That certain je ne sais quoi that made our Paris Retail Week store tour so special was evident the moment we set foot on the bus—actually, from the moment we beheld the bus. The Bustronome is a double-decker glass-topped luxury ride designed for cruising Paris in style. We mounted the stairs to find sunlight streaming through the glass ceiling and restaurant tables set with a breakfast of bread, cheese, and fresh fruit. As soon as we seated ourselves, we were served coffee and tea.
As we glided serenely through the City of Lights (well, there was traffic), all eagerly photographing the Eiffel Tower, centuries-old bridges, and sparkling River Seine through the bus windows, I reflected that this gourmet bus was a perfect symbol of the French art de vivre, or art of living, which celebrates beautiful fresh food attractively presented, attentive service, and a dedication to high quality. Soon I would find these very French values embodied in different ways in each of our stores.
First stop: FUSALP, 9 rue des Blancs Manteaux – Paris 4e
FUSALP was a new brand to me. Created in 1952, this ‘sport-chic’ clothing line outfitted the French ski teams in the 1960’s. The store in the fourth arrondissement was designed to ‘bring the spirit of the mountains to the city.’ This was achieved not simply through the large photographs of snowy landscapes, or even the real ski lift car in a corner window, but with the overwhelming clean, light, minimalist feel of the store. Stepping into FUSALP was, indeed, like a breath of fresh air.
The store also felt relatively familiar, or ‘American,’ to me—while some European shops can at times seem stuffy or old-fashioned, FUSALP reminded me of several neatly-organized and purposefully simple retailers in downtown Manhattan. It turned out the designer of the store was, in fact, an American: Dillon Garris. But he spoke to us in French, and evoked the care he had taken in incorporating the original materials of the building into the new design.
Further, the products themselves spoke to another very French lifestyle aspect: FUSALP is dedicated to the idea of ‘slow consumption’: investing in high-quality pieces that will last a lifetime. Stylists and fashion writers have long noted that French women shop in precisely this thoughtful way. A FUSALP customer who buys, say, a fox-fur ski jacket will wear it all her life—then perhaps pass it on to her daughter and granddaughter. Like the original floors and walls of beautiful Parisian buildings, beautiful French-made clothing pieces are cherished and preserved.
Second stop: NIKE LAB, 12 rue des Hospitalières Saint-Gervais – Paris 4e
Speaking of well-preserved Parisian facades…On our second stop, we strolled up to an adorable navy-fronted shop in the chic Le Marais district. A large placard across the front reading “LIBRARIE” paid tribute to the bookstore the building had once housed, but a smaller hanging sign above proclaimed what it had become: a Nike LAB, one of five Nike concept stores worldwide showcasing the athletic brand’s latest products and cutting-edge collaborations.
Nowhere on our tour was the contrast between the old and new, the Parisian reverence for history and interest in innovation, so evident, as at the Nike LAB. As we stood in the lovely store, which historical architecture regulations had kept preserved from the literary façade out front to the large windows giving onto a charming Le Marais street, the Nike LAB manager told us about Nike’s latest collaboration with Louis Vuitton designer Kim Jones and brightly-colored packable windbreakers with advanced performance fabric dangled from the ceiling above our heads. A pretty traditional staircase led us up to a selection of bold and funky exercise clothes, some a bit more avant-garde than others (baggy shorts + leggings in one, anyone?).
Clearly the French are now turning their classic eye for haute couture to the trendy ‘athleisure’ category. Although I guess that’s not so new—Coco Chanel was all about those tennis skirts, right?
STOP 3 : TORY BURCH, 412 Rue Saint Honoré, 75008 Paris, France
“Who is familiar with Tory Burch?” our guide Cecile Delettré asked as the Bustronome headed towards a high-end neighborhood featuring the Tuileries and the Louvre. Only three hands went up—mine included, of course, as Tory Burch ballet flats are ubiquitous on any New York City commute.
Interestingly, this brand which is not yet well-known in Paris, got its very earliest start when a young Tory found tunics at the Porte de Clignancourt flea market that reminded her of her grandmother’s wardrobe. This was the spark of inspiration for her line, which now includes accessories, clothing, beauty and home.
Luxury struck me from the moment I set foot in the four-story Tory Burch flagship store on the Rue Saint Honoré, with gold gleaming from the display surfaces showcasing leather bags, gloves, and shoes. But the flagship offers not just luxury but also a certain intimacy, beckoning you through a hallway furnished with a side table and mirrors to a pretty wallpapered spiral staircase. Climbing the stairs to each successive floor, you feel more like you are visiting a very chic Parisian friend in her own apartment (a friend who, like Tory Burch, employed a Feng Shui consultant in the design). Cash registers are nowhere to be seen—payment, the flagship manager assured us, is handled very discreetly.
The flagship manager also explained that with luxury, customer service is of the utmost importance. And not just good customer service, but personalized customer service: greeting customers in their own languages, knowing their style preferences and taking cultural considerations into account.
Emblematic of Tory Burch’s dedication to luxury, familiarity, and service with a personal touch is the flagship store’s fourth-floor VIP suite, which we got exclusive access to. The suite consists of a living room with comfortable seating, bathroom, and even a small kitchen. VIP shoppers, such as the recently-hosted group from the Congo, can spend a half or even full day in the suite, and arrive to find gold wardrobes full of a personalized pre-selection of items.
Stop 4: PUBLICIS DRUGSTORE 133 Av. des Champs-Élysées, 75008 Paris, France
The next stop on our itinerary was the most puzzling to me: the Publicis Drugstore. Drugstore? While I’ve spent many a happy hour browsing nail polishes in CVS, I didn’t quite understand. However, as we alighted from the Bustronome in front of the Arc de Triomphe and skipped across the Champs-Elysees, I began to get the hint this was no routine stop to pick up toothpaste and band aids.
In fact, ‘Le Drustore Publicis’ is as it describes itself on Twitter, a ‘luxury convenience store.’ And it has a little bit of everything—much of it quirky. As we walked in, I took note of, among many other things, a satirical book about Donald Trump, a display of Burberry baby clothes, and an inflatable parrot. It turns out Publicis is a pretty fun place to explore. The store is built around different theme sections, or what the French call ‘universes.’ The ‘Man/Technology’ universe, for example, presents headphones, minidrones, and a selection of quirky hipster grooming products (hair and beard pomade) before beckoning male shoppers through a substantial wine area to a club-like cigar boutique in the back.
Le Drugstore Publicis is the kind of place you could spend an afternoon—browsing, gift-shopping, and snacking, too. The store features a little macaron stand from Pierre Hermé (the Ladurée successor who has been called the ‘Picasso of Pastry’), and, out front, a full brasserie restaurant serving steak frites, smoked salmon, and champagne. Quite a selection compared to the candy aisle at CVS!
STOP 4: MARIONNAUD
Across the Champs-Elysées we went, to the two-story Marionnaud perfume and cosmetics store, where Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts loomed glamorously above us from massive perfume ads. Amidst the glitz and many gleaming surfaces, a row of flashing neon pods mounted on a column caught my eye. These were bubbles, from the retail technology startup La Bubble, which allow shoppers to charge their phones securely while they browse. Just enter a custom pin code to lock your phone away safely in one of the quirky pods, and you can be worry-free to pick out your perfect shade of Dior Rouge.
The bubbles not only benefit shoppers, but also Marionnaud and other partner vendors, who can take advantage of customer’s captive phones to share product information and push promotional offers. The tablets carried by Marionnaud’s bustling employees share a similar purpose: providing staff with real-time information on customers, purchases, and the success rate of promotions. French beauty may be all about that classic look, but French beauty retailers are not above testing new technology to better serve their clientele.
Stop 4: ORANGE 125 avenue des Champs-Élysées – Paris 8e
The Orange store on the Champs-Elysees was a perfect final stop for our tour. Orange is a French cell phone provider, and their large, open, welcoming store with comfortable seating is a great place to cope with the stress of cell phone malfunctions.
Like Publicis Drugstore, Orange contains several ‘universes.’ Besides the customer service desk in the back, there is ‘Well-Being,’ with a real functioning exercise bike and a display of step-counters and fitness-trackers, ‘Child,’ a kid-friendly space with beanbag chairs, ‘House,’ with connected/smart devices for the home, and more. Each universe offers connected functional devices, interactive touch screens, and invites customers to touch, swipe, and try. Testing out the newest technology is fun: when we walked in, customers in lounge chairs were donning virtual reality headsets. This image certainly jibed with Orange’s goal for the store: “a new, phygital customer experience,” meaning both physical and digital, a chance to be in the store in person and in the virtual sphere simultaneously.