The Champs-Elysees avenue military parade on Bastille Day

PARIS — The French love to say it’s the most beautiful avenue in the world. Dismiss them as arrogant or call it a flirtatious exaggeration, yet even the most skeptical would have to agree: France knows how to market the Champs-Élysées.

Evidence comes in the form of the eye-popping rents fetched along the avenue, which vies with places like Fifth Avenue in New York or Hong Kong’s Russell Street as the world’s priciest. Last year the avenue beat Bond Street in London to top the chart of Europe’s most expensive locations, with average boutique retail rents at an annual $1,368 a square foot, according to Cushman & Wakefield. And that was at a time when Paris saw some of the steepest declines in tourism following the spate of terrorist attacks.

With seemingly timeless and universal appeal, the avenue has shrugged off detractors who complain about noise and congestion — even the most self-assured pedestrian flagging a taxi would hesitate before stepping into the eight lanes of traffic charging up and down the cobblestone boulevard. Instead, images from Tour de France cycling victories, New Wave films of the Sixties and the rendering of a Daft Punk tune by a French military marching band that went viral in July tend to stick most with an international audience.

This popularity is driving a radical transformation of the avenue’s retail landscape — change wrought by the same forces redefining commerce around the world. As brands seek to broaden their global reach and adjust to the growing importance of business online, they are homing in on a smaller number of choice locations for interaction with consumers. The “Champs,” as it is sometimes called, has clearly made the cut.

A view of the Champs-Élysées avenue from the Arc de Triomphe.

A view of the Champs-Élysées avenue from the Arc de Triomphe.  Egon Bömsch/imageBROKER/REX/Shutterstock

“There has never been so much change on the Champs-Élysées,” said Antoine Salmon, head of retail for the real estate company Knight Frank’s French operations, about the number and sizes of real estate projects currently underway.

Part of the transformation resembles something of a game of musical chairs, with retailers swapping locations, pulling out of one spot and, after hefty investments in remodeling, moving into a new, spruced-up location.

German activewear giant Adidas, not one to miss the opportunity to augment its current store, has grabbed space vacated next door by Gap Inc.’s Banana Republic. The American brand’s two-story French flagship had fallen victim to a retrenchment by Gap only five years after it opened — a sign of business faltering at the company, not the location, according to real estate specialists.

Sources say that Apple, after hunting for the right spot for years, has finally settled on a building at number 114, with a historic facade that masks previous rounds of renovations. CBRE, in its 2016 “viewpoint” report on the Champs-Élysées, notes that the opening of a 15,500-square-foot store for an “IT giant” is scheduled for the end of next year or early 2019, likely “reinforcing the appeal of the avenue for other brands.” Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, the previous inhabitant of Apple’s future Champs-Élysées showcase, upscale shoe brand J.M. Weston, is currently operating out of a plush pop-up store in a former movie theater about three blocks down. Next year it will gather up its merchandise and put down roots on the other side of the street.

And local fascination with one lavish remodeling project in a historic Art Deco building — the Louis Vuitton flagship just over a decade ago — has given way to another, farther down the avenue, reinforcing the status of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton as a precursor when it comes to urban renewal projects.

For the renovation of a vast edifice built in 1932, Parisian department store Galeries Lafayette chose the Bjarke Ingels Group, the Danish architect superstar also employed for Google’s futuristic new headquarters in Silicon Valley.

Upon completion, scheduled for the end of next year, the Parisian department store will boast the largest retail space on the avenue, inhabiting 96,875 square feet of the building’s 301,390 square feet of space. According to the ambitious plans set out by Galeries Lafayette chief executive officer Nicolas Houzé, the space will serve as a new department store model for the 21st century. There is already a buzz in this foodie capital about the future restaurant on the 17,870-square-foot roof terrace with a panoramic view of Paris.

“Each time a brand sets up here — be it luxury or mass market — it will seek to implement an architectural concept that stands out from the rest of its network,” explained Christian Dubois, international partner and head of retail services France for Cushman & Wakefield.

“With visitors counting over 100 million a year, it’s obvious that a brand looking to set up here is working to develop their brand image,” he added, which typically means coming up with “something extraordinary in terms of layout.”

Champs-Elysees Avenue

Cars are banned on the first Sunday of the month allowing foot traffic to take over the Champs-Élysées avenue.  Ena/AP/REX/Shutterstock

He believes the recent wave of real estate transactions will lift the quality of retail space throughout the avenue.

While French pride and popularity among tourists undoubtedly have their role in supporting the flurry of real estate projects on the mile-long stretch linking the Arc de Triomphe with the city’s oldest monument, a 3,000-year-old obelisk, Dubois also pointed to a number of specific economic factors.

Over the past three years, the juxtaposition of a dip in visitors and climbing rents — with demand for spaces under 6,500 square feet outpacing supply — helped spur the recent spate of deal making, he said.

“There was a decline in the number of visitors, a decline in sales, rental values rose and there were some transactions that offered great hope for the future — this combination gave rise to a large volume of transactions,” said Dubois.

He cited Italian cosmetics brand Kiko’s plans to take over the space of the Queen nightclub at number 102, beauty brand L’Occitane’s future store at 86 and Chanel’s new beauty store at number 58.

On the odd side of the street, which was traditionally less expensive because it gets less sunlight, Dubois cited the upscale handbag maker Longchamp’s move into number 77 and French fashion brand Maje, which belongs to China’s Shandong Ruyi Group, replacing another French clothing brand Zadig & Voltaire lower down.

In addition to a bulked-up beauty presence on the avenue, which has been home to LVMH brand Sephora’s 16,145-square-foot store since 1995 — sportswear stores are expanding, a reflection of rising demand from younger, active consumers. While Adidas extends its flagship, the sports and lifestyle retailer Citadium, owned by the Printemps Group, snapped up Tommy Hilfiger’s address, and Foot Locker is moving in at number 66, Benetton’s former digs.

In another sign of the times, the scores of movie theaters that once lined the Champs-Élysées have been whittled down to around six. The 20-year decline has accelerated lately as consumers remain glued to tablets at home and in the face of new rules requiring better access for the handicapped. With some theaters below ground, the cost of installing elevators proved too high, realtors explain.

Local government authorities, who have pushed back against a flood of apparel stores invading the avenue in favor of maintaining cultural activities, recently granted approval for a project in the Gaumont movie theater building. Amid the crowd of new shops, space will be carved out to include a cinema museum, which will remind visitors of France’s role in the industry.

“If the cultural sector has come up against a problem of cost, luxury brands have returned to the avenue,” said CBRE in its report, citing the arrival of Tiffany in 2012 and Tag Heuer in 2013.

Plans by local authorities to rejuvenate the Champs-Élysées over two years ago were shelved after the string of terrorist attacks cast a pall on tourism to France. But visitor numbers are climbing back, with the Paris region showing a 10 percent rise in tourists staying in hotels over the first half of the year — even with a terrorist attack as recently as June on the Champs-Élysées itself. Visitors from China, Japan and the U.S. are driving the improvement, according to the region’s tourist board CRT.

Last year, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Jeanne d’Hauteserre, mayor of the eighth arrondissement, introduced the city’s popular once-a-month Sunday street closures to the Champs-Élysées. Without car traffic, city dwellers are free to fan across the avenue on foot, or on their bikes, or go shopping, thanks to new rules allowing Sunday openings — the work of French President Emmanuel Macron in his previous life as finance minister.

Local authorities are also trying to set up a year-round bike lane but face specific constraints. Placing it in the middle would make it difficult to clear out the space necessary for the annual Bastille Day military parade, and the curb is reserved for taxis and buses.

The bike lane project calls for “the time necessary to consider its feasibility — we can’t get it wrong,” noted d’Hauteserre.

Meanwhile, the avenue’s newspaper kiosks, which number around 10, will be gradually replaced starting next spring, with the new, heated models already seen elsewhere in Paris.

After 20 years of neglect, the six fountains encircling the Rond Point des Champs Elysées are finally getting a makeover, with an opening that will likely coincide with the inauguration of the new Galeries Lafayette store. Trampled by the crowds that descended on the avenue following France’s 1998 World Cup soccer victory, it took a money-raising scheme involving funds from abroad to get the project up and running. Set up as a non-profit organization in the U.S. by Hidalgo, the Paris Foundation is the first example of a fund established by French officials in order to generate private sector financing for public projects.

French design team Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec were selected to reconfigure the fountains. The brothers are known for creating Versailles’ first modern light fixture — a 40-foot minimalist display of looping threads of Swarovski crystal modules lit up by LED lighting.

Galeries Lafayette store on the Champs-Élysées avenue

A rendering of the future Galeries Lafayette store on the Champs-Élysées avenue.  Courtesy Photo

By selecting their project for the Champs-Élysées fountains, which builds on the brothers’ experimentation with light and height, the city clearly signals a “desire to look to the future,” said d’Hauteserre. Besides, there was no question of going back to their original form, which included pieces made by the French crystal brand Lalique:

“We can’t get a factory back to work just to remake the fountains!” she noted.

“It’s a beautiful avenue,” said d’Hauteserre, modestly revising the famous expression, and adding, in the same breath: “We are delighted it’s being lifted by prestigious brands.”

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