PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron joined luxury magnate Bernard Arnault on Monday to inaugurate the La Samaritaine department store, marking the culmination of a 16-year renovation process that promises to galvanize shopping and tourism in Paris as the city emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Oh la la!” the French leader exclaimed as he walked into the painstakingly restored Art Nouveau building, where 700 employees lined along the stairs and balconies greeted him with loud cheers.
First Lady Brigitte Macron and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo stood with Arnault’s wife Hélène Mercier-Arnault, while the billionaire’s children Delphine, Antoine, Alexandre and Frédéric, and senior executives from LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, looked on.
“There are times like this when the things you do are like a perfect metaphor for what we’re going through, and our country, like many others — not to mention the entire planet — has been through difficult times these last 15 months,” Macron said in a speech. “Despite everything, we’re getting ready for a fresh start.”
He praised Arnault and his group for their “relentless” commitment to the project, noting that none of it would have been possible without teamwork.
“Despite the masks, we can see your smiles,” he said, as a murmur of approval rose from the crowd. “Despite the masks, we can feel your enthusiasm, your desire to bring this place alive again and to welcome people back here — in short, to embrace life again in all its forms.”
A pharaonic project that has gobbled up time and resources, La Samaritaine was due to open in April 2020 — but the COVID-19 crisis added another delay to what has been a tortuous development process for the historic Right Bank department store.
Now LVMH is betting that its 750 million-euro investment will pay off, despite the continued absence of tourists, which are the lifeblood of DFS, the travel retail division that operates the store. The group bought a majority share in La Samaritaine in 2001 and raised its stake to 100 percent in 2010.
“This project would not have been possible if we didn’t have a long-term vision for our investments,” Arnault, who is chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH, said in his speech. “I believe that only a family-run group could have shouldered such an investment with no return for more than 15 years.”
Founded in 1870 and shuttered in 2005, the rechristened Samaritaine Paris Pont-Neuf is reemerging as a mixed-use site including a Cheval Blanc hotel, offices, low-income housing and a day care center.
Turning to Hidalgo, who has riled retailers by banning car traffic from sections of central Paris, Arnault noted that a total of 3,000 people would be employed at the site. “So Madam Mayor, you don’t risk being told that you are transforming Paris into a museum city,” he said with a smile.
The hotel, due to open on Sept. 7, is located in an Art Deco building overlooking the Seine river, while the department store occupies the Art Nouveau edifice, inaugurated in 1910, in addition to a new building with a wavy facade on Rue de Rivoli, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architecture firm Sanaa.
Eléonore de Boysson, region president Europe and Middle East at DFS Group, is confident it will transform the area.
“One of La Samaritaine’s major assets is its location between the Louvre and Notre-Dame de Paris, in the Pont-Neuf neighborhood, which has been totally revamped. The Rue de la Monnaie has been pedestrianized. The Place de la Samaritaine is completely new,” she told WWD during a preview visit.
She pointed to a slew of major projects in the area, including the renovation of the gardens adjoining the Forum des Halles shopping mall; the recent opening of French billionaire François Pinault’s Bourse de Commerce contemporary art museum; the impending opening of the La Poste du Louvre, another mixed-use site, and the Fondation Cartier’s planned move to a location nearby.
“There are lots of things happening in this area, and we think it will be the hippest neighborhood in Paris,” said the executive, who previously oversaw the development of DFS Group’s first European store, the T Galleria Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice, Italy.
In a press conference on Monday, the executive said the store hopes to draw 5 million visitors a year within the next three or four years, though it would be up to two years before tourists return to the French capital.
Jean-Jacques Guiony, chief financial officer of LVMH and CEO of La Samaritaine, said it should eventually match sales by square foot at LVMH’s Left Bank institution, Le Bon Marché, though he cautioned it will take time.
“It’s extraordinarily complex to predict sales and evaluate the potential scenarios in a year like next year, which is completely uncertain at this stage. We must not forget that customers have lost the habit of coming to La Samaritaine over the last 15 years,” he said.
“Both tourists and locals will need a little time to find their way back to La Samaritaine, so La Samaritaine has to become a destination, and that’s not something that can be achieved in 10 minutes,” Guiony added.
During lockdown, Hidalgo controversially banned cars from Rue de Rivoli, the commercial artery on which the store is located, with the exception of buses, taxis, delivery cars and emergency vehicles, but de Boysson put a positive spin on the measure.
“Now that there are bikes everywhere, it’s going to become a very attractive thoroughfare for tourists, whereas before, it was more just a way of crossing Paris,” she reasoned.
With 12 on-site dining options, she hopes the store will also become a hub for nearby office workers. “One of the primary objectives of our food offer is to make this a destination for locals, and not just in the evening,” she said. “We’ve been careful to ensure that prices are extremely reasonable so that people come here for lunch.”
Politically charged from the outset — the store’s closure angered employees and longtime patrons — the project encountered resistance from local authorities at various stages, and plans for the modern glass exterior sparked lengthy debates about how much change should be allowed in the city’s historic center.
It also harbored technical challenges, as security concerns prevented the rebuilding of floors of sales space, and there were often tensions between interest in historical preservation and safety issues.
As a result, La Samaritaine is relatively small by Parisian department store standards, with just 215,000 square feet of selling space. By comparison, Printemps has almost 485,000 square feet at its flagship on Boulevard Haussmann, while the main Galeries Lafayette store totals 754,000 square feet.
“Obviously, it feels much bigger because we have a lot of atriums,” de Boysson said. “There is light absolutely everywhere in the building, which makes it a bit different from other department stores, which tend to be closed in on themselves.”
A soaring glass roof overlooking a criss-crossing elevator bank is equipped with electrochrome glass by Saint-Gobain that turns blue to filter heat and UV rays during hot weather. Bay windows provide close-up views of the gargoyles of the neighboring church of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois.
Due to limited space, the store does not have a food hall, wine cellar or homewares. Instead, it is banking on a curated selection of women’s and men’s ready-to-wear, accessories, watches and jewelry; women’s shoes; a gift store, and continental Europe’s biggest beauty floor — all spread over seven floors in the main building.
The concept is a playful take on the French art de vivre, with a mix of leading luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Dior, Celine and Tiffany & Co., and smaller brands like Ganni, Isabel Marant, Wandler and Casablanca. The store carries 600 brands in total, of which 50 are exclusives.
“La Samaritaine is about a generous, inclusive take on luxury that is not ostentatious. There’s always a little twist,” de Boysson said, pointing to a display of skewed Paris street signs in the store’s signature yellow hue, which also designates exclusive brands and products. “It’s very young and very friendly.”
Loulou, the 2,150-square-foot concept store on the ground floor, faces the Pont-Neuf bridge and offers more than 1,500 objects ranging from inexpensive trinkets to souvenir merchandise, high-tech gadgets and even a Samaritaine-branded bicycle. Visitors are encouraged to snap selfies in a window decor inspired by a Parisian café.
The three-story building on Rue de Rivoli targets a Millennial audience with a mix of clothing, food, art and streetwear. Exclusives include Shinzo Green, a space curated by French sneaker retailer Shinzo that focuses on sustainable shoes, and a pop-up store curated by gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin.
“La Samaritaine stands for the duality between modernity and tradition, between the cheeky Paris of Les Halles and the majestic, romantic Paris of the Seine and the Louvre. We’re constantly playing with this tension,” de Boysson explained.
In addition to restoring the spectacular gold-hued peacock mural on the fifth floor, which will house Voyage, a sprawling restaurant and bar featuring a rotating cast of top chefs, La Samaritaine has invited street artists Antonin Hako, Antwan Horfee and Pablo Tomek to customize the walls of its Factory space for the opening.
Dining options include a healthy eatery called Parisienne, developed by Maison Plisson founder Delphine Plisson; Zinc, a café run by coffee roastery La Brûlerie des Gobelins; Street Caviar, an exclusive concept by Maison Prunier with light bites including a caviar sandwich, and Ernest, a bakery with an adjoining brasserie featuring a menu by “Top Chef” winner Naoëlle d’Hainaut.
The store is dotted with corners dedicated to LVMH-owned wines and spirits brands, including Champagne house Ruinart and cognac-maker Hennessy, offering personalized packaging.
A 330-foot moving walkway, surrounded by video screens recounting the history of the store, connects the nearby underground car park to the basement-level beauty floor, which houses a Cinq Mondes spa and a clean beauty studio. A dedicated 3,200-square-foot space will greet tour groups as they disembark.
Design agency Atelieramo sourced an eclectic array of vintage and designer furniture for the apartment-style VIP space on the first floor, which also features art works by five artists in residence at the LVMH Métiers d’Art workshops. The space will host personal shopping services and press events, among others.
Canadian firm Yabu Pushelberg, which has created interiors for Printemps and Lane Crawford, designed all the interiors of the Pont-Neuf building, with the exception of the basement, with terrazzo floors that echo Parisian paving stones.
The beauty department is the work of French architect Hubert de Malherbe, while French agency Ciguë was in charge of the trendy Rivoli building.
De Boysson said the journey through the store was designed to make the customer linger. “We want people to have fun,” she said. “La Samaritaine is like a really pleasant stroll. And when you’re strolling, there are surprises, you discover things, you feel good.”
Some 1,700 people will work at the department store, including 700 DFS staff, 700 concession and restaurant employees, and outside contractors for cleaning and security. The Cheval Blanc hotel will employ 400 people, and the building will also house the new headquarters of French fragrance and beauty house Guerlain.
De Boysson, who’s been working on the project for eight years, said the store was initially due to bow in March 2017. Last year, 600 people came on staff ahead of the rescheduled opening on April 2, only to be furloughed as the government implemented a series of lockdowns designed to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The store will finally open its doors on June 23. “We are happy, and especially impatient, to open and to earn the public’s endorsement,” de Boysson said.