Last week I celebrated my 30-something birthday in Paris (hence the delay in updating the blog). Of course, no trip to the City of Lights would be complete without a stroll down Les Champs-Elysées and a visit to its numerous flagship stores. L’incontournable!
Although there is no consensus as to the French version of this term, ‘flagship store’ is very much a French creation. Ever since Mademoiselle Chanel opened her first boutique on Rue Cambon in Paris a century ago, having a number one retail outlet in major cities is what any self-respecting brand tries to achieve. Besides, in France, “lèche-vitrines” (literally, window-licking) is a national pastime.
I went to the flagship store of a quintessential French – and the world’s most valuable – luxury brand: Louis Vuitton, on Champs-Elysées, which opened its doors exactly 100 years ago. Original flagships define the brand more than anything else; this is where I would get the most authentic flagship store experience.
The queue outside the LV’s Champs-Elysées store was nothing compared to the Apple Store on the iPhone launch day. It was still there, however, at 7 pm on a Wednesday. Evidently, a new handbag is what Parisians (or, more likely, tourists!) go to buy after work instead of groceries.
The window displays featured chrome-like statues of dinosaurs. The Jurassic Park theme is said to have been inspired by the Natural History Museum in Paris.
Once inside, I appreciated the need for crowd control outside. The multi-level LV emporium resembled a cross between a busy railway station on Monday morning and an IKEA store on a Saturday afternoon. Crowds of shoppers with their mandatory monogrammed tote bags were attended to by harried personnel tasked with providing the famous ‘luxury shopping experience’, all conversing in Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian and English, in addition to French. Clearly, luxury speaks many languages!
It took me some minutes of making eye-contact and polite waving to the shop floor assistants before I was taken upstairs to have a closer look at my selected product. There, I spied customers seated with a champagne flute in hand, and a private viewing room for VIP clients (momentarily unoccupied).
While waiting to be shown a purse of my choosing, I got chatting with a lovely LV sales assistant who was more impressed with my salmon skin iPhone cover than the 20,000 Euro handbags around us. I told her it was an example of “sustainable luxury” — but her blank look in response told me she had no clue what I was talking about. So, in an ironic role reversal, I explained to her LVMH’s sustainability commitments and strategy.
All in all, the LV flagship store experience left me in a pensive mood. I couldn’t help but think that – just like the dinosaurs in the Louis Vuitton window displays – luxury brands are, in some ways, the living fossils in our fast-fashion world – with their personalized service, after-sales customer care and products made to last. And yet, to avoid extinction, they must adapt to the fast-changing environment around them, and this means embracing sustainability.