Mon Bon Marché
Mon Bon Marché
As a girl I used to bicycle from the Eiffel Tower’s Champ de Mars gardens where our family lived to the world’s first department store: Le Bon Marché, as often as I could. In the mid-eighties, Le Bon Marché department store still had actual departments.
"Just a normal pair of trousers, please"
You would go there looking for a regular pair of trousers, go to the women’s wear department, ask a professional shop assistant to help you and you would go home with value for your money (read: reasonably priced & bum-flattering). On my way through the hosiery department, I would unfailingly run into one of the nuns of my convent school buying her 100 deniers beige stockings. Considering how scared we were of them, these incidents made for fits of hysteric laughter for weeks in the back of the class.
Products category-based departments have been replaced by luxury mega brands and looking for a quality pair of trousers in 2015 means choosing a brand first, then looking through their selection, rather than having the freedom to go through an entire section dedicated to trousers. What if I just wanted a good cut in a high quality fabric that lasts? What if I didn’t care about the brand? What if I had good taste but didn’t want to spend a million euros for a pair of trousers from Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Dior or Gucci? Not a single nun around needless to say. Even they can’t find regular stockings in a department store anymore. Well, that is not unless they go for that little extra sheen from Woolford.
The smug crusader
At the risk of sounding a melo-dramatic, I like to think of myself as a reformed Luxury Goods marketeer, and am now on a mission to encourage my friends, and their friends, to seek out traditional brands as well as new companies like mine, who are genuinely dedicated to supporting and promoting Europe’s long heritage in craftsmanship, companies that choose quality and respect for the people involved along the value chain rather than high profit margins. In so doing I hope that, in time, the reality about global luxury brands’ shocking misrepresentation of their goods and the unattractive truth about where and how their products are being made on the other side of the planet will emerge by itself.
That being said, walking away from the high-fashion brands of the ground and up onto the other floors of Le Bon Marché is a truly thrilling experience. It really is an inspirational journey through the hottest new Parisian trends in furniture design, interior, beautiful books, traditional stationery, kitchen accessories, porcelain, crazy hats and gloves (now living in Sørkedalen I still have to pinch myself at the thought that I used to where both when I used to work for Yves Saint Laurent in Paris) and into the irresistible world of the superfluous. With so much beauty around, I find it hard to leave the store at closing time.
But why? After all it’s just a store, and Paris has millions of them. The thing about Le Bon Marché, is that it still is SO Parisian and its imposing architecture always reminds me of the store’s amazing history.
It all started with selling quality goods for less
With so many referring to shopping as their therapy, it is easy to forget what a headache it actually was in the nineteenth century. First one would go door to door to find specific products then, with no fixed prices attached, one would have to cross one’s fingers and put on one’s best smile when negotiating for a good deal. I think it could be exhilarating for a week to see how well one did but - every day? In every store? For the rest of my life? Non merci.
Aristide Boucicaut, an ambitious sales assistant working at a small shop called Le Petit St. Thomas, teamed up with entrepreneur Paul Videau, owner of ‘Au Bon Marché’ on the corner of rue du Bac and rue de Sèvres on the Left Bank. Boucicaut managed to turn the business around by ordering only a few articles at a time and selling them at a low price, which quickly increased the turnover.
As their benefits went from 450,000 francs to 7 million francs, Videau sold his share to Boucicaut in 1863, making the latter the sole proprietor of what we now know as Le Bon Marché. Land was bought and the store expanded.
Next time you are in Le Bon marché, look up to the staircase and ceiling with an expert look on your face. If an American tourist asks you what you are looking at (they do have this charming tendency to talk to strangers as if they’d spent last Thanksgiving with tem), tell them you can definitely spot Gustave Eiffel’s (yes, him) touch in the steel and glass structure. They love this sort of historical stuff and might even invite you to lunch upstairs. Decline. If you are visiting, eating at lunchtime gets in the way of relishing the trillions of visual pleasures Paris has to offer. Buy some out-of-this-world foody bits in La Grande Épicerie, the store’s deli next door and eat as you walk.
Aristide was quite the revolutionary
Le Bon Marché was ahead of its time. Stocked with every imaginable product one could ever want or need, it set the standards for the other Grands Magasins (Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, Samaritaine, Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville) that were to appear years later. Boucicaut introduced many new concepts: seasonal collections, free delivery, product catalogues, and reimbursable items. Le Bon Marché opened its doors to the middle classes, its target clientele. What I find most fascinating is Boucicaut’s revolutionary schemes (which of course his wife whispered to him), such as giving his employees benefits such as commissions on items they sold, reducing the working hours from sixteen (!) to twelve hours a day, retirement pay, health insurance, store discounts, Sunday rest, paid holidays, a canteen, and even evening courses. The Boucicaut couple quickly became one of Paris’ social icons. Le Bon Marché was so successful that Emile Zola modeled his fictional department store “Au Bonheur des Dames” after Le Bon Marché’s colours, sounds, smells and, for the first time in French literature, its working classes’ love stories and personal dramas.
Artistide Boucicaut died in 1877. In twenty-five years he had transformed a small twelve-person business into a shopping emporium of 1,788 employees. In 1910, his widow built the Art Deco-inspired Hôtel Lutetia just opposite the store, along boulevard Raspail, to accommodate clients travelling to Paris to shop at Le Bon Marché. The French don’t like to be reminded that it was annexed by the SS as their HQ during WWII but then again, they Germans high-jacked only the very loveliest of places. Later however, it became a popular hangout for Paris’ chic intellectual circle. It is currently being cleaned up and I can’t wait to see it in the Spring.
And so to the inevitable macarons...
So, next time you enter Le Bon Marché, you can walk passed the spoilt Russian billionaires’ wives queuing up in the Chanel corner with your chin up, your purse thinner but your head full of knowledge. Don’t forget to get some macarons next door though, they’re much nicer that the ones at Ladurée.
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