The history of the Printemps building reflects the personality of its initiator: Jules Jaluzot, an obstinate, self-made man with a radical vision for modern retail.
It’s a dramatic history, marked by two major fires that destroyed it entirely, that recounts the evolution of modern commerce, and of fashion.
Each time it was rebuilt with more ambition, first in 1882 as a cathedral of retail with its nave, and again in 1921 as a palace dedicated to the glory of fashion. (The 1882 facade and the four skylights, part of the building now housing Le Printemps Beauté Maison, are both classified as historical monuments.)
Jaluzot, a former head of the silk department at Le Bon Marché, married Augustine Figeac, an actress of the Comédie-Française, who had a considerable dowry. With this wealth, Jaluzot was able to open the Au Printemps store in 1865.
His modern and daring spirit first expressed itself in the store’s location. He took a lucrative gamble by choosing to invest in Rue du Havre, away from the city center. He knew the development of the western side of Paris was coming, with the bustling Saint-Lazare station around the corner, the recently created Boulevard Haussmann nearby, and the neighboring Paris Opera House in the works.
Customers could enter the store freely. Unlike other stores of the time, prices were fixed and displayed. With its 17 counters, the department store was a pio- neer in selling a comprehensive assortment of clothing, hosiery, haberdashery, lingerie, gloves and all sorts of fabrics.
But the vast quantities of fabrics were dangerous in a store lit by gas. The first fire broke out one night in 1881. An employee alerted everyone (employees were living in the store at the time), limiting the victims to one fireman, but the store became a giant blaze and was destroyed.
Jaluzot tapped architect Paul Sédille to construct the building, which opened in 1882. It was made of iron and glass, and fitted with electricity in 1883 — a few years before the streets of Paris had electric streetlights.
“It was the Beaubourg of the time,” said Xavier Gaudemet, brand heritage manager at Printemps, referring to Centre Pompidou, a bold architectural innovation of the Seventies.
Jaluzot understood the importance of merchandising, marketing and communications, starting with the name “Au Printemps” (“in the spring”), a brand promise of renewal and freshness. Its slogan was “At Printemps, everything is new, fresh and beautiful, just like its name.”
After Jaluzot’s death, his successors continued to innovate, creating an opulent Art Nouveau palace.
A second fire broke out in 1921, due this time, ironically, to an electric short-circuit.
“A deaf night guard in Printemps’ tea salon didn’t hear the alarm and died,” Gaudemet recounted.
The owners made it rise from the ashes again. The stained glass windows with their 3,125 panels in the domes made by Atelier Brière were restored in their entirety. Measures were taken to avoid new fires with the addition of sprinklers, a technology imported from America.
With the first seaside resorts, the advent of winter sports and enthusiasm for tennis, the department store adjusted its offer and space: The place grew; Printemps took over floors and adjacent buildings. Today, the store takes up 500,000 square feet.
A technological move was the installation of escalators and panoramic elevators in 1924, and later on in the Sixties, the so-called Crystal Bridge between buildings improved the flow of customers through the store.
Meanwhile, the retailer developed all types of services, including a theater and travel agency and a hairdressing salon, both in the Roaring Twenties.
Perhaps most significantly, the building became a setting to showcase the important modern fashions of the day. In 1933, a new space was created, “Le Pont D’Argent,” (“The Silver Bridge”) for designer Paul Poiret to present his collection.
In 1962, Pierre Cardin took space in Printemps for ready-to-wear collections he created exclusively for the store. More recently, a former cupola was turned into an auditorium space for presentations and exhibitions.
Maria Luisa Poumaillou — the late fashion buyer who championed designers including John Galliano, Pierre Hardy and Alexander McQueen — oversaw a department at Printemps, where she was fashion editor, bearing her own name on the second floor of the Boulevard Haussmann flagship. There, she focused on international designers. Said Gaudemet, “We are constantly renovating the building and reinterpreting the heritage.”