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Prêt-à-primper Add to ...

This week is Fashion Week in the City of Light, and the catwalks are full of dulcet designs in anticipation of spring -- lace, bias-cut dresses and peekaboo slips giving a glimpse of the feminine power surge to come.

But the prêt-à-porter is today giving way to prêt-à-primper as I leave the congested tents near the Eiffel Tower to penetrate the beauty mystique that is Paris.

It is raining (when does it not in Paris?) and I run through puddles to find shelter amid the grandeur of the Guerlain building on the Champs-Elysées. Within minutes, I am inhaling perfumes with transportingly evocative names such as Mitsouko, Vol de Nuit and Eau de Cologne Imperiale.

Each is an olfactory swoon through history: Mitsouko, created in 1919, was the perfume of the flappers; Vol de Nuit is named for the 1931 book by Saint-Exupéry. Eau de Cologne Imperiale earned the company its royal crest in 1853 when Aimé Guerlain created the scent for Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III.

I enjoy the narrative pull of these little vials, and as I wave them one by one under my nose, in a Proustian moment, I am catapulted back in time faster than I would be in an afternoon spent poking through ancient objets at the Louvre.

But a museum this is not. Though a historic site -- the building is Hausmannian -- Guerlain pampers women like it has since 1828, the year the doors opened on this venerable institut de beauté. The façade was updated in 1939, when Giacometti created stucco medallions for a prewar renovation project. At the same time, Jean-Michel Franck designed the modernist kidney-shaped tables inside, still used today for manicures in a carpeted room overlooking the bustling Champs below. Guerlain is the only big name in Paris couture to survive on the gilded avenue. Previous tenants such as Chanel, Carven, Hermès, Balenciaga, Scherrer, Dior and Givenchy long ago moved away, leaving Guerlain behind to remind tourists of the long Parisian tradition of luxury.

What is the secret behind Guerlain's longevity? I find out once I succumb to the expert hands of an aesthetician named Odette who gives me a two-hour pedicure. The white-robed miracle worker unfans a folding case of surgical-like instruments on a towel next to the reclining chair that has me suspended in the air. She is silent and serious, occasionally addressing me as "Madam" when asking if the pressure is too much. The attending foot massage, lubricated by creams containing plant extracts, makes it nearly impossible for me to answer. I close my eyes. Contentment is a universal language that needs no words.

From beauty as ageless artifact, I move to a world where beauty is seduction: the hair salon.

Coiffeurs are as familiar in Paris as cafés: There's practically one on every corner. Paris women pay regularly to have their hair washed and blown dried. Called a brushing, such services are relatively quick and affordable. For just $20, you get an intimate view of Parisian life as it lines up to sit poutly before large mirrors manned by hairy forearms attached to people named Jean-Paul and Jean-Marc.

But the biggest name in the Parisian coiffeur universe is Alexandre -- as in Alexandre de Paris and Alexandre Zouari -- hairdressers to the Parisian elite. The first Alexandre is so famous he doesn't need a last name. He is the clipper of Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor (from her Cleopatra days). No wonder he is known as Alexandre the Great. At almost 80 years of age, he is an icon whose golden touch is reserved for the haute couture shows and the most special clients. Don't even think of getting an appointment with the master unless you are Princess Grace with an A-list wedding to attend in Monaco.

But you can get a nostalgic thrill just by walking through the doors of his eponymous salon on the Avenue Matignon. The smell of sticky hair spray is the first sign that this is the ancien regime. Several VIP rooms, including one called the Sphinx, are where the roots of the rich and famous are discreetly touched up and slicked down. Stick around the reception area long enough and you might see the new breed of movie stars -- Jodie Foster, Victoria Abril and Sophie Marceau -- running in behind the cover of a Hermès scarf to get their locks combed.

I have mainly come to ogle and feel the vivid pulse of history between the walls of such a mecca of beauty. I can't really afford the nearly $150 it costs to get a styling. And so I walk away, toward the nearest Beguin -- Paris's fast-food equivalent of a hair salon -- where I am in and out of the chair within 20 minutes, looking marvellous, darling, simply marvellous. If you go Institut Guerlain: 68, avenue des Champs-Elysées; phone: 33 (1) 45 62 52 57. The flagship of the venerable Parisian perfumer has a boutique on the ground floor and a beauty salon on the upper level. Alexandre de Paris: 3 Ave. Matignon; phone: 33 (1) 42 25 57 90. The couture of coiffeur -- very haute and still a mecca for the rich and famous. Alexandre Zouari: 1 Ave. du President Wilson; phone: 33 (1) 47 23 79 00. Hairdresser to the jet set. Lancôme: 29 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré; phone: 33 (1) 42 65 30 74. Where facials are king and champagne flows in the backrooms. Institut Sarah: 5 Rue de Medicis; phone: 33 (1) 43 54 06 03. Overlooking the Jardin du Luxembourg, this new minimalist beauty salon has a strong fashionista following. Its facials and body treatments include shiatsu, reflexology and Indian and Thai massage.

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