By  on October 14, 2009

PARIS — Printemps is sporting a new look this fall.

But this is no mere facelift for the 145-year-old store, despite several months of major renovation work entailing the closure of entire floors, the replacement of 13 escalators and the restoration of the Art Nouveau facade to its previous gilded glory. The recently completed renovation is part of an ambitious, wide-ranging overhaul to turn Printemps into an upscale shopping destination targeting fashion-conscious visitors from Paris and beyond.

“We felt we had the opportunity to go back to our roots and reestablish Printemps as a global, iconic department store like 145 years ago,” said Paolo de Cesare, the Italian-born chief executive officer who took the helm of the department store chain two years ago.

The arrival of the former Procter & Gamble executive followed the $1.33 billion sale of Printemps three years ago by French retail-to-luxury group PPR SA to a consortium including Borletti Group, which owns Italian department stores La Rinascente.

The new owners tasked de Cesare with a 280 million euro, or $408 million at constant exchange rates, turnaround of the business, starting with the flagship on Boulevard Haussmann.

“The store lost its focus in the Eighties and Nineties,” he said. “We wanted it to be different from traditional department stores, which are crowded, where things are difficult to find, where you feel you need to ask permission to shop.”

Luxury department stores such as Harrods in London, Saks Fifth Avenue in New York and Le Bon Marché here became the inspiration for the transformation of Printemps into an upmarket store focused on fashion, accessories and beauty.

As a result, some sections were downsized or closed altogether. The stationery department, along with the Zara and Mango corners, was eliminated, while the children’s wear, lingerie and homewares floors were reduced to make room for fashion and accessories.

“When I arrived, on the ground floor we were selling socks and hosiery, which positioned us in a certain way,” de Cesare said. “We are still selling them, but they are not critical to us anymore.”

The suggestion that such a radical change could alienate Printemps’ more traditional clients, who may not appreciate the closure of some shopping areas, doesn’t appear to concern de Cesare.

“It’s not going to be ‘everything for everyone,’ but it’s a destination for a certain type of shopping,” he said. “We don’t want to be elitist, but we are not a high-street retailer, either.”

The initial results of the refurbishment program are encouraging, with some brands already displaying “tremendous growth,” according to de Cesare. French fashion and accessories labels like Longchamp, Jerome Dreyfuss and Vanessa Bruno have shown double-digit growth for six consecutive months, while jewelry brands Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Tiffany have been growing in single digits, despite the ailing economy.

A central glass atrium rises through all of the store’s floors, offering a bird’s-eye view of the new black-and-white accessories zone in the basement, which also houses trendy gourmet cafe Cojean.

Conceived by U.S.-based designer Yabu Pushelberg, who has styled several W hotels and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, the new accessories area features 18 themed, open-plan “rooms” for customers to meander through. Eclectic artsy touches include wall sculptures, rugs, photos and design objects.

Citing “excellent” results on luxury accessories sales, Catherine Newey, Printemps’ director of accessories, said the new ground-floor luxury leather goods department aims to give more visibility and space to the store’s fashion brands’ accessories lines. A new boudoirlike environment in the basement targets shoppers looking for more affordable brands, a segment that is also buoyant for Printemps. Newey estimated accessories represent around a third of the store’s global sales.

Luxury leather goods have been moved down a level to Printemps’ ground floor, while fine jewelry and luxury watches are due to be housed on Printemps’ second floor. Independent fashion retailer Maria Luisa Poumaillou, who has opened her own shop on the second floor, will act as a consultant for women’s and men’s fashion brands.

Now that the finishing touches on the Boulevard Haussmann store are over, the next makeover stage will shift to the renovation of Printemps’ three other flagships in Lille, Lyon and Deauville in France, de Cesare said.

“We have 20 million visitors a year, which is more than Venice,” he added. “We need to keep up the interest and the excitement.”

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