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Anyone who has visited the markets in Saint Ouen will warn you that you need to brave the bad stuff before you arrive at the bounty. If you travel here by Paris’s Métro – because that is how most people go – you will exit the station into a melee of men hawking fake Gucci belt buckles. You proceed past them and under a highway overpass to merchants offering deals on skateboard shoes and “Radarte” T-shirts, all the while wondering how the world’s most venerable antiques market could be anywhere nearby?
But once you veer left onto Rue des Rosiers, the scenery begins to change.
Suddenly, a boutique displaying gilded frames and tapestries appears. You feel relieved by the first glimpse of a mid-century modern wall-mounted lamp. Finally, the sight of a red-brick industrial building branded with 1950s block lettering reading “Serpette” confirms you’ve arrived.
The indoor market is lined with elegantly staged concessions full of Louis XV chairs and vintage Chanel baubles. Outside, a neighbouring market called Paul Bert is unapologetically more hodgepodge and, consequently, more fun.
Together, these markets represent two of the 15 that make up the Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen (puces being French for “fleas”). Humble name aside, the dealers at this 130-year-old institution work hard to maintain their reputation for discerning taste and eclectic merchandise. Even new players, including international design star Philippe Starck, who designed the local restaurant Ma Cocotte, focus on celebrating its bourgeois-bohemian mix.
“It’s perfect urbanism,” Starck says when I run into him in the market on a damp and drizzly Saturday in January.
Between trips to Italy and Hong Kong, he is taking his 19-year-old son for a birthday lunch at the canteen. “The level of culture here is enormous and yet everyone brings a sense of humour.”
Come around lunchtime and you’ll discover the dealers from both markets breaking bread in small groups. They share a meal family-style with bottles of wine, leaving you time to privately inspect apothecary bottles, obsolete street signs, Eames chairs and Bakelite jewellery.
The younger dealers, in particular, are happy to share why Paul Bert represents the zenith of flea markets. According to Mikael Najjar of Galerie Myn, “the rents here are more expensive, so the dealers, generally, have good taste. What’s important is that the dealers have a true point of view. And a passion. People from all over the world come here to seek out trends, to find out what’s going on. There’s something magical about it, something you see nowhere else.”
ON THE GROUND
MARCHÉ AUX PUCES DE SAINT-OUEN
To catch all the best vendors open, plan to visit the markets in the Saint-Ouen suburb on Saturdays and Sundays. www.marcheauxpucessaintouen.com
Philippe Starck conceptualized this cafeteria-style spot that caters to the design crowd in the 18th arrondissement. www.macocotte-lespuces.com
This story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Globe Style Advisor. To download the magazine's free iPad app, visit tgam.ca/styleadvisor.