Paris Tips: Tripping to Le Bon Marché
By Theadora Brack
Blame it on the vacuum left by the Olympics, but I’ve got a strong hankering for another round of window-shopping. So this week, I’ve decided to trek it to Le Bon Marché, the very first department store in Paris (in fact, one of the world’s first). This iconic darling not only changed up the rules of retail, but also set waves of shopping frenzies in motion and acted as a muse to artists and writers of the avant-garde set. Plus, this is where is the 1920 Olympic flag was made! Who knew?
So pack your charge plate and rose-colored glasses. A tribute we will pay!
Flashback: “The cathedral of modern commerce!” is how Émile Zola neatly described Le Bon Marché (“the good deal”) in his novel “Le Bonheur des Dames.” The store was the first to launch fixed pricing, welcome stations staffed with English-speaking personal shoppers, and self-service. Soon faire du lèche-vitrine (“window licking”) became all the rage.
Dig “Les Soldes d’hiver″(big winter sales)? Thank founder Aristide Boucicaut for getting the party started with his annual “White Sales.”
Brand New World
Though now taken for granted, at the time its newfangled open-door retail concept meant that even prostitutes could shop here with ease. Both seductive and alluring, Bon Marché’s open aisles of enticing wares were often blamed for bankrupting families and inciting spontaneous shoplifting.
During the 18-Eighties: Ninety percent of the shoppers were women, sometimes visiting the new “walk-around” palace on a daily basis. They were hooked. Even as the Prussian army surrounded the city in 1870, American and English fashionistas didn’t flee but kept on shopping, because a trip to Paris without having shopped would be a “life-long regret.” For the love of a half-empty bucket list, I can relate!
Au Bonheur des Dames
Initially designed by Gustave Eiffel and Paul Sédille (who beautified Printemps, too), Bon Marché has maintained her radiant glow by getting a little work done now and then. It’s no secret that Andrée Putman (also credited with the extreme makeover of Guerlain’s flagship on the Champs-Élysées) recently updated the store’s look with sets of crisscrossing escalators. Surrounded by slender columns, the moving stairs’ geometric patterns smartly echo the skylight’s square glass panes.
Yes, Hem shopped here
Though no longer considered quite the palace of “good deals” it was back in the time of Picasso and Hemingway (who bought his knock-off suits here), Le Bon Marché is still the place to window-gawk and trend-spot. You’ll find classics like Balenciaga, Dior, Lanvin, and Sonia Rykiel, along with funky designs by Comme des Garcons, Paul & Joe and Sandro.
Happy Hunting Grounds
On the ground level, be wooed by “Le Théatre de la Beauté,” which specializes in just-launched, innovative, and difficult-to-find beauty products. So prior to your visit, do a little research and pack a wish list! Make your friends at home green with envy.
Confession: Here is where I score my Annick Goutal perfume. My secret weapon ? It’s Petite Chérie but keep it under your hat! Mum’s the word! A fan for a decade, I usually buy the body cream because it’s less expensive and the scent isn’t as strong but still possesses staying power. Ask for their carte de fidélité. Return visits are rewarded.
Tip: Often Bon Marché sponsors free exhibits. Recently my sister Wen and I got to see the Christian Dior exhibition. Decked out in Dior’s signature white and grey, the exhibit was made up of photographs, iconic “New Look” ensembles, super hip multimedia projections on oversized accessories like chairs, mannequins and hat boxes. Missed Dior? Fret not. There will be more to come!
Le Bon Marché
38 rue de Sèvres
Métro Sèvres-Babylone (lines 12 or 10)
After the Browsing
Feeling peckish or parched? In a separate part of Bon Marché, La Grande Epicerie de Paris (the world’s largest international food labyrinth) seems to have everything to satisfy every taste bud, both domestic and foreign. The Babylon Garden is just in front of the store, so stock up and prepare to nosh like there’s no tomorrow!
Also, just behind Bon Marché, you’ll find the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal. Here’s a chance to balance out your mortal sins with a visit to Saint Catherine Labouré’s shrine. For the strong-hearted, the “incorruptible corpse” of the lady Herself is on full view in a glass case at the front of the sanctuary. Among other things, she’s credited with designing one of the most popular of saints’ medals, which are available on-site.
Snipping from “Bon Marché Weather,” a poem by Gertrude “Lady Dada” Stein: “There are a very great many things everybody is buying. There are a very great many things you are buying. There are a very great many things they are buying. There are a very great many things I am buying.”
She lived just a hop, skip and jump away, so I’m sure she was speaking from experience.