Was it a modern version of Marie Antoinette telling starving beggars demanding bread to eat cake instead? Or a brave attempt to show shoppers and visitors on a dilapidated Champs-Élysées that it was business as usual?
Wrought-iron gates were flung open on what the French call “the most beautiful street in the world”. Outside on the Champs-Élysées, a giant moon of light illuminated the new Galeries Lafayette department store – 6,500 square metres of shopping, eating and browsing.
“My family dreamed of opening a store on this famous street, but it was stopped by the war,” said the founder’s descendent and the current Executive Chairman, Philippe Houzé. The family-owned business first opened on rue La Fayette in 1895 before moving to its famous site on the boulevard Haussmann. But now, the space at number 60, most recently occupied by the Virgin Megastore, has had a three-year makeover, transforming into a broad space, almost like a village centre, with a wide staircase on one side and an image of the ‘Eiffel Tower’ straight ahead.
In the sorry circumstances of rioting on the Champs-Élysées, the Galeries Lafayette may find it fortuitous not to have this spacious vision at street level, as the nearby glass-fronted Apple store does, for example.
Yet looking outwards from a first-floor display area of fresh, new designer offerings, there is a sense of place on the majestic avenue, with its trees, cafés must-see shops, and parade of visitors, mostly from abroad.
Like most modernised shops, the focus is not only on clothing and iconic brands – although Chanel currently fills a space at the top, with other big names to come later. The best way to describe the layout is in the currently fashionable phrase, ‘a curated offering’, suggesting an artistic rendering of an area interconnected by spaces providing not only shopping, but also food and an ever-changing variety of events. These ‘happenings’ include pop-ups with advice from 300 personal stylists, in total contrast to the old-school, grumpy staff enquiring, “Are you being served?”
‘Versatility’ is the buzzword in the current retail landscape. This new area, created by Danish architects Bjarke Ingels Group, feels like a store within an open-plan shopping area that seems like a safe haven from the drama outside.
Houzé, describing the new venture for the family business as “fulfilling its founder’s dream to be on the ‘Champs’ ninety years on”, was jubilant about this new chapter.
“Combining two iconic brands – Galeries Lafayette and Champs-Elysees – will also help to promote a certain French ‘art de vivre’ and contribute to the revival of this world-famous avenue,” the executive said.
A generous number of fellow retailers, not just the usual celebrities, jostled in the ‘town hall’. Among those offering good wishes to the Houzé family were Pietro Beccari, Chairman and CEO of Christian Dior Couture; Geoffroy de La Boudonnaye, CEO of Chloé; Michael Burke, CEO of Louis Vuitton; Adrian Joffe, co-founder and CEO of Dover Street Market; and celebrity fashion creatives including Pierre Hardy of Hermès, Michele Lamy of Rick Owens, and star fashion editor, Carine Roitfeld.
And yet, for all the celebration, the Champs-Elysées is currently in a sorry state, with everything it stands for – elegance, glamour and French grandeur – battered by the clashes with the gilets jaunes, whose angry presence has become a weekend ritual. Saturdays – that great weekend shopping day – have become no-goes. And even on a weekday, the sight of broken windows, charred wooden panels protecting shopfronts and historic landmarks such as the restaurant Fouquet’s burnt and smashed are all sombre signs of revolution and rage.
Opposite Fouquet’s, Louis Vuitton saved its windows by erecting semi-permanent metal screens, and still has a line of shoppers waiting to get in, although Chinese and other high-spending clients are down in numbers.
Whether this nationwide uprising in France will fizzle out, as the government seems to hope, remains to be seen. But meanwhile, behind its vast iron door, Galeries Lafayette can only hope to keep its dream alive.