Last weekend I wrote about the rebirth of an iconic Parisian store now, here’s another albeit one which is still family-owned which also debuted in Paris. Plus, it’s my local department store at Cap 3000.
Galeries Lafayette is a French department store chain, the largest in Europe. Its flagship store is on Boulevard Haussmann in the 9th arrondissement of Paris but it now operates in a number of other locations in France and other countries, some of which it owns while others are franchised
How it all began
In 1893, two cousins from the Alsace, Théophile Bader and Alphonse Kahn, decided to open a shop selling novelty items in a small haberdashery on the corner of rue La Fayette in Paris.
The shop’s size and internal layout encouraged customers to move along the aisles in straight lines, which led to its name Aux Galeries Lafayette. While the venture was a bit of a gamble, the shop was in the perfect location, near to the Opera and the Grands Boulevards. Crowds of Parisians and visitors from out of town spilled out of the neighbouring Saint-Lazare railway station, attracted by the businesses in the area.
In 1896, the company bought the whole building at number 1, rue La Fayette followed in 1903 by numbers 38, 40 and 42 on Boulevard Haussmann, as well as number 15, rue de la Chaussée d’Antin. The early years of the business were motivated by this bricks and mortar strategy, which resulted in an impressive acquisition of premises. All this was strengthened by its architecture, making it perfectly suited to the needs of commerce.
Bader entrusted the first major refurbishments of Boulevard Haussmann, completed in 1907, to architect Georges Chedanne. It was only really in 1912 that the store began to take on a new dimension and the flagship Galeries Lafayette store was unveiled. Bader had dreamed of creating a luxury bazaar where the sheer abundance and luxury of the merchandise on offer would wow the crowds! Golden light, filtered through the domed roof, would flood the grand hall and set the products aglow. The gamble paid off.
Great artists from the École de Nancy decorated this magnificent building in the style of Paris Art Nouveau. The bannister of the magnificent staircase, inspired by the Paris Opera House, was designed by Louis Majorelle, who is also credited with the ironwork featured on the balconies. The dome soon became the iconic symbol of Galeries Lafayette. Master glass-maker Jacques Gruber was responsible for designing the Neo-byzantine style stained glass windows.
The sales floor had suddenly doubled in size, but the innovations didn’t stop there! A tea room, reading room and smoking room were then added to complement the 96 existing departments. As more department stores began to appear, shopping was turning into a leisure activity. At the very top of the building, the rooftop terrace offered a panoramic view of Paris where the store began organising special events much to the delight of an entertainment-hungry clientèle.
To stand out from his rivals, Théophile Bader wanted to make sure that the latest fashions would be available to all. With this in mind, he set up and acquired production facilities to make clothing exclusively for Galeries Lafayette under its own private label.He was also keenly aware that fashion and customers’ tastes would constantly be changing. The Galeries Director devised an ingenious strategy to make sure the store was always up-to-date. He took himself off to the races and the opera, accompanied by a designer, who would discreetly copy the most stylish outfits designed by the most famous couturiers. Adjustments were made here and there and the outfits put into production as quickly as possible – a strategy now followed by many brands.
The store continued to grow and expand its product range, adding menswear, furniture, toys and tableware departments to its more traditional ranges. Unwavering in their mission to make design accessible to all, Galeries Lafayette extended its already firm commitment to fashion, to the world of applied arts and design. In 1922, it opened arts workshops under the artistic direction of Maurice Dufrêne in order to produce affordable furniture, fabric, carpets, wallpaper, pottery, and other household goods.Despite the recession in 1929, Galeries Lafayette embarked on further expansions on the Boulevard Haussmann. In 1932, the flagship store was renovated by Pierre Patout, in Art Déco style, with the addition of René Lalique bow windows.
Between 1941 and 1944, Galeries Lafayette’s founders were ousted during the Occupation and the business placed under the administration of the Vichy government until the Liberation. In the aftermath of WWII’s bleak years, the business began to stage an economic recovery.
To meet the challenges of the post-war period, Galeries Lafayette underwent a complete makeover. The flagship store kick-started its modernisation by unveiling the highest escalator in Europe, in the Christmas of 1951. Shortly afterwards, the interior halls were phased out of operation and, between 1957 and 1959, the building was raised by two more floors.
Architectural modernisation was accompanied by expansion of its product range, thanks to setting up a design office in 1952, creating the post of Fashion Director, sourcing products from abroad and launching new promotions. This new growth phase also saw the store play host to large international exhibitions such as the “The Best of Italian Manufacturing” and “Faces of India.” The accessibility of design for all remained the company’s key focus and it went on to devise the “Festival of French Design” in 1954.
Other events subsequently proved to be firm favourites with its customers like the classic “3J” promotion. Launched in October 1958, the store organised “A Day like no other”. It was a huge success and from October 1959 onwards, became known as “3J” which continues to this day.
In the early sixties, young designers began launching their ready-to-wear lines, sitting between haute couture and traditional tailoring. Each season Galeries Lafayette would showcase these new talents by providing them with small boutiques or concessions in the store.
In 1969 a new store was opened on the other side of rue de Mogador, initially dedicated to young fashion and christened “Le Club 20 Ans” and brought together several different product ranges (clothing, pharmacy, music) embodying this particular lifestyle.
In 1974, a further new chapter began with the removal of the legendary central staircase and then, a decade on, the central ground floor was reconfigured to make way for high-end boutiques.
In 1980 Galeries Lafayette created its “Fashion Festival” showering Oscars on the best designs created for the store followed in 1984 by the opening of its designer department with its “France has got talent”exhibition.
At the turn of the century, the brand went even further upmarket and enlisted the services of Jean-Paul Goude to manage its public relations. The photographer would go on to breathe new life into the brand with his nonconformist campaigns, always embodying its core values.
In 2004 the Marks and Spencer store on Boulevard Haussmann was transformed into Lafayette Maison, following the company’s purchase of all Marks and Spencer stores in France in 2001. Since then, Galeries Lafayette has proudly enjoyed a triple presence on the Boulevard Haussmann.
In 2001, the Galeries Lafayette group decided to cement its links with contemporary design by creating the Galerie des Galeries, a free-entry art gallery on the first floor of the store, dedicated to exhibiting the cross-over between art, fashion and design.
Galeries Lafayette has remained a family business for five generations. It has transcended time, war and financial crisis to prove its unrivalled capacity for innovation – one of its core values.
In 2008, the management of the Group took the initiative to create a Heritage Department, with the aim of keeping the Group’s rich history alive, encouraging reflection on its true identity and strengthening the bond between the present and future organisation, and its history.
Over time, the Group has built up the international recognition of its iconic brands: Galeries Lafayette, BHV MARAIS, La Redoute, Mauboussin, Eataly Paris Marais, Galeries Lafayette-Royal Quartz Paris, Louis Pion and BazarChic. The Group supports the brands in their asset, digital and creative transformation through Lafayette Anticipations – Galeries Lafayette Corporate Foundation.
One of France’s leading private employers, the Galeries Lafayette group has built its identity on a set of fundamental values. Retailers since day one, the Group anchors its identity in client service, which is at the heart of its every concern. For this, the Group’s employees reinvent retail, anticipating tomorrow’s evolutions, in order to make the French “Art of Living” always more accessible, in France as well as elsewhere.
(Images courtesy of Galleries Lafayette)