By  on November 26, 2007

PARIS — Retail has always bustled on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, the famous street here that attracts as many as 100 million visitors a year to admire what the French boast is the "most beautiful avenue in the world."

Although the boulevard used to be skewed to popular chains, the arrival of luxury brands in recent years has pushed its identity more upmarket.

Louis Vuitton, Cartier and Montblanc have helped propel the street to a destination for international luxury shoppers, who often stay at one of the five-star hotels in close proximity.

Not surprisingly, rents are escalating. A recent study by Cushman & Wakefield said retail rents on the Champs-Elysées increased 8.7 percent last year. The avenue is the third most expensive retail location in the world, after Manhattan's Fifth Avenue and Causeway Bay in Hong Kong. Average rent on the Champs-Elysées is $922 a square foot, the most expensive in Europe.

London's New Bond Street, at $814 a square foot, is second on the European list, followed by Dublin's Grafton Street, $669 a square foot.

In Paris, rent on the Champs-Elysées eclipses that of other luxury shopping streets such as Avenue Montaigne and Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, which both average $553 a square foot, according to Cushman & Wakefield.

While locations on any of Paris' top three strips are hard to come by, several big transactions have closed recently on the Champs-Elysées, including a flagship for Hennes and Mauritz, which just got final approval to open a store.

"The Champs-Elysées is a fantastic shopping street with high commercial and symbolic value," said a spokeswoman for the Swedish firm. "We look forward to opening our store there. But it's too early to say how the store will look like."

H&M's store, at 82-88 Champs-Elysées, is expected to make a splash. French architect Jean Nouvel, who recently created a spectacular angular structure to house a primitive arts museum here, is said to be working on its design. Getting a green light to open, however, was hardly a cakewalk.

The Champs-Elysées Committee, a retail association that oversees development on the thoroughfare, initially blocked the chain's bid by saying H&M's presence would "banalize" the street's overall atmosphere.It was a decision that puzzled many. But it reflected officials' fears that the Champs-Elysées was becoming too monolithic a shopping destination to the detriment of its cultural prestige.

With the retailers such as Zara, Gap and Mango already on the avenue, however, the Champs-Elysées has no shortage of popular sites, including Disney and McDonald's. Uniqlo, the Japanese cheap-chic firm, is believed to be zeroing in on a spot.

Yet it appears the committee — members were unavailable for comment — wants to continue to skew the Champs-Elysées toward luxury. And for many of the street's newest shopkeepers, that's just fine.

"The Champs-Elysées has always been a favorite tourist destination," said Gilles Bellaloum, who recently opened Le 66, a multibrand fashion emporium. "That's good for business. But it's also starting to draw a more luxurious clientele, and that's even better."

The famed boulevard is "definitely becoming more luxe," said Alain Nemarq, president of jeweler Mauboussin, which has opened a 2,350-square-foot shop on the avenue. "There are a lot of luxury hotels within walking distance of the street, so it's only normal that we would want to be near that type of international clientele."

As the street gets more expensive, brands are flocking to its tributaries. Avenue George V, which, like Avenue Montaigne, is perpendicular to the Champs-Elysées, has seen a number of openings recently.

Sonia Rykiel unveiled an outpost last spring, across the street from the Four Seasons Hotel George V and contiguous to the Hotel Fouquet's Barrière. And this month, agnès b. opened a 6,500-square-foot shop on George V, just down from Hermès and Gianfranco Ferré.

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