Damas was born in Paris to two restaurateurs — the family lived above their brasserie, using its sprawling kitchen to cook their meals. Petite Jeanne spent a lot of time in the restaurant, which was a favorite of people in the Parisian fashion world. “I was talking really a lot,” Damas says, her English held together by syrup-coated syllables. “They were calling me a” — she looks to her agent — “poissonnière?”
“Because you know, in the market. Ah, my fish!” She waves toward the street, mimicking somebody drawing a crowd’s attention, dazzling them into a transaction.
“And I was also so — I’m really a girl’s girl, like a…sorority is really important. I was never jealous of girls, but more admirative of girls. I think it’s really important to help [the h in help completely disappears] each other [“eech uzzer”]. It was really important to…rencontre. How do you say rencontre?”
She means to meet, but maybe more like to bond?
About 10 years ago, pre-Instagram, Damas began doing her bonding with fellow fashion folk on Tumblr. At the time, she was documenting her life in Paris, and most of the photos archived online depict intimate, gossamer scenes with friends and without context — snapshots that we would liken to “moods” or “vibes” had we possessed that vernacular in 2009. By the time she began Instagramming in 2012, Damas was a Paris fashion-scene fixture. And then America found her.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the fascination with French-girl everything became a raison d’être. French fashion arrived on the global stage toward the middle of the 20th century, dovetailing with the French New Wave movement, whose stars (Brigitte Bardot, Anouk Aimée, Anna Karina) still comprise the pantheon of French-girl-ness. Besides their thinness and their whiteness and their alpine cheekbones and their clearly delineated lower lashes, the physical characteristics of each vary (slightly!), which creates the illusion of embracing individual beauty that has underscored the myth of the French girl ever since. It’s aspirational but accessible, like everything else we are buying in 2019.
Damas entered the American influencer market as its French ambassador. Harper’s Bazaar, 2015: Damas issues her first American proclamation on French-girl beauty. W, 2017: “Model Jeanne Damas embodies the effortlessly chic French girl look.” (This was published around the time that “French beauty” hit its search peak, according to Google Trends.) Refinery29 the same year: “She doesn’t fix her hair because she doesn’t have to…. She smokes, she drinks, she swears.” In 2019, Damas was interviewed for Vogue about Los Angeles, a city in which she does not live. “My favorite landmark to visit is the Hollywood sign,” she discloses. “Is there anything more iconic?”
Of course, Damas is well aware that she is a walking American consumer fetish in the same way that a CEO has a financial obligation to examine their success in a foreign market. “It’s a cliché,” Damas says, shrugging. “But we play with this cliché. It’s because of it that I have success.” In the same breath, she warns that all Parisians are not the same, let alone all French people. Indeed, Paris has one of the largest concentrations of immigrants in Europe today — about 20 percent of the population (double that is second-generation). In the country as a whole, that number is closer to 10 percent, or six million people. But diversity is not the French-girl construct that sells. The girl that sells has roots in the Marais, not Morocco. Just over 40 percent of France today is overweight, but the French girl’s silhouette? Always sylphlike. Her hair never Done, but always done.
Damas’s hair is the color of 1.2 million Instagram followers, with bangs that lounge across her forehead like babes on holiday. Her lips are painted with 2.2 million YouTube views, and her cheeks are flushed with 60,000-plus likes. She is dressed head to toe in Rouje: a thick red sweater tucked into high-waisted jeans and underlined with brown croc-embossed boots. Everything Rouje is Jeanne, and vice versa: Shoppers are not buying a pair of jeans or a lipstick — they are buying jeans cut to the precise geometry of her hips, they are buying the ideal balance of red and blue tones to complement her complexion, down to the freckles dusted across her nose like cinnamon on a café au lait. “The idea is to do my perfect closet every year,” she says.
In 1912, the Galeries Lafayette was established in Paris’s 9th arrondissement, its broad windows designed to bathe the merchandise in sunlight, a magnificent Art Nouveau cathedral to trap the awe of incoming customers, and thousands of items to peruse under one roof. More than a century later and less than a mile away, Rouje is a sparse, whitewashed shrine to Damas — her tastes and whims packaged for sale and merchandised in situ, her lifestyle captured down to her favorite meals, which shoppers can inhale in exchange for a moderate price at the shop’s restaurant.