By Joelle Diderich
with contributions from Mimosa Spencer
 on March 26, 2019
Nicolas Houzé

PARIS Galeries Lafayette on Tuesday unveiled its new flagship on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées in the presence of French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, who both highlighted the hurdles the retailer had to overcome in its quest to reinvent the department store model.

Le Maire recalled the violent protests by gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, protesters on March 16, during which 80 businesses were vandalized or torched, including a newspaper kiosk near the Galeries Lafayette flagship.

“The kiosk is already up and running again. The Champs-Elysées are up and running again. Violence comes and goes, the Champs-Elysées remain,” the minister said.

Le Maire touted the retailer’s new flagship as evidence of France’s economic dynamism. “I am happy and proud that France should be the first to propose a new type of department store that takes the principle of the concept store and extends it to a department store like Galeries Lafayette,” the official said.

As part of the street’s reinvention into a more upscale destination, the Moulin-Houzé family, which controls Galeries Lafayette Group, has also sponsored one of six new bronze and crystal fountains designed by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, inaugurated last week.

The retailer’s decision to work with the Copenhagen-based Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) — known for its concept of “pragmatic utopia” — was a break with tradition. “To choose to hire an architect who has never designed a store before to create such a big space requires courage, and it is almost foolhardy,” Ingels wryly noted.

“I can say that our learning curve has been very steep, but I couldn’t imagine learning from anyone better than the family and the company that pioneered the ‘grands magasins,’ who invented the urban department store,” he added.

Jakob Sand, the partner at BIG in charge of the project, told WWD the process involved a lot of back and forth.

“Together with Galeries Lafayette we really knew we have to get out there, get into new land, because otherwise none of us will succeed, and then we had to find each other through these three years. It’s been tough and frustrating at times, of course, just because the level of ambition has been elevated,” he said.

Ingels said he came to realize that despite the advent of online retail, there was still a need for brick-and-mortar stores. “We human beings are physical and social, and we need spaces in our cities for collective intimacy,” he said.

Nicolas Houzé, chief executive officer of Galeries Lafayette and BHV Marais, concurred. “The customers who come to our stores don’t want to talk to robots. They don’t want a virtual relationship — they want advice, service, a human touch. We are profoundly convinced that the future of our profession will not be all digital,” he said.

The store is scheduled to open to the public on Thursday, with an official ceremony in the presence of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Crown Princess Mary of Denmark.