PARIS — Bulgari has refurbished its Place Vendôme flagship, bringing marble columns and towering stone vases from Italy to the famed square at the heart of French luxury.
“Whether you’re Italian or American, Place Vendôme resonates worldwide for clients as the pinnacle of high jewelry,” said Bulgari chief executive officer Jean-Christophe Babin via a Zoom call.
“We’re bringing Rome to Paris,” said Peter Marino, the architect behind the project, who spoke to WWD from New York in a separate phone interview.
Babin noted that the square’s spiraled monument has a close connection to the Italian capital — introduced by Napoleon I, it was fashioned after Trajan’s Column in Rome.
“There’s a little bit of Italy right in the middle of Place Vendôme, and now I put a little bit of Italy — actually more than a little bit because we not only renovated the existing store, we…increased significantly in size, by about 50 percent,” said Marino.
The store originally faced the Rue des Capucines, but has been enlarged to stretch around the block, with an opening on the square, at number 23. Another entrance was added on the perpendicular facade, closer to the Rue des Capucines. It runs through two 17th-century buildings — subject to strict rules from France’s historical monuments department when it comes to renovations.
“We had a lot of requirements,” said Marino, noting the square is “super protected.”
This was his eighth store refurbishment on the square; the architect is known for his work with high-end labels. Future projects include the Chanel store on the other side of the square, Dior’s Avenue Montaigne flagship, the Cheval Blanc Hotel at La Samaritaine in Paris and the Tiffany flagship in New York.
Visitors entering the Bulgari store from the square are greeted by an arched corridor, lined with a succession of marble columns. High jewelry is displayed here, in cases lined with a golden-hued silk fabric, in the walls and in long, glass-covered counters with rounded stone edges. Small rooms and salons are tucked to the side — one is decorated with a plush sofa and matching chairs, while another space is dedicated to watches, which sit in tall display cases sitting on marble pedestals.
A round, domed room marks the transition to the rest of the store, its entrances marked with slabs of marble; the space dominated with a circular marble table and a huge, ball-shaped chandelier, with glass spikes — Italian design from the last century.
Then comes the heart of the store, an open space that stretches to the ceiling of the floor above, served by a wide entrance from the street. Ringed with marble columns, the space is filled with curved display tables made of thick slabs of polished stone. Light streams in from the windows of the upper level, which is decorated with a pair of imposing red stone vases hauled over from the label’s store in Rome.
“It took us a very long time getting proper permissions to put this there and the opening in so we could get some spacial excitement in the height,” remarked Marino, speaking of the location of the entrance and the open space created in the store.
A modern staircase built from suspended marble steps curves up on one side, leading to the floor above. Lining the stairway is a label signature, in the form of brass and stainless steel mesh, drawn from a bracelet from the ’30s, and embellished with round decorations meant to evoke cabochon rubies and brilliant-cut diamonds.
The upper floor offers a succession of rooms, furnished with striking vintage furniture, including a curved Carlo de Carli desk, and the long smooth Osvaldo Borsani cabinet, which precisely fits the space between two doorways. There is space to display historic pieces, and one room has panels that open to reveal new jewelry. Downstairs is a bridal section and shelved walls for accessories — handbags and sunglasses. Various artisans were employed for the renovation work, which included intricate wood marquetry and tiled star patterns on the floors.
Artwork throughout the store includes pieces by Nicolas Ruel, with images of Rome and marbled statues of gladiators, as well as a couple of Andy Warhol works — one features a figure in Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” Other Italian design pieces include a pair of gilded Alessandro Mendini lamps and a large, modern coffee table by Gabriella Crespi.
“We buy both from dealers and from auctions whenever we see a great piece — there’s no particular story, I buy from wherever I see a very good piece,” said Marino.
There was also a lot of art brought from the original boutique in Rome.
The architect pushed the Italian spirit “to the max,” he said, noting they brought everything but the pines of Rome — but hinting that at future events, “you might spot a few.”
Commenting on the marble stone work running throughout the store, he said the mix was intended to recall the original Bulgari store in the 1930s.
“We have quite a lot of wonderful marbles,” he said.
Sourcing marble is a challenge given that many quarries are closed, he added, noting that he works with a woman from Torino who hunts for the material.
“You get one or two odd blocks…you get something that not everybody could come up with,” said Marino.
“In a Peter Marino shop, you’re supposed to touch the walls and you’re supposed to be happy and feel transported — and by the way you’re supposed to buy terribly expensive jewelry for yourself,” he added.
Asked about the decision to put the high jewelry at the entrance on the square, he said everybody visiting the store should “experience the really luxury things, whether you can buy them or not,” he said. “I’m old-fashioned and I believe putting your best foot forward is always the way to go in life for anything.
“For me these are really all great works of art and to see them is a joy, so why bury them in the back the way some of the other brands do — I think that’s creepy,” he asserted.
Reflecting on how the crisis has affected the role of physical retail spaces, Marino struck a positive note.
“It’s been the best thing in the world for retail stores,” he said.
“I think we’re going to have a trend of ‘I want reality now, enough of fake reality for 18 months,’” he said, noting he agrees with his wife, who has said she’d be happy to never to see another Zoom video.
In Paris on Monday, Marino said a woman told him she felt like the store had been there forever.
“That’s not really easy to achieve,” he said, taking the comment as a sign he’d done his job successfully, and noting he thought jewelry companies should go for timeless appeal rather than follow fashion.
“I was really happy because I spent all day yesterday punch listing the job,” he smiled.
“Commercially speaking, it’s one of the best locations,” Babin added, but said that exact sales figures are impossible to tally because “everyone’s keeping it a secret.”
“I think in terms of image, in terms of sales, it’s crucial to be there,” the executive said, adding that the best names in the jewelry industry are located on the Place Vendôme. The label is also gearing up to open a Bulgari Hotel in the French capital next year.
Babin said with the crisis, the label has increased its amount of direct communications with clients. It began establishing a client relationship management system around a decade ago, actively building up a database of clients — both of tourists and locals.
“The switch to one-to-one [communication] has been extremely productive, we are increasing business with locals at double-digit rates in all markets,” he said, adding the label has taken this approach when it comes to a wider range of products and accessories, including products priced in the 2,000 euro or 5,000 euro range.
Asked when he expects tourism to resume, he pointed to vaccines.
“It will be vaccination-driven,” he predicted.
“What we lost on the one hand on travel retail, we have regained it — partially in some countries, totally in others — and globally more or less — by selling more locally,” he said.
“People obviously are very hungry to socialize again, to discover again, to travel again, to get out again and to spend again,” observed Babin.