the women are older." I also suspect the formidable PR women in charge of things actually let him in when they haven't actually got him on their lists. It's difficult enough to get the right mix as it is. When the Lebanese middleman Samir Traboulsi was indicted for insider trading three years ago - he is to take the stand in the Paris courts the very week of the Prix de Diane - one of them wailed to me: 'This is a disaster. His wife was always the first to send me her cheque. She'd buy whole tables of 10 and 12 guests for the charity luncheon, and pay immediately. I'll miss her.' So shall we, digging into our picnic boxes.
© Copyright The European & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1994