There are few things more French than Bensimon. Sounding like a hoity-toity version of the name Ben Simon, the marque encompasses clothing, home furnishings, accessories and stationary, but it’s the Bahhhn seemawhnn tennis shoes that have become a phenomenon by working their way into French wardrobes of every social and economic class.
My first inkling of understanding the popularity of Bensimon hit me last fall, when I happened to walk by a sale of Kaporal 5 brand copycat tennis (say it like “ten-knees” and don’t bother with the chaussure part). Seeing the large Soldes sign in the window of the boutique, I peeked in to see a mob of teenaged girls fighting and scrambling over each other to find their preferred colors and sizes in the cardboard bins full of some of the ugliest shoes I’d ever seen.
The sale was a buy one, get one free, and even at half off their original price of 20 euro a pair, this seemed like a huge rip-off to me. These shoes, which I’d been seeing on the feet of Parisians since moving to France in August, look like shoes to clean the house in. They’re plain canvas with a flat rubber sole and toe bumper, and come in every color imaginable. You have your choice of the slip-on sneaker variety, the lace-up tennis shoes which look like bowling shoes gone wrong, and a few other subtle variations on the original slip-on.
I couldn’t believe the fuss being made over these bins of overpriced ugly shoes, but I was intrigued by the general chicness of the girls who were frantic for this canvas and rubber footwear, so I made my way to the size 39 bin. In addition to my tendency to conform to anything Parisian girls find cool, I was motivated by a challenge put to me by a friend in Seattle. Knowing that I was going home for winter break, she asked be to bring her some article of clothing that was completely French and that couldn’t be found in the U.S. This task would have probably been much easier just 10 years ago, but thanks to globalization you can find just about any French brand somewhere in the U.S. and vice versa. There isn’t much that is exclusively French anymore – unless it is just too weird for Americans to handle. As I elbowed the other girls away from the bin I was digging through, I found my answer. Bensimon is not going to make it to Tacoma any time soon, because there is just no way that any American teenybopper is going to think these look cool – I certainly didn’t.
Being that it was a buy one, get one free kind of deal, I was, um, forced to buy myself a pair as well. For most of the fall they were strictly laundromat shoes. They were just too odd for normal streetwear. When I presented Kelly with her pair (grey slip-on tennis) at Christmas, I felt the need to add a disclaimer. I know these are ugly, but…they’re very French! Since coming back in January though, I think I’ve become desensitized. Or Frenchified. Or crazy. Because all of a sudden, I like them. Like really really like them. They’re so practical and comfortable. They come in an array of dazzling colors and variations! They’re plain and ugly, but somehow chic, and their weirdness makes them oh so cool.
Now that the weather’s warm again, every other boutique on every boulevard in Paris is advertising Ici! La tennis Bensimon!, and these funky canvas shoes are out on the streets in full force. Everyone wears Bensimon, from the banlieue to the centre, whether you wardrobe yourself at Monoprix or Prada. Every kid in France has at least one pair, and most of their parents do too. Technically…I have three pairs, if you count my bogo Kaporal 5s, and I’m a little anxious at the thought of moving home for good with no way to replace them as they wear out – I’m going to need to stock up before I repatriate.
I can’t believe I now find cool what I once thought was oh so wrong. That’s Paris for you – I’m living in a city where black and brown and navy blue go perfectly together, where trench coats aren’t just for flashers – where anything can become chic with time. If it’s something weird, like the Bensimon tennis, you just have to wait enough years for it to become classic and boom, everyone will have a pair. I love this city.