When Nina Simone sang "I love Paris in the Springtime", it's doubtful she was referring to the seven days of Paris Fashion Week, when the usual procession of Manolo Blahnik shoes and Prada bags becomes a stampede. Yet it's a time when the City of Light dazzles the world, like no other city can. "It's as if someone flicks a switch and all the lights burn brighter," says the concierge at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée, one of the city's famous palace hotels and a favourite haunt during Paris Fashion Week. "It's when the Golden Triangle becomes a magnificent catwalk, when everyone on the Champs Elysées, rue de Rivoli, Avenue George V and Place Vendôme dresses - how do you say - to impress."
Long before Hollywood location scouts chose the Plaza Athénée for the film The Devil Wears Prada, this circa 1889 eight-storey building – with its scarlet awnings and window boxes of red geraniums - was a favourite of Marlene Dietrich, Jackie Onassis and Grace Kelly. Since a sensational renovation in 2000, it's become the hotel of choice for a new generation of fashion industry players. Light, airy and elegant, the decor at the Plaza Athénée has given baroque a thrilling new look.
Sensational views of the Eiffel Tower and the hotel's proximity to the couture houses and big-label boutiques on Avenue Montaigne are drawcards. Yet it's the hotel's Le Bar that effervesces with fashionistas.
A blue, backlit frosted-glass bar and clubby leather chairs serve as perfect perches for the impeccably turned out. Anyone who intends to blend in should adhere to the de facto dress code of conspicuous labels.
Men at the Plaza Athénée should remember that loosening their tie is unthinkable, even if you are Leonardo DiCaprio, a regular guest, along with Cameron Diaz, Johnny Depp, Beyoncé, Sarah Jessica Parker, Scarlett Johansson and Kirsten Dunst.
Staff at this chicest of all Paris hotels acknowledge guests with the slightest nod. Celebrity or not, there’s no fawning or cooing here. Take this as a signature of discretion and not Parisian rudeness.
Behind the scenes, Leonardo is referred to as a VP4 - code for the hotel’s highest-level VIP guest. Popular with Leo and other VP4s is the Plaza Athénée's three-star Michelin restaurant, opened by legendary French chef Alain Ducasse in one of the hotel's sensational Art Deco salons.
More favoured by the figure-conscious fashion crowd is the hotel's large, leafy courtyard, where carb-free meals can be nibbled in discreet, dappled shade. Another drawcard is afternoon tea served in La Galerie des Gobelins, where guests gossip while indulging in exquisite little feather-light cakes and petits fours.
At the other end of the Golden Triangle, on Place Vendôme, is the Ritz, the grand old dame of Paris palace hotels. Coco Chanel resided here for more than 37 years, declaring, "For me, the Ritz is home". So do the Versaces, Donna Karan, Madonna, Katie Holmes and Victoria Beckham.
Today, for a mere $6800, anyone can spend a night in the Chanel Suite, a vast two-bedroom space with a spectacular view of the Vendôme column. Pricey as the suite is, it's always solidly booked during the fashion collections. US Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, instantly recognisable by her huge sunglasses and bob, always has a suite at the Ritz during the shows. Ms Wintour, it is said, was the inspiration for Meryl Streep's role in The Devil Wears Prada.
This formidable fashion player, however, has to keep her eyes peeled when she arrives at the hotel. "I've lost count of the number of times I have been physically attacked" by animal activists for wearing fur, she said last year. In 2005, Ms Wintour, known in fashion circles as "Nuclear Winter" for her aloof manner, was famously hit by a flying tofu pie outside after the Chloé show.
The Ritz has two hot spots, the Bar Vendôme, the preferred lunch venue for retailers, editors and older designers, and the Hemingway Bar, the hotel's black sheep bar, named after famed author Ernest Hemingway and popular with Johnny Depp, Kate Moss and the enfants terrible designers John Galliano (Dior), Alexander McQueen (Gucci) and Julien Macdonald (Givenchy).
Prior to her tragic death in a fatal car crash in a Paris tunnel, Diana Princess of Wales rested with Dodi Al Fayed in the Imperial Suite, where the two bedrooms are replica's of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette's old rooms at Versailles. In fact, the Ritz was the building where the princess had her last moments of happiness.
Vendôme bartender Colin Field once said, "I always say that the Hemingway is the Left Bank and the Vendôme is the Right Bank." In other words, the Hemingway is artistic and unconventional, as opposed to the well-buttoned and more conservative clients at the Vendôme. Even so, it was on a stool "on the Right Bank" that Glenda Bailey, editor-in-chief of US Harper's Bazaar, is reported to have told John Galliano, the English designer who has headed up Dior since 1995, that he was stuck in a rut and needed to move on.
Not even big fashion players, who it must be remembered get their couture clothes for free, are immune to high prices. Many of them have been drifting away from Bar Vendôme - where a club sandwich costs $60 - for nearby Café Marly in the Louvre on the rue de Rivoli, where a similar crust is just $23 and the view of I.M. Pie's glass pyramid is free.
The Ritz, owned by the late Dodi Al Fayed' father, Mohamed, is all about Versailles glamour - endless gilt, 18th-century antiques, tapestries, vast mirrors and frescoes - and is not to everyone's taste, especially the bright young things. Hence, the inexorable rise of Hôtel Costes, the new kid on the block, located on the rue Saint-Honoré.
Launched by brothers Gilbert and Jean-Louis Costes in 1996, this 82-room "petit palais" now reigns supreme as the foremost fashion hangout among the new young designers and fashion editors. The editor of UK Harper's Bazaar, Lucy Yeomans, who transformed the ailing magazine from society handbook to fashion bible, has been seen holding court at the bar.
The brothers, who rose from provincial obscurity, are said to dislike ostentation. Not that you would guess this from their hotel's opulent decor. Think refined 19th-century brothel. Flashy celebs beware, though, Paris Hilton was denied entry for being Paris Hilton.
Another Costes brothers' hangout is Restaurant Georges, perched on top of the Pompidou Centre, with its spectacular views over Paris, where Karl Lagerfeld invited his friends for a rooftop shindig to celebrate a collection.
Behind all the fabulousness, famous faces and flashbulbs are two titanic conglomerates – Moët Hennessey, Louis Vuitton (LVMH) and Pinault-Printemps-Redoute (PPR).
LVMH runs Dior, Fendi, Marc Jacobs, Guerlain, Kenzo, Givenchy, Donna Karan, Kenzo and Loewe. PPR, which bought Gucci for almost $12billion in 2005, controls Yves Saint Laurent, Sergio Rossi, Bottega Veneta, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Balenciaga.
The men who run these multinationals, LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault and PPR CEO Francois-Henri Pinault (husband of Salma Hayek, after an endless on-and-off engagement), are the Bonapartes of fashion. Seldom are they seen on the street. Their staff take care of every venue they visit, booking Versailles, the Grand Palais or the Museum of Decorative Arts for a show or a party, if needs dictate.
No one, however high and mighty, is immune from gossip. When Gucci's new boss, Robert Pollet, came over from Unilever, where he managed ice-creams and frozen foods, Paris was rife with snide remarks along the lines of, "Does a man who sold frozen fish sticks think he's going to define the next modern moccasin with the double 'G'?" True to form, fashion is rarely predictable and that is why
Dave, a Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant at 12 rue Richelieu, near the Palais Royal, has become a vortex on the Paris scene. Every fashionista feels an exquisite mix of dread and table envy as they make an entrance over its threshold.
Owned by Hong Kong émigré Dave Cheung, a friend of the late fashion photographer Helmut Newton and his wife, June (aka Alice Springs, a fellow snapper from Melbourne), this is where everyone aspires to eat, but few are seated.
After a Galliano show, Carine Roitfeld, the English-born editor of French Vogue, famously arrived proclaiming, "Just what we need. Three thousand-dollar outfits that make us look like 19th-century hookers".
The restaurant's red and gold decor is covered with photographs of celebrities. There's Leonardo DiCaprio and model Gisele Bündchen, who both had to wait 20 minutes on the pavement for a table, Tom Ford, former chief designer for Gucci, designers Stella McCartney and Azzedine Alaia, and Jonathan Newhouse, the chairman of Condé Nast International.
Dave is notoriously indiscreet, but gets away with it. Of the Leo incident, he said, "Can you imagine? Leo came to introduce Gisele to moi and he was not happy at all. But what was I supposed to do - tell my beloved friend Helmut Newton to get up and leave? Or should I have got rid of John Galliano?" Carine Roitfeld, perhaps?
US designer Marc Jacobs once said, "There are some bitchy people in the fashion world, but nobody is stupid enough to offend Dave."
When Helmut Newton died, his widow, June, and Anna Wintour held a memorial service during the couture shows, just around the corner from Dave. Karl Lagerfeld, dressed in knee-high crocodile boots and a leather choker, attended, along with Tom Ford, Manolo Blahnik, Anouk Aimee, Charlotte Rampling, Mario Testino, Jane Birkin and Stella McCartney.
After the service, 80 people filed into Dave for canapes. Most of the food was left. "Fashion people live on vegetables - bok choy, broccoli and a little tofu. They are so afraid of carbohydrates," said Dave.
Across the river on the Left Bank, at 13 rue des Beaux-Arts, is another hotel adored by the fashion crowd – L'Hôtel, where Oscar Wilde regularly stayed and died, in 1900, in room 16. It’s a boutique establishment with only 20 small rooms.
When Elizabeth Taylor was shown L'Hôtel's largest suite, she said, "Now that's perfect for my lugguage, but where shall I sleep?" It was also here that actress Claudia Cardinale took over the tiny switchboard next to the reception so the hotel operator could go out for lunch.
Back in the Golden Triangle, on the rue de Rivoli, is Le Meurice, the hotel where the Shah of Iran first heard he had been dethroned. Queen Victoria stayed there, as have dozens of crowned heads since.
The hotel's Spa Caudalie is the size of a Greek temple and offers much sought-after wine-based treatments. It' the pamper palace of choice among the fashionistas, who like to sip vintage bubbly at the hotel's Fontainebleau Bar, after having a champagne facial.
The hotel's most notorious guest will always remain Salvador Dali, who one day ordered a flock of white sheep to be brought to his suite. Chaos ensued as Dali fired blanks at them from his pistol.
Paris' palace hotels have seen it all before and their staff deal with the most demanding fashion players with ease. Popular on the city's fashion scene is Aussie designer Collette Dinnigan, who spends two or three months a year in Paris, often in a suite at the Hôtel de Crillon on the Place de la Concorde. "I'm always there in March and October for the collections, and I love it," she has said. A favourite among Hollywood beauties, such as Kate Bosworth and Charlize Theron, Dinnigan celebrated 10 years of Paris fashion shows with a lunch for about 60 people at the Crillon.
A 20-minute stroll away is the Four Seasons Hotel George V, famous for its giant floral arrangements by Californian Jeff Leatham.
"Basically, I’m the John Galliano of flowers," Jeff modestly announced last year. "What I wanted to do was set the George V apart."
Like Galliano, who revolutionised the houses of Givenchy and Dior, 32-year-old Jeff has done just that to the lobby at the George V. Once he adorned the lobby with a floral tableau so large it elicited astonished oohs and aahs from guests, before it was nominated for the Guinness Book of Records long after every bloom had withered. Word has spread fast. Now flower lovers drop into the lobby just to admire Jeff’s displays. Chronic hay fever sufferers would be well advised to give the George V lobby a wide berth.
"When Cher was here, I was told she didn't like roses," said Jeff. "But I knew she hadn't seen what I could do with them. So I filled her room with all these incredible black roses and she went wild!" Wild with pleasure or displeasure, one wonders. Either way, Jeff, who orders 14,000 flowers a week at a cost of more than $1million a year, is not saying.
And in case anyone is tempted to splurge on their credit card during Paris Fashion Week, here's a cautionary tale from Oscar Wilde, who found living on a budget beneath him. On his deathbed at L'Hôtel, with his bill unpaid, the great man of letters said, "I am dying, as I have lived, beyond my means".
FLY: Singapore Airlines (tel: 13 10 11; www.singaporeairlines.com) starts daily A380 services from Australia to Paris, via Singapore, on June 1. From Singapore, the airline has daily connections on its fleet of Boeing 777 aircraft (awarded for its remodelled economy cabin and the second widest business class seat in the sky - after the A380) to Milan, Barcelona, Zurich, Frankfurt, San Francisco, Houston, Seoul, Delhi, Mumbai and Hong Kong.
The A380 is the biggest and quietest commercial passenger aircraft in the sky and its seats are on to decks connected by two stairways.
There is enough room on its wings to park 72 cars.
The wingspan is 15 metres wider than a 747, but it's only two metres longer.
Maximum flight range is 13,140km - 1800km greater than the 747, but still not enough to go non-stop from Australia to Europe.
Seats on the maiden flights between Sydney and Singapore were auctioned for charity and raised $1.44million - Singapore Airlines donated $255,000 each to the Children's Hospital at Westmead and Sydney Children's Hospital, Randwick.