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The quiet dresser v the street style star

‘I felt miserable – completely stripped of my personality’

Susanna Lau, known as Susie Bubble, blogs at Style Bubble, as well as writing for Elle and Dazed. She is also a consultant for brands including Selfridges and Gap

Insouciance. Effortless. Chic. These are the words that define my style achilles heel as I’m none of those things. I put my money where my mouth is when it comes to fashion – wearing and supporting the creative (often wayward) young designers I write about. I unashamedly put a lot of effort into what I wear, spending hours on the hunt for, say, a destroyed vintage kimono. I like things that are, to most people’s eyes, a bit ugly, as my wardrobe is a mad cacophony of colour, print and texture. Preconceived ideas of what is chic generally give me the willies.

French style is the culmination of those three words. Or at least that’s how they’ve sold it to us mere non-French mortals. It’s Françoise Hardy in a short shift dress peeking at you through her perfectly mussed up fringe. It’s Lou Doillon doing the same in a sheer white T-shirt and a Maison Michel hat perched on the head just so.

Susie aims for Valentine-style insouciance.
Photograph: David Levene

French style also means cool girls looking intimidating on Purple Diary (hipper-than-thou website where nipples, cigarettes and black and white photography go hand in hand). Valentine Fillol-Cordier happens to be someone who has frequently appeared on the site. With her stylist and muse credentials, Valentine does have a touch more whimsy to her look than yer average head-to-toe-in-black French chicists but she adheres to the core principle that less is ultimately more.

Taking on Valentine’s style for a day or two was always going to be difficult. I did a quick Google search to find her 10 rules of style and they involve things that I either lack in my wardrobe or don’t know how to employ properly. Lo and behold, inside the bags that she has filled for me are those exact wardrobe failings – a sharp black blazer, an array of simple white shirts and a mass of cashmere scarves, alongside some of Valentine’s personal selection of French chic props.

In the midst of menswear fashion shows in Paris, when I’m normally wearing my own ragtag mishmash of outre London designers, a heavy dose of Comme des Garçons and offbeat vintage pieces, I tried my hand at French chic à la Valentine. I donned a thin grey cashmere poloneck, a pair of blue skinny jeans and some discreet flats.

“You look miserable,” remarked my colleague from Dazed magazine when she saw me trudging down the street. I felt it. Even though I was wearing my own stripy Miu Miu coat as a form of armour, the outfit underneath made me feel naked, in a number of respects: a) It’s not a forgiving combination unless you’re model-esque and slight (which Valentine is) and, more importantly, b) I felt completely stripped of my personality. I felt muted and not myself. I couldn’t walk up to my friends and yak on about the shows and discuss what we’d been seeing. I didn’t feel like I was visually and genuinely representing what my opinion was. As we approached the gaggle of street style photographers outside the Kenzo show, another colleague said bluntly, “I wouldn’t shoot you wearing that outfit.” I kept my head down and scurried into the show. All I could think of was that I’d rather have French kids jeering and madames tutting at my zany outfits on the Métro than wear what I was wearing.

Fashion polar opposites Susie and Valentine.
Photograph: David Levene

Cool French girls apparently don’t carry bags. They waft around with just an intellectual tome in hand and c’est tout. Kindles are a hindrance to French chic, n’est-ce pas?

Valentine lent me a copy of Georges Bataille’s L’Erotisme and carrying that around tipped me over the edge. I opened the book while waiting for a show to begin, confronting my GCSE French skills head on and praying that the people next to me didn’t think I was being an unsociable pretentious plonker.

That night, I wore the vaguely less terrifying outfit of black blazer, white silk shirt, black cropped trousers and brogues to a low-key dinner with friends. I don’t smoke but carried Valentine’s Charlotte Olympia cigarette clutch for effect. Cue loud cries of, “What happened?” and, “WTF?!” ringing around the table. Towards the end of the meal, when much red wine had been consumed and I was slowly worming my way into this fictional French chic persona, a few of my friends conceded that I did actually look quite cool. They couldn’t put their finger on what it was that made me look “cool”. Had I miraculously acquired je ne sais quois?

The short-lived experiment was more excruciating than I had anticipated, particularly when I was wearing the bare-all mum jeans and grey poloneck. It was the feeling of being in somebody else’s skin that really emphasised why my clothing choices are what they are and why Valentine wears the clothes that she does. There’s a reason why I’m comfortable in a bright pink faux fur-trimmed red patent coat and not a sharp black tailored blazer. I’m past the age of grasping at this intangible notion of French chic. I know who I am and what my style raison d’être is, and if that involves a headache-inducing, print-filled, colourful ensemble with three or four bags shoved on the arms – then so be it.

‘I don’t think I’d ever get laid again if I dressed like this’

Valentine Fillol-Cordier is a consultant for brands including Charlotte Olympia and Isa Arfen, and is a fashion editor for magazines such as Violet and L’Officiel Hommes

Valentine goes full Bubble: statement visor, loud trainers, chaotic print coat and cat bag.
Photograph: David Levene

I grew up in Paris and started modelling at 14. Right from the start, I was more interested in the clothes than the mechanics of the job. In fact I think I worked for as long as I did as a model because I loved clothes so much, I had an opinion on how they should look. I mean, I was not the perfect model – I’m short and I have sideburns – but I’ve always been fascinated by the way clothes work together. Styling became my “proper” job slowly. Although I started doing it when I was 16, it was only around when I turned 25 that I realised this was what made me happy: consulting on collections, styling for magazines and brands.

Susie has a pop at Valentine’s minimal chic.
Photograph: David Levene/David Levene

It’s a funny thing at the moment, working in fashion and coming from Paris. This idea of French dressing, of being Parisian as a style statement rather than an accident of geography, feels a little crazy to me. I guess my look kind of fits the ideal – a little quirky but very classic – but I think the girls who work at Vogue wear more French labels than me. Everything I wear is so simple – jeans, white shirts, rollneck jumpers – and all the “style”, if you want to call it that, comes from me being very precise about the length of the trousers, the cut of a jacket, and then changing it to suit my mood with accessories. You know, carrying a bag that makes me stand a different way; tying a vintage scarf round a jacket to alter its shape – I really believe in the power of a scarf. Style doesn’t come from buying new things, it comes from thinking about your clothes.

I think that was the biggest thing for me to get my head around when I saw Susie’s clothes. Here’s me, pulling a belt 2cm higher or considering what colour socks to wear with these particular jeans, and then here’s these clothes – all by the young British labels that Susie champions on her blog – that leap out and mug you. When I pulled her picks out of the bag, I put everything on, like a kid – the hat, the shades, all of it. It felt like not being able to stop eating handful after handful of candy.

But once that sugar rush fades, it’s a different story. These are clothes to be seen, not worn. They shout, “Look at me, I work in FASHION!” I adore working behind the scenes of the industry now – I don’t want to be so camera ready. These are outfits made for Instagram. I admire Meadham Kirchhoff – it’s a shame they’re not showing this season – but I don’t think the pink shredded latex coat that I was sent to wear is avant garde or pushing boundaries.

Valentine in Meadham Kirchhoff: ‘It felt like not being able to stop eating handful after handful of candy.’
Photograph: David Levene

Clothes throughout history have been related to social evolution; on that level these clothes are deeply uninteresting. They are just dress up. Phoebe Philo or Mrs Prada push boundaries more because their clothes are deeply intellectual (though the deep thinking comes at a price, so thank God for Cos). There’s a sensitivity to the clothes, ideas, you recognise the references and how they’ve been explored. I couldn’t see any thought process in this shredded latex coat. Also, on a physical level, wow, wear this coat and you suffer. The feel of that rubber is pretty gross against your skin and it’s so, so heavy.

I was working on the autumn/winter 2015 Isa Arfen collection with Serafina Sama when I did the style swap. Of course the big pink coat got the biggest reaction in the studio and of course no one could take me seriously. It didn’t complement me or who I am. It was weird bringing such a loud item of clothing into the studio when we were creating our own collection. Isa Arfen is elegant and fun; the sense of humour is so different. We were a little overpowered.

The dress and coat I was sent to wear worked better. Pattern and print is the Peter Pilotto signature, but there’s something very ladylike about this new collection. Actually wearing their designs made me think differently about the label. That was a nice thing to discover.

Having walked in her shoes – well, her trainers – I’m in awe of Susie and how she can dress like this day in, day out; it must be exhausting. If I wore these clothes all the time, I’d feel like a billboard. They don’t say anything about me. I also don’t think I’d ever get laid again if I dressed like this.

I like thinking about the smaller details, my careful archive of scarves and bags. It was interesting to be a tourist but I’m glad to be back in my own wardrobe. One that doesn’t involve latex and doesn’t make my arms sweat.

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