The art of display
Few countries in the world can rival France as the capital of the luxury market. Creations of high-fashion, perfumes, jewels, refined restaurants, and, of course, our beloved champagne -the royals’ drink- are traded under French brands. In this birthplace of elegance, people have learned, not only how to produce prestigious goods, but also how to sell them. The French taught us that the thrill of a silk scarf can start from its iconic orange box; that the empty crystal bottle on the vanity table will keep the memory of the brand alive, long after the perfume has dried out. In Paris, pastry shops can be mistaken for jewelry stores, while haute-couture celebrities design wrapping papers for 40-euro brioche breads. Let’s face it: the art of display runs in the French blood and the city of Paris is the workshop of this craft to admire.
The foundations for this mastery can be traced to the second half of 19th century: in response to the British market –one that was mainly based on the sale of cheap wool and cotton, France was set to seduce the much promising middle-income class -whose purchase power was only going up- by trading high-value materials such as, silk, perfumes and lace. Although it was in London that the first department stores opened their doors – Harding, Howell & Co’s Grand Fashionable Magazine goes as far back as 1796- Paris took the shopping experience into a whole new level. First of all, department stores were designed to look like luxury hotels with lavish decoration, inside-out. Products were displayed in ways that highlighted their beautiful colors, volumes or textures. Employees were imposed a code of manners so strict and ceremonious that customers felt they were treated like royals. “Selling products is so banal, n’est-ce pas?” A new generation of retailers set out to sell dreams instead. They aimed for the hearts of their honorable clientele, served their vanity and self-indulgence, and ultimately set the rules of the fine-goods market for decades to come.
Émile Zola, an eminent writer and reporter of 19th-century Paris beautifully portrayed all the frenzy in those new temples of consumption in “The Ladies’ Paradise” (in French, “Au Bonheur des Dames”). A pure masterpiece in literature, Zola’s novel brings to life the story of the first Parisian department store: “Au Bon Marché”. The reader is introduced to Octave Mouret, fictional name for Aristide Boucicault, the store’s founder whose innovations set an example for marketing as we know it. First of all, Boucicault imagined the construction of a stately edifice with the size and aspect of a palace, brimming with light from top to toe. He ordered the design of an interior conceived to showcase the assets of each product. His store was the first to provide lounges designed for kids to play and for ladies to rest during their visit. Boucicault was also the first to issue product catalogs that were mailed to households throughout France and abroad. Every week there would always be some event – a thematic soirée, a music performance- making Le Bon Marché “the place to be” and a media sensation. Never out of brilliant ideas, the owner even had a luxurious, new hotel built just up the road from the store to lure potential customers from the country to travel to Paris and spend their weekends in his Disneyland of shopping.
Despite the competition inevitably catching-up, today Le Bon Marché remains one of the finest department stores in Paris. You will find, below, a few lovely extracts throughout Zola’s novel to explore this magical place full of blows-and-whistles that are still relevant a century and a half later. In another literary source, Donald Grant Mitchell praises the persuasion skills of a delightful saleswoman at the coveted glove department. In his travel notes, Mitchell describes the spell enveloping unsuspected customers –especially male ones- as they came to ask information from the most charming employees –models of elegance, good looks and impeccable manners. At the end of this article, you will find a selection of our favorite window displays and stylish shops to discover.
The Ladies' Paradise: the store
Space had been gained everywhere, light and air entered freely, and the public circulated with ease beneath the bold curves of the wide-spaced trusses. It was the cathedral of modern business, strong and yet light, built for vast crowds of customers. In the central gallery on the ground floor, after the bargains near the door, came the tie, glove, and silk departments; the Monsigny Gallery was occupied by the household linen and the printed cotton goods, the Michodière Gallery by the haber dashery, hosiery, cloth, and woolen departments. Then, on the first floor, there were the ready-made clothes, lingerie, shawls, lace, and other new departments, while the bedding, carpets, and furnishing materials, all the bulky goods and those which were difficult to handle, had been relegated to the second floor.
By this time there were thirty-nine departments and eighteen hundred employees, of whom two hundred were women. A whole world was springing up amidst the life echoing beneath the high metal naves.
Mouret’s sole passion was the conquest of Woman. He wanted her to be queen in his shop; he had built this temple for her in order to hold her at his mercy.
His tactics were to intoxicate her with amorous attentions, to trade on her desires, and to exploit her excitement. He racked his brains night and day for new ideas. Already, to spare delicate ladies the trouble of climbing the stairs, he had installed two lifts lined with velvet. In addition, he had just opened a buffet, where fruit cordials and biscuits were served free of charge, and a reading-room, a colossal gallery decorated with excessive luxury, in which he even ventured to hold picture exhibitions.
But his most inspired idea, which he deployed with women devoid of coquetry, was that of conquering the mother through the child; he exploited every kind of force, speculated on every kind of feeling, created departments for little boys and girls, stopped the mothers as they were walking past by offering pictures and balloons to their babies. Presenting a balloon as a free gift to each customer who bought something was a stroke of genius.
Au bonheur des dames, Georges Charpentier, 1883.
English translation in Émile Zola, The Ladies’ Paradise, Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.
The Ladies' Paradise: the display
But it was in the interior arrangement of the shops that Mouret revealed himself to be an unrivaled master.
He laid it down as a law that not a corner of the Ladies’ Paradise was to remain deserted; everywhere he insisted upon noise, crowds, life; for life, he would say, attracts life, gives birth and multiplies.
He put this law into practice in a whole variety of ways. First of all, there should be a crush at the entrance; it should seem to people in the street that there was a riot in the shop; and he obtained this crush by placing bargains at the entrance, shelves and baskets overflowing with articles at very low prices, so that working-class people began to congregate there, barring the threshold, and giving the impression that the shop was bursting with customers, when often it was only half full. […]
“Just look!” cried Madame de Boves, brought to a standstill and gazing upwards.
It was the display of parasols. Wide open and rounded like shields, they covered the hall from the glazed ceiling to the varnished oak moldings. They formed festoons round the arcades of the upper stores; they hung down in garlands along the pillars; they ran in close lines along the balustrades of the galleries, and even on the banisters of the staircases; symmetrically arranged everywhere, speckling the walls with red, green, and yellow, they seemed like great Venetian lanterns, lit for some colossal entertainment. In the corners there were complicated patterns, stars made of parasols at ninety-five centimes, and their light shades-pale blue, creamy white, soft pink-were burning with the gentleness of a night-light; while above, huge Japanese sunshades covered with golden cranes flying across a purple sky were blazing with glints of fire.
Madame Marty, tried to find a phrase to express her delight, could only exclaim:
– “It’s enchanting!”
The Ladies’ Paradise, Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.
The Ladies' Paradise: the silks
The counters, symmetrically arranged, looked like so many flower-beds, transforming the hall into a formal garden, with a range of soft flower tones. Spread out on the wooden counter, falling from overflowing shelves, and in boxes which had been torn open, a harvest of silk scarves displayed the brilliant red of geraniums, the milky white of petunias, the golden yellow of chrysanthemums, the sky blue of verbena…
In the middle of the department an exhibition of summer silks was illuminating the hall with the brilliancy of dawn, like the rising of a star amidst the most delicate shades of daylight-pale pink, soft yellow, clear blue, a shimmering scarf of all the colors of the rainbow. There were scarves as fine as a cloud, surahs lighter than the down blown from trees, satiny Peking fabrics as soft as the skin of a Chinese virgin. And there were also pongees from Japan, tussores and corahs from India, not to mention light French silks-fine stripes, tiny checks, floral patterns, every design imaginable-which conjured up visions of ladies in furbelows walking on May mornings beneath great trees in a park. […]
A fine dust was rising from the floor, laden with the odor of Woman, the odor of her underlinen and the nape of her neck, of her skirts and her hair, a penetrating, all-pervading odor which seemed to be the incense of this temple dedicated to the worship of her body.
Mouret, still standing outside the reading-room with Vallagnosc, was breathing in this odour, intoxicating himself with it, repeating:
“They’re at home. I know some women who day here, eating cakes and writing their letters. It only remains for me to put them to bed.”
The Ladies’ Paradise, Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.
She helps you wear a pair: “… And how many pairs does Monsieur wish?… Only one? Monsieur is certainly joking. See how pretty are the colors…” -picking up a sample in her fingers- “…and they look so well on you!” -she caresses the glove on your hand.
In all the stores, it is young women who welcome the customers. On their fashionable clothes they usually wear an apron with two pockets; you can see them standing in the entrance of the store, with one hand in each pocket, exhibiting an air of independence and of casual indifference.
The young lady of the store is a fascinating creature; She stands there, with hair as sleek as smooth as her cheek, the prettiest chiffon dress that you can imagine, a narrow piece of white lace around the neck and around each little hand […]; she has the same pleasant smile, the same kind courtesy for everyone […] You can laugh, she laughs back; you can chat, she chats in response; you can scold, she will retort while scolding.
She guesses your wishes: “here they are”, she says, “the prettiest gloves in Paris”. She brings down packet after packet, measures your hand, her light fingers running over yours – what a pretty little hand!
She helps you wear a pair: “… And how many pairs does Monsieur wish?… Only one! Monsieur is certainly joking. See how pretty are the colors” – picking up a sample in her fingers – “and they look so well on you!” – she caresses the glove on your hand. “Only two! Ah, it’s really nothing; and they are so cheap, only fifteen francs for six pairs, which is so little for Monsieur…” – and she wraps them in a paper, looking at you straight in the eyes.
It is not possible to refuse and when you slip the three five-franc pieces on the counter and she drops them in the small drawer, she thanks you in a way that makes you believe, when you go out, that you paid for the smile and not for the gloves…We use a lot of gloves in Paris.
Donald Grant Mitchell,
Fresh Gleanings, University of Michigan Library, 1847.
Paris for window shopping
Explore some of the most stylish store fronts and boutiques in Paris.