PARIS — Armand Hadida is marking the 30th anniversary of the chain of L’Eclaireur concept stores he created with his wife Martine — but don’t ask the restless retailer to talk about the past.
Ask about the future, though, and he gets so excited he leaps out of his chair to expound on his vision of 21st-century retailing. It stands to reason for a born salesman who prides himself on being ahead of the curve.
When the couple opened their first multibrand store in the basement of a mall on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées in 1980, it seemed a risky venture. They started selling jeweled Navajo belts, for what was then a small fortune. The late French pop singer Daniel Balavoine told Hadida he was nuts — and promptly snapped one up.
The Hadidas haven’t stopped taking gambles since.
“We acquired a taste for daring, for pushing the boundaries, and above all, we understood that surprising people put us in a favorable position,” he said.
They did that by launching stores that combined emerging clothing labels with avant-garde architecture and industrial design (L’Eclaireur carries women’s wear brands such as Balmain, Junya Watanabe, Comme des Garçons, Haider Ackermann and Marni, while its men’s wear selection includes Rick Owens, Isaac Sellam, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck and Carol Christian Poell).
To mark their milestone, the company is launching separate exhibitions by photojournalist-turned-artist Gilles Ouaki at three of its Paris locations on Thursday reflecting Hadida’s latest obsession: blending art and commerce.
His latest venture, Royal Eclaireur, is a “nonboutique” designed by Philippe Starck and set to open in the restored Royal Monceau hotel early next year. Designed to resemble a hotel suite, it will feature only one item per designer, curated by Hadida, alongside contemporary art exhibits.
Before that, L’Eclaireur will open a sixth Paris boutique in the Marais focused on must-have items and accessories. An annex of the women’s wear boutique at 40 Rue de Sévigné, the space will likewise be designed by Belgian artist Arne Quinze and will carry items including bags by Balenciaga, jewelry by Sara Weinstock, shawls from Faliero Sarti and Linda Farrow sunglasses.
Hadida is also venturing into e-commerce, with plans to launch online sales in the second half of October.
“It implies above all trying to offer things that will not be available in stores, to have fun and to avoid showcasing the most sophisticated items, which require some assistance on the Web platform,” he explained. “My dream would be to show each item with one of my sales associates explaining it from A to Z.”
By next year, Hadida hopes to acquire a 3-D camera that will allow him to scan his customers’ bodies and e-mail them personalized suggestions based on their measurements.
Though he appears to be embracing the possibilities offered by new technologies, Hadida depicts e-commerce as a necessary evil, blaming rude and incompetent sales staff for driving customers to the Web.
“We don’t have a culture of service in France,” he stated. “But I think that people who are used to a respectable level of service will continue to shop in the same way they have done for years for a long while to come.”
But the retail theater he so cherishes may soon come at a price. “In future, we will have to charge for services like ours,” he predicted. “It will be compulsory because a business…won’t be able to survive financially if it aims to provide a high standard of service.”
It is a typically provocative statement from a man who still views himself as an outsider. “It is a daily battle, particularly in France,” he sighed. “I feel like a gladiator who is fighting for survival and who must kill lion after lion to win his freedom.”
His list of bugbears is long: French consumers who only buy designer items on sale; major luxury brands and what he describes as their bloated margins and cookie-cutter approach to retailing, and designers who collaborate with high-street brands.
What keeps Hadida going is his overflowing imagination. Consider his vision for the high-street store of the future: cafes where you will be able to buy everything from a suit to a new plug for your iPhone from the comfort of your seat, aided by performing waiters modeling the latest clothing looks for sale.
“I’m talking about breaking the mold of stores which I find totally obsolete today and which have polluted the major arteries of every capital in the world,” he said vehemently. “We must anticipate, we must stop copying, because overproduction can kill a system. So we must start thinking about the face of retail tomorrow.”
In the meantime, Hadida will be sticking to his singular marketing credo.
“I don’t do commercial fashion. There is no power in that: If you go commercial, the customer has the power and not the salesman. The salesman only possesses an ounce of power if he feeds the curiosity, startles the eye and breaks the habits of that customer,” he said.
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