These days when I am shopping I often find myself in a windowless dungeon, two stories or more under new buildings recently built on Columbus Avenue near where I live in Manhattan. There’s a Target, a T.J. Maxx, a Burlington Coat Factory, and the lower level of a Whole Foods. Elsewhere it might be a street-level Home Depot, a Lowe’s or similar—none of which has windows. Often there is no escape from loud music. My daughter with an MBA in Marketing tells me that the strategy is to help customers forget they are shopping so the victims—you and I—will continue shopping and buy more than we need. In contrast, each time I visit Les Galeries Lafayette in Paris, I am overwhelmed by its beauty, and each time I look forward to returning.
In 1894, Théophile Bader and his cousin, Alphonse Kahn, opened a fashion store in a small haberdasher’s shop at the corner of rue La Fayette and the Chaussée d’Antin. In 1896, the company purchased the building. In 1905, they acquired several additional buildings on boulevard Haussmann. They commissioned the architect Georges Chedanne to design the store in the main building, where a 141-foot high Neo-Byzantine glass and steel dome and Art Nouveau staircases were installed in 1912. The result is breathtaking.
The main building of the Galeries is just behind the Opéra Garnier—the original Paris opera house that was Hitler’s favorite Paris building—an imposing edifice in the heart of the Right Bank. Juxtaposing photos of the facade of the Garnier and the interior of the Galeries easily leads me to imagine that they are one and the same building. Unless you are familiar with the Gale ries’ interior you would not imagine the dome is in a department store. The views looking up, down or across the central apse easily take one’s mind off the shopping tasks at hand, especially when the Christmas decorations are abundant. But shop you will as you linger to enjoy the beauty and as you partake in the splendor around you and the exquisite French clothing and accessories.
The emphasis on beauty in France dates back many centuries, and it permeates French life—not only in the arts, but also in clothing, food, architecture and la vie quotidienne. The human interest in decorations appears in ancient artifacts, whether the petroglyphs at Lascaux, the Ishtar Gate in Babylon, or ceramic oil lamps found throughout the ruins of the ancient world. In this context it is fully understandable that Bader & Kahn would put an emphasis on beauty when building their new department store during the age of Art Nouveau.
In the 1960s, young designers began launching their ready-to-wear lines at the store (as opposed to bespoke clothing). The first designer to become famous was Laura, in 1962. A little while later she became known as Sonia Rykiel, and later she designed the new interior of l’Hôtel Lutetia.
Rushing to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre without taking in the other four da Vincis, as many tourists do, not to mention the two marble Slaves by Michelangelo and so many other extraordinary works of art, is similar, I think, to visiting Paris without pausing in front of the endless designer store windows or visiting Les Galeries Lafayette.
Other Department Stores
The interior of Le Bon Marché, across the Seine, is very attractive, but it wasn’t always. For most of its life it was far more utilitarian, like Au Printemps, Marks & Spencer, Gimbels and most department stores. In contrast, Les Galeries Lafayette has been stunning for more than a century. However, it was not the first department store with a magnificent dome. Unveiled in 1907, the dome in Chicago’s Macy’s, formerly Marshall Field’s, is the world’s largest example of unbroken Tiffany favrile iridescent glass mosaic. Built under the personal supervision of Louis Comfort Tiffany, the dome is composed of more than 1.6 million pieces of colored glass, and to this day it is a significant tourist attraction in the heart of Chicago’s Loop–in the third largest store in the world.
Another extraordinary department store, more famous for its facade and location than its interior, faces Lenin’s Tomb across Red Square–GUM–Gosudarstvenniy Universainiy Magazin (“State Department Store”). It too is a major tourist draw, although not since Putin invaded Ukraine.
In 1940, as the Nazis were occupying the grand hotels of Paris, such as the Lutetia, George V and the Ritz, Les Galeries Lafayette underwent a process of
“Aryanization”—the removal of its Jewish owners and their replacement by non-Jews. Bader and his partners, the store’s administrators, and 129 Jewish employees, were forced to resign. Of course the owners were not compensated. Today Les Galeries Lafayette is the largest chain of department stores in Europe.
These stores are not museums, but Les Galeries Lafayette can fill a similar purpose if you’re searching for art in Paris. Saks 5th Avenue in Manhattan and Harrods in London also have beautiful interiors “worth a detour,” but Les Galeries is “worth a journey,” as Michelin would say. Perhaps avoiding the modern box stores is one of the benefits of shopping online. Shopping in Paris though is a much more rewarding experience. G&S
Photos by Norman A. Ross