Text and photography Alan Flusser
Getting to the south of France from Naples is surprisingly complicated. You must first return to Rome if you want to catch a direct flight to Nice, the gateway to the French Riviera. We got up early to secure a train to that got us to Rome around lunch time. Leaving our bags at the hotel, we headed directly to our most beloved Roman eatery, Ristorante Nino — the white-jacketed, old world restaurant founded in 1934 featuring a classic Tuscan menu unchanged from the 1960s. It’s kind of the Russian Tea Room of Rome. Dishes like authentic cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) pasta, vitello tonnato (veal in a tuna and caper sauce), shrimp in curry sauce, and fragola (Italian fraises des bois, or wild strawberries) with vanilla ice cream can catapult one into the most marvelous of moods. After a bit of shopping, we returned to spend the night at our favorite Italian hotel: the privately owned and impeccably managed Hassler. We emerged the following morning refreshed for the next leg of our journey.
After landing in Nice, we picked up our rental car for the two-hour drive to St. Tropez. Timing is important as there is only one two-lane road leading into and out of St. Tropez and if you catch it wrong (very much like the Hamptons) you can be sitting in traffic for hours. This year we returned to a hotel we’ve stayed at several times: Villa Maria, situated on a pretty country hillside just outside St. Tropez in Ramatuelle. The 42-room terracotta-tiled compound is decorated in a champagne-bohemian Cote D’Azur 1930s elegance, with its cozy indoor and outdoor upholstered sitting areas and pine-dotted gardens giving the hotel an intimate and homey feel. The public spaces are enlivened by the liberal use of acid-tone colors, exposed beamed ceilings, a colorful floral-canopied open-air bar, and a beautifully landscaped pool. The cuisine is nothing less than France’s best country Mediterranean cooking, and probably the finest of any hotel in or around St. Tropez.
I’ve been going to St. Tropez since the mid-seventies, when my former wife and I would regularly fly over in June to participate in one of the most celebrated fashion-insider rites: St. Tropez runway week. Over a three-week span in June, the fashion folk would arrive from the London and Paris shows, decamping in and around the St. Tropez beaches. Couture designers, photographers, fabric house artists, posers, color service executives, retail fashion directors, models, stylists, and journalists would join up with a cross-section of actors, pop stars, socialites, and aristocrats. The likes of Yves St. Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Azzedine Alaia, and Claude Montana would typically make a showing.
As most women had spent the day cavorting topless at the Pampelonne beaches, their evening dressing was informed by a bra-less, diaphanous sexuality, especially among the lean-figured, model types. After a bit of late afternoon shopping around the town’s numerous one-of-kind boutiques, locals and visitors would spill out of the stores bedecked in their latest purchases to join the procession taking shape along the ville’s legendary yacht-lined passage de port on one side and the spectator-packed cafes on the other side. It all culminated at St.Tropez’s social nexus: the famous watch-and-be-watched Senequier café, where the evening’s parade would be met by a three-deep phalanx of the world’s top fashion photographers, all scrambling to capture the street-inspired future-fashion bubbling up before them.
Part exhibition, part one-upmanship, part circus — every evening was different, the only constant being originality and street cred. The scene was almost too much. On the commercial side, it represented the exploitation of personal style for fashion direction and profit. The clothes, looks, attitudes, and moods would all be dissected into presentation themes and color directives, while garments would be purchased for “inspiration” by fashion designers, magazines, and volume manufacturers. Masses of flash bulbs would confirm something outrageous and potentially directional had appeared, with applause from the Senequier onlookers seconding such sightings.
The outfits were purposely eclectic, totally spontaneous, and inevitably boundary-breaking as elements of couture, European ethnic, North African, French ready-to-wear, haut-designer, and American prep and western themes were thrown together and ratcheted up with the latest gay, disco, and punk gestalts. It was a style platform totally of its own, an entirely different energy than could be found or pieced together from the salons, showrooms, and streets of Europe’s fashion capitals. And between the bodies, a cavalcade of the world’s most exotic automobiles would miraculously appear — from a perfectly restored baby blue 57 T-Bird, to a rare 30s Bugatti, to a customized Harley — all driven and upholstered by Hollywood-handsome men and bedazzling babes.
Every evening was another opportunity to witness or participate in fashion-in-the-making. After dinner, the gay discotheques opened and the pulsating rhythms of disco and Donna Summer would beckon, occasioning a rush of revelers to the various dance floors, sweating and carousing well into the early morning hours.The next day, everyone would rendezvous bleary-eyed at one of the Pampelonne beach clubs for a late lunch and perhaps a quick nap on the beach. Afterwards, the entire scene would repeat itself.
Naturally, the ville’s hold on high-strung street style had to eventually loosen. While St. Tropez continued to hold its own for boutique shopping, high-low chic, and French beach fashion, its star in the larger fashion firmament gradually began to dim. Regulars like myself would return, happy to commune with the nostalgia of the past while reconnecting with old haunts like Rondini (the Riviera’s most famous leather sandal-maker) and St.Tropez’s huge open-air Saturday market in the center of town, where everyone from locals to the upper crust to tourists would descend to ferret out the right ethnic accent to wear or gift. Everything was for sale, from 30’s antiques and oil paintings to local produce and olive oil to fashions and home furnishings ranging from Provence to Morocco.
Ironically, just as St. Tropez was bidding adieu to its fashion-making salad days, one of its insider destinations was beginning to attract its own international following. Opened in 1955 as a sleepy rendezvous for local St. Tropezians and fashion photographers wanting lunch and maybe a photo shoot location, Club 55 today ranks as one of the most sought-after tables in the western world. During the summer, Hollywood stars, vintage Bentleys in the dusty parking lot, and colossal yachts docked offshore are everyday business here. Glamour does not have to be manufactured here — it’s simply part of the scenery. Where else would ocean-going yachts with on-board gourmet chefs drop anchor so their occupants can tuck into a lunch served on the beach? Club 55 has become the Mediterranean equivalent of NYC’s Four Seasons Grill Room: at any given power lunch sitting, the celebrity, financial, and social wattage is without peer.
I’ve known its married owners for decades, so we’re seated among the regulars at the tables best situated for people-watching. I could dine here everyday — and generally do while in residence, unless uprooted by a day’s exploration of an alternative Riviera watering hole. As for cuisine, the thick slices of grilled French bread, outrageous butter, salade Pampelonna, steak tartare, cold loup de mare, and fraise des bois is my idea of culinary heaven.
So French and image-conscious (in the right way) are the owners that they no longer offer their iconic Club 55 baseball hat for sale. With the club’s world-wide popularity continuing to grow, they feared that the sheer volume of logoed hats likely to be sold would cast an over-commercialized shadow on the brand. These days, not too many upper-drawer businesses are willing to tamp down on easily realized profits in exchange for heightened exclusivity. The French still know something about class and status.
Sadly, all vacations must all come to an end. We did happen to add another unique French dining venue to our collection: Chez Camille in Ramatuelle. Our last Sunday afternoon found us relaxing at this three-generation-old soupe de poisson/bouillabaisse family restaurant, leisurely looking out on their secluded family beach. Through open windows, the cool sea breezes mixed with the aromas of seafood being grilled on old-fashioned wood-burning ovens. An accompanying bottle of Chassagne Montrachet followed by fraises melba for dessert and I was ready to face the real world and the inevitable diet.
Upon our return to Gotham Central, it wasn’t three meals before I made a typically Flusser attempt to recalibrate my taste buds back to their American standard. I choose a most decidedly non-European lunch and libation to shock the system into normality: a pastrami sandwich and cream soda. The diet remains on hold.