The remarkable history of Galeries Lafayette The remarkable history of Galeries Lafayette

The remarkable history of Galeries Lafayette

The iconic Galeries Lafayette dates from the late nineteenth century, and has become a genuine symbol of the “City of Light”, visited by over twenty-five million people each year. Its magnificently domed central hall – which covers 70,000 square metres (over three quarters of a million square feet) of retail space – fills an entire block of Boulevard Haussmann, one of several Parisian boulevards built by Napoleon. It’s in the 9th arrondissement, and the celebrated novelist Marcel Proust lived just down the road for many years.

A vision for a department store

In 1893, cousins Théophile Bader and Alphonse Kahn, who were newly arrived from Alsace, opened a small store (just 70 square metres) at the corner of rue La Fayette and rue de la Chaussée d'Antin. Its original name was “Aux Galeries Lafayette” – literally, “at the Galeries Lafayette”, as the store was Number One on the street of the same name – an ideal location, near to the Opéra Garnier and Grands Boulevards with plenty of passers-by to become customers. They created the famous double-t logo, a stylised Eiffel Tower drawing attention to the store’s Parisian origins.

Three years later, the cousins bought the whole building at 1 rue La Fayette as well as numbers 38, 40 and 42 Boulevard Haussmann, and 15 rue de la Chaussée d'Antin. The Haussmann buildings in particular had a design which was ideal for the creation of the kind of retail space they had in mind. Throughout the first ten years of the shop’s existence, the company continued to acquire space in neighbouring buildings.

A Luxury Bazaar is born

It was in 1912 – nicknamed the “flagship year” – that this small family business truly became a major store, acquiring the distinctive architectural features evident today. The cousins wanted to build a “luxury bazaar” dominated by a vast, decked area. The main staircase, built in the form of a ramp, draws its inspiration from the Paris Opera, while the 43-metre high dome of the main hall has become the emblem of Galeries Lafayette. A particular feature is the warmth of light given to the great hall by neo-Byzantine windows.

However, the cousins’ ambition didn’t stop there. No fewer than ninety-six “departments” were added, together with a smoking room, a tea room and a beautiful reading room. A terrace on top of the Galeries Lafayette offers a stunning panorama of Paris. Thus a small store on Hausmann was transformed into an extensive area for shopping and for leisure. It quickly became a must-see for all wealthy foreigners visiting Paris.

The democratisation of fashion

The raison d’être of Galeries Lafayette has always been to bring innovation and fashion together in the same space, and make them as widely visible and accessible as possible. To this end – and, frankly, to cock a snook at the competition – Théophile Bader took the decision to make high fashion affordable to all budgets, acquiring production capacity to produce his own fashion brand. He produced articles at the leading edge of fashion, but sold them much more affordably than his competitors.

Doing this killed two birds with one stone. Access to fashion was democratised: no longer just for the wealthy few; and the store became wildly popular. To this day, efforts continue constantly to diversify its offering, which now includes men’s clothing, interior decoration, toys and tableware. The business works hard to retain as many shoppers as possible, through annual meetings with customers and strategies such as the well-known “3J” sale, created in 1958 to make excellent items of quality available at exceptionally low prices.

The spirit and values of Lafayette

In 1969, a new shop for younger clients opened its doors on the other side of rue Mogador. “Club 20” carried cutting-edge fashion, music and drugstore products. In time, departments were added for men’s fashion and “Lafayette Gourmet”. In 1984 the main hall was completely reorganised to contain a variety of smaller boutique stores in the one space.

2001 was a watershed year for the Lafayette brand, with a massive advertising campaign under the banner of “The Adventures of Laetitia Casta in Galeries Lafayette country”. This campaign had very broad reach both to Parisians and to incoming tourists. It was innovative, modern and offbeat, perfectly capturing the values, history and “spirit” of the store through a variety of images. The imaginative use of mannequins pioneered in this campaign continues to this day.

The store also hosts prestigious events with major artists and designers. In order to strengthen and broaden the relationship between Lafayette and fashion, as well as other creative fields, the store opened the “Galerie des Galeries” – a space on the first floor freely accessible to everyone which highlights and explores the links between fashion, art and design.

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