An interest ought to be declared here. I have been a Carita customer for I don't know how long. Well, I do know how long: even since, just out of university at 22, and earning less than today's minimum wage in my first magazine job, I started blowing almost a third of my earnings on a really good haircut, highlights, and the odd facial, regularly: I simply couldn't resist the way I could be made to look from what, over years of school and undergraduate years, I thought ineradicable ugly-duckling basic material. All of you non-French readers (except possibly the Italians, who know what I mean), take note: this is what Paris does to you. Frenchwomen (and French men) are usually good-looking, but there's no secret to it: they work at it. Hard. And expensively.
The grand old house of Carita's, at 11 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, a stone's throw from the Elysée Palace, was founded in the late Fifties by two emigré Spanish sisters, Rosy and Maria Carita, and is now owned (with commendable lightness of touch) by the Japanese cosmetics giant Shiseido. It is arguably the most sybaritic beauty and hairdressing salon in the world, not discounting establishments aspiring to that title in Los Angeles, Tokyo and New York. On four Andrée-Putnam-starkly designed floors, men and women are offered a range of beauty care undreamt of anywhere else. I am not lightly indulging in puffspeak here. They have a regular Italian customer, a man, who flies over every month from Rome to get his eyelashes permed. It may cost FF495 sans le service, but I'm told it gives him that extra velvety eye no doubt necessary to his feminine conquests.
Other perfectly respectable Frenchmen (and discerning foreigners) come to Carita Monsieur not just for a shave and a short back-and-sides (which they can of course get) but to get their backs waxed (FF265), their chest hairs dyed (FF275), their scalps, neck and shoulders massaged for an hour (an absolute snip at FF368), their extremities pedicured and manicured (FF345 and 145 respectively), and anything else you can think of from a light beard trim à la Yasser Arafat (FF115) to a one-and-a-half-hour shiatsu massage (FF500) with the best practitioner in Paris, a trim Japanese called Sendi, who is usually booked eight weeks in advance.
I've always been fascinated by the Carita Monsieur section of the salon, chiefly because, in an interesting role-reversal, it's men who are in complete purdah here on the top floor, with a discreet separate entrance and almost complete anonymity. Carita's efficient press officers will happily namedrop feminine luminaries ranging from Catherine Deneuve to Paloma Picasso, Isabelle Adjani, Carole Bouquet, the late Indira Gandhi, Jerry Hall-Jagger, Princesses Caroline of Monaco and Ira of Furstenberg et al, but do clam up the minute you try and find out who les messieurs are. (Broad-mindedness, even in France, still has some limits.) Over the years, I have however espied, passing the little door at the left in the hallway, such diverse stars as Jean d'Ormesson, the Académicien Francais and Le Figaro columnist, the champion jockey Yves Saint-Martin - and I still remember the frisson at knowing from his own hairdresser (summoned at the nearby Palais Marigny, official residence of France's most honoured guests) definite confirmation that Ronald Reagan did indeed dye his hair.
If the men's salon is discreet, the women's is flamboyant, with some of the city's best gossip being bandied over salmon canapés and champagne (Carita's, where a star hairdressers like Jean-Michel Henry has been known to keep addicted customers waiting for over three hours, happily has its own restaurant). Sometimes the object of the gossip itself takes place there, and the parties for which everyone is being readied turn out to be an anticlimax.
I still remember the time, a good ten years ago, when Baroness Marie-Hélène de Rothschild found herself, for some unfathomable reason, driverless. 'Un taxi pour madame la Baronne!' echoed round and round the salon. Alas, the chasseur downstairs couldn't find a taxi, and for some reason the switchboard had gone kaput. The Baroness, in her impeccable hairdo and makeup, still clad in her white peignoir over a little Givenchy something, was led with many apologies to the payphone in the corner. 'But how do I go about this?' she was heard to ask. 'You need a one-franc coin, Madame La Baronne. Un franc!' She fumbled ineffectually into her Hermès handbag. In a matter of minutes, four hairdressers had proferred franc coins, pushed them into the slot. 'Appuyez sur le bouton, madame la Baronne!' There was the taxi service number to be dialled, the muzak waiting tone to endure: the whole process defeated her. As I left, my own hairdresser was suggesting lending his own cherished BMW so that one of his teen-aged assistants could be allowed to drive the Baroness to Hotel de Lambert, her splendid Ile de la Cité townhouse. I never knew the end of the story, although I don't think the BMW was totalled, and certainly Marie-Hélène de Rothschild has been seen, perfectly coiffed, at many parties since.
Yet the new, revamped Carita (they have hired as their new Directeur Artistique Bruno Pittini, who until recently had established his own house in New York) is keen to establish their technical pre-eminence: the Nineties may no longer be the time to rely only on the 'star effect.' They therefore invited me to come and spend a full day at the salon, promising, among other delights, their new star treatment, a 'body lifting' care called 'prolifting.' 'You'd need a forklift truck to lift my body,' I answered. They insisted. Reader, I selflessly accepted. All day long, my hair was massaged with oils, washed, streaked, cut and set; my face was sloughed, moisturised and made up, and yes, yes, my body was massaged all over with tingling little sponges linked to an electronic machine. At the end of all this I looked, and felt, like a zillion Francs Forts. (Which, thank God, I didn't have to pay this time.) They needn't have gone all this way out with me: I was already convinced. I'll be back with the mortgage money. Soon.
© Copyright The European & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1993
© Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 1993.