It’s 3:00 p.m. on a bright, crisp Paris afternoon and I’m sitting in the recently restored dining room of the Hotel Pigalle in Paris’ 18th arrondissement, waiting to meet Laurence Guilloud and Fabrice Le Dantec, founders of the new magazine, L’Instant Parisien. I sip my café crème and try to look cool, but I’m secretly a little nervous at the prospect of interviewing two people who have built a career out of, well, interviewing people. (Will they be silently judging my technique? Will they find my prepared list of questions uninspired?) I’m also not entirely sure who I’m supposed to be looking for, as Laurence and Fabrice prefer to keep a low online profile, which means that my standard pre-interview Googling turned up very few photos of the journalist-photographer duo.
The door to the restaurant pushes inward and I spot them—he is sporting a jaunty fedora and a 1940s-style brown blazer that brings to mind images of newsroom reporters and detectives from the film noir era; she is in a striking vintage-inspired print blouse and a bold statement necklace that could be a fanciful showpiece from one of Paris’ petits créateurs, or a treasure unearthed from one of the city’s antique flea markets. Their quirky indie style instantly sets them apart from the cookie-cutter crowds dressed in the city’s “tasteful-yet-understated” dress code. The pair make their way over to my table, greeting me with big smiles and breezy kisses that quickly dispel any apprehensiveness on my part.
Introductions are made all around, coffees are ordered, and once we’ve settled in, the conversation shifts to the reason we’re here: the magazine. As Laurence and Fabrice tell me their story, finishing each other’s sentences and weaving in mischievous jokes along the way, they are so earnest and candid that it feels more as if I’m catching up with two old friends than interviewing newly made acquaintances.
When the couple made the leap to Paris from Lyon three years ago, they explain, it was a bit like starting over from scratch. Both had built successful careers over the previous decade—Laurence as a freelance journalist for publications like Elle and A Nous Paris, then as part of the editorial team for French startup My Little Paris; Fabrice as a sought-after freelance photographer/videographer after eschewing his law degree —yet between the two of them, they had less than a handful of contacts in la capitale. The duo decided that starting a blog would be a great way to familiarize themselves with their new city and created L’Instant Parisien, giving readers an inside glimpse into the vibrant patchwork of people, hidden places, and unexpected moments that give Paris its distinct personality and make the city so unique.
“L’Instant Parisien forced us to get out and explore the city’s different neighborhoods and meet all kinds of people, from all walks of life. It’s so easy to get caught up in the same day-to-day routine, where you always see the same people and stick to the same places. With L’Instant Parisien, we probably learned more about Paris in three years than we would have in ten without it,” explains Laurence. Shortly after creating the website, the couple also launched an Instagram account that quickly captured the imagination of Paris enthusiasts around the world with its whimsical images of the city and its unique voice. Before long, they had accumulated a loyal following of L’Instant Parisien devotees.
A year-and-a-half and more than 55,000 followers later, Laurence and Fabrice decided it was time to quit their day jobs and hang out their own shingle. And with that, the paper version of L’Instant Parisien was born.
“There was less and less money in print media; we’d seen our incomes drop by half in the span of two years as everything moved online. So it only made sense to launch a print magazine,” jokes Fabrice. “Freelance was great, but after ten years in the business, it wasn’t working for us anymore,” Laurence adds, more seriously. “We wanted the freedom to create something of our own, to tell richer, more complex stories. The blog’s success had shown us that we had a real audience. We had some money set aside, we didn’t yet have kids… If we were going to take a chance, it was now or never.”
Fabrice and Laurence spent months carefully preparing a crowdfunding campaign to finance their first issue, working with local illustrators and printers to create a series of reward postcards, notebooks, and tote bags that featured colourful illustrations of Paris’ iconic restaurant terraces, similar to the one they had commissioned for the cover of their inaugural issue. Then, three days before the campaign was set to launch on November 16, 2015, tragedy struck the city… and suddenly, the images seemed ill-timed.
“The illustrations had been finalized back in July and everything was ready to go. Then the attacks happened. We had to make a call—did we scrap everything and try to come up with new imagery at the last minute, or did we go ahead as planned?” recalls Fabrice. “In the end, we decided to stick with the original illustrations, but we made a point of explaining why we had chosen them, because we didn’t want people to think we were being insensitive or opportunistic.”
Once the campaign kicked off, all that was left to do was wait. “We honestly didn’t know what to expect,” Laurence remembers. “The mood in the city was quite somber at the time. What if there was some kind of backlash? What if people decided they were sick of hearing about Paris? Everything seemed up in the air. We were pretty relieved when we hit our goal of €10,000. We even managed to raise about 20% extra.”
The first issue of L’Instant Parisien hit newsstands in May 2016. 100% ad-free and published in both English and French, the magazine is an eclectic mix of portraits that showcase artists, craftsmen, restaurateurs, and even an urban beekeeper—all of whom call Paris home.
“We specifically chose people of all ages and cultural backgrounds that reflected what a diverse and multicultural city Paris is. In the first issue, we interview a 90-year-old shoemaker, a Japanese ceramic artist, and we dedicate an entire section to African wax fabric,” explains Laurence.
“We wanted to show our readers that Paris is more than just a picture postcard, more than historical monuments and pretty images of Montmartre that you see in travel ads,” she continues. “Yes, that side exists, and it’s important, because tourists come here to see that. But there’s also a whole other side to the city that’s scrappy, that’s resourceful, that’s creative… that makes do with very little. They embody the spirit of Paris and they love it just as much as anybody else, because they choose to stay even though living here when you don’t have a lot of money is tough. We wanted to tell their stories too.”
“In our upcoming issue, we have people talking quite frankly about their relationship with the city—what drives them crazy, how hard life can be here, how it can be nearly impossible to find housing… We chose not to cut any of that out because we think it’s important not to hide the city’s flaws. The magazine is a love letter to Paris, but it’s to the real Paris, not some idealized version.”
When I ask about their favorite story thus far, the couple has a hard time narrowing it down to just one.
“I guess I’d have to go with La Maison du Pastel (“The House of Pastels”),” Laurence says, finally. “It’s a family saga that spans several generations and it’s this amazing story—a financial trader who gives up everything to take over a dying family business and spend all day making pastel crayons by hand in an unheated, run-down workshop. People love reading stories like that because they prove that it’s possible to totally reinvent yourself.” Unable to stick to just one favorite, Laurence can’t resist adding, “But we also really like the one about the shoemaker. I love interviewing people who are 80, 85, 90; they have these long, colorful pasts and tend to be a lot more candid than somebody who’s, say, 30. They’ve already lived their lives and they’re not afraid to say exactly what they think.”
And their most surprising interview?
“For the second issue, we interviewed this 92-year-old woman, a journalist/illustrator who lives in a 25m2 chambre de bonne [read: a minuscule, top-floor studio apartment]. She has a loft bed; she literally climbs a workman’s ladder every night to go to sleep—it’s unbelievable! 92 years old and she’s this tiny ball of crazy energy… she’s practically in better shape than we are!” Fabrice laughs. “She’s not at all what we were expecting when we were told we were going to meet an elderly woman who was a teenager when the Nazis invaded Paris. She swears a blue streak. Her apartment decor feels really contemporary. And she has this amazing little balcony with a view of the city rooftops that just takes your breath away. It’s days like that when you say to yourself, ‘Oh right—this is why I do this job.’”
So far, it looks as if Laurence and Fabrice’s gamble is paying off. The first issue of L’Instant Parisien did well enough that they were able to finance the second issue without any outside help. Somewhat surprisingly, the magazine has been picked up by more bookstores across the Atlantic than it has on home soil. “We sell more copies in the US than we do in France,” Laurence marvels. “We’re a bit in awe at how big our English-speaking audience is. All told, there are more stores in London and New York that carry the magazine than there are here in France. We have readers in these obscure places that we really weren’t expecting, like the American Midwest… There’s even this little bookstore in China that has ordered copies!”
So what is it about L’Instant Parisien that has resonated with readers enough to get them reaching for their wallets when they’re used to getting content for free online?
“In French, the magazine’s secondary title reads ‘Chronicles of Parisian Lives.’ ‘Lives’ is plural because the magazine is a patchwork of lots of different life stories. We want to show that life doesn’t have to be linear; it can have different chapters, different episodes, highs and lows… I think that really speaks to people; they can relate to those stories in a way that is meaningful to their own lives,” muses Fabrice.
“People are hungry for genuine human stories now more than ever,” adds Laurence. “We’ve gotten so caught up in this culture of self-branding where everybody cherry-picks what they show on social media and glosses over their failures and setbacks… But it’s the failures and the setbacks that people want to hear about, not these carefully curated success stories. That’s not real life. Nobody is interested in following yet another picture-perfect life on Instagram. Nobody.”
“We’re also living in a time where everything feels a bit pessimistic, even apocalyptic,” she continues. “I think there’s a desire for more real-life stories that have a positive message, that are hopeful. There’s a certain comfort in having an 80-year-old tell you, ‘I was 15 years old in 1940 when the Germans invaded Paris and it was la grosse merde [laughs], but in the end, we got through it.’”
Speaking of new life chapters, how does the Lyonnais couple feel about their adopted city, now that they’ve had some time to adjust?
“Every city has its advantages and disadvantages, of course, but in terms of the people you meet, Paris is much richer and diverse than Lyon because people come here from all over the world. It’s the kind of city that attracts people for two months, six months, three years… A lot of them move here to reinvent themselves and shake things up, so you’re bound to cross paths with people who think differently or have a taste for adventure.
You eat better in Lyon. [Fabrice laughs.] And life here is also more expensive. To have the same quality of life we had in Lyon, you’d need a lot more money. So you know when you move here, there are going to be sacrifices. It’s a roller coaster ride. There are days when you hate the city, when you feel like you can’t take it anymore, when the crowds and the stress and the metro start to get to you and all you want to do is run away and find some green space… then you’ll meet this incredible person or you’ll discover this amazing place and you remember why you’re here.
In a way, living in Paris a bit like being in a relationship. There are good days and there are bad days, but over time, you form a bond… and then one day, you realize you can’t imagine yourself living anywhere else.”