And fashion will come forth from Zion (Square)

The venerable Chic Parisien clothing store closes its doors for the last time.

chic parisien 88.298 (photo credit: )
chic parisien 88.298
(photo credit: )
I have always suspected that Nancy Kissinger and I had something in common - I just didn't know what it was. This week, I finally figured it out: for years, both of us bought our swimming suits at Chic Parisien, just off Zion Square. Once, several decades ago, Jerusalem set the fashion for the rest of the country, at least for students. We Jerusalem girls set the tone - long, flowing gypsy skirts, Afghan-style dresses that we bought in the Old City and straw baskets with rope handles that we slung over our shoulders. And we wore big hats, preferably black. It was probably the only time in history that this city bore witness to so many non-Orthodox women who covered their heads. I bought my first hat at Chic Parisien. I was still a student and had just landed my first job, so I took my first paycheck and headed straight to the most elegant store in Jerusalem to buy that gorgeous large black suede hat displayed in their window, the one I'd been ogling for weeks. I never even had to tell anyone where I bought that important fashion accessory. Everyone knew that it had to have come from Chic Parisien - there simply wasn't any other shop like it in the city. For generations, the last word in fashion came from Zion - Chic Parisien in Zion Square, that is. Rehov Ben-Yehuda was still crowded with traffic and pedestrians; the bazaars were located in foreign movies, and not just up the street. At Chic Parisien, Jerusalem women enjoyed a rare combination of a European-like attitude toward the clients - patient, discreet and friendly, with that exact touch of the professional saleswomen. Mary Wolf and her brother, Yoshko Nahmias, the children of the first owners, who set up the store in 1947, were always there. Whether you were a regular client or not, you could be sure that Yoshko would welcome you with that particular smile and appreciative gaze that made you feel that you were the prettiest woman around. And then Mary would help you choose the outfit that really did fit and suit you - she at least, never seemed to lose sight of what you really looked like. Chic Parisien was always the first in Jerusalem - the first to import and sell thick, wool pantyhose (perfect for the snow that came more often then); the first to offer those very chic French bras that every girl must have at least once in her life. At Chic Parisien you could find delicious velour gloves with polka dots or tiny delicate lace flowers that made you look like Scarlet O'Hara (or so you imagined). They were the first to display the famous Gottex swimming suits, designed and manufactured by Leah Gottlieb, in their store window - without pareos or cover-ups. Those suits were perfectly suited for long, lazy afternoons at the pool at the King David Hotel. (Which is why Nancy Kissinger bought her suits there.) To show off their new merchandize, every year, Yoshko and Mary hired models who would parade up and down Ben-Yehuda, often causing quite a mini-riot. They were the first to offer real end-of-the-season sales - since, of course, they would not be selling the same merchandise the next year. And they were the first to put the sale items on a rack at the entrance to the store (but never outside on the sidewalk - that would have been scandalous!). Shopping at Chic Parisien gave us the feeling that we really were part of the "big wide world," at a time when that world seemed much further away than it does today. What was their secret? "It's their special taste and flavor in fashion," explains Nehama B, who, 20 years ago, shopped only at Chic Parisien. "It's not really top fashion, and sometimes I see in their window items which look a little obsolete. I can tell by the average age of the clients that they deliberately appeal to a certain age group, so it's not the items they sell. It's the atmosphere. And if you don't want to surrender to the world of the young or to the stalls, you don't have any other address." "There is no secret" says Mary. "We treat people with respect and simplicity, we bring good merchandise and the people like it so from random clients they became almost friends and they keep coming back always." A regular client overhears the news that the store is closing, and burst into tears. "Where am I going to buy my clothes if you close down?" she whines in real despair. Mary smiles knowingly. These days, many of the clients are from the former Soviet Union. What could bring these new immigrants to the Nahmias children, whose parents hailed from Bulgaria? "The style," a middle-aged woman answered definitively and added, "When I discovered this shop, I had a feeling I was back in a big European city." Since the store opened, the Nahmiases have always had a special relationship with their employees, too. "At a time when employees are too often thought of as a nuisance, here we have always felt that we are a part of the family," says Pnina, an employee. She says she cannot imagine working anywhere else. "I'll take a long vacation, go to see my daughter and my grandchildren and then I'll decide" she concludes, tears in her eyes. As I walked out of the store, I suddenly remembered when I had stopped shopping at Chic Parisien. It was after I had brought my mother to the store to choose a dress for a special occasion. She found a dress and loved the store. I, young as I was, couldn't possibly buy in a store that sold fashion that suited my mother, so I decided to shop in other stores. I had almost forgotten about Chic Parisien. Yet I never forgot about that wonderful feeling of going to "the" shop in the city, to the local glamor. I've shopped in many stores since, and they all have one thing in common: they are just stores - nothing less, but certainly nothing more. Chic Parisien was more. But times have changed and Jerusalem isn't a fashion leader anymore. Chic Parisien will be replaced by a Castro store that will sell to a younger, hipper crowd that holds to a different sense of style. Chic Parisien is not closing because business has declined; on the contrary, Yoshka and Mary insist, the store is still doing well. But the next generation of the Wolf and Nahmias families has other things to do and the two siblings, now both in their 70s, feel the need for a well-deserved rest. Yet they keep on postponing the final closing and now say that the store will only close at the end of April - and maybe even a bit later. It seems that closing down is just as hard for Yoshko and Mary as it is for their clients. Chic Parisien was more than a store, it was a symbol on Ben-Yehuda. And now both Finks and Chic Parisien are gone and the city's symbols are different.