In recent weeks, it has garnered attention for hosting a bright green 78-foot inflatable sculpture widely compared to a sex toy, but the august Place Vendôme is better known as the epicenter of Paris luxury.
Artist Paul McCarthy’s controversial “Tree,” installed there as part of the French capital’s FIAC art fair last month, temporarily drew attention from the hoardings that cover vast swathes of the square, including its famous column.
This story first appeared in the November 25, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
They will stay in place until late next year, when the Ritz Hotel is scheduled to reopen after almost four years of renovations.
That two of the most powerful symbols of French opulence are hidden under scaffolding and advertising billboards is not a coincidence. The Ritz is financing the restoration of the Colonne Vendôme, first erected in 1810 as a military tribute to Napoleon I, to the tune of 1.5 million euros, or $1.2 million.
Both will be unveiled together with a glittering gala at the end of 2015 that will train the spotlight on the square, home to leading watch and jewelry brands such as Boucheron, Breguet, Buccellati, Chanel, Chaumet, Dior, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lorenz Bäumer, Louis Vuitton, Repossi and Van Cleef & Arpels.
“It’s going to be a very important event for Paris,” said Béatrice de Plinval, curator of the museum and archives at Chaumet and president of the Comité Vendôme, which groups 110 members located in and around the square. “In the mind of foreigners, the Colonne Vendôme is the symbol of luxury.”
Sitting in her office adjacent to Chaumet’s ornate 18th-century reception rooms, which directly overlooks the square, the elegant, white-haired historian explains the initiative all stemmed from her meeting with Thierry Despont, the designer best known for his work on the centennial restoration of the Statue of Liberty.
Despont is spearheading the Ritz revamp, and the two quickly came up with the idea of asking the hotel’s owner, businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed, to finance the cleanup of the column, which had not been restored since it was put back in place in 1872, following a period of political turbulence during which it was briefly torn down.
It’s a politically correct solution to a thorny problem: Though the members of the Comité Vendôme put on a united front, they are engaged in cutthroat competition for the dollars of wealthy tourists.
“We are all colleagues before being rivals, and we all love the Ritz,” said de Plinval. “Nobody is going to be against a major luxury hotel like the Ritz being the patron of the Colonne Vendôme, so it was really a wonderful gift.”
Standing 145 feet tall, the column is covered in a spiral-like frieze of military feats cast in bronze taken from the cannons seized from enemy armies, which over time has acquired a verdigris patina like the one on the Statue of Liberty. It is topped by a statue of Napoleon in the guise of Julius Caesar, itself no longer the original, but a copy made in 1875.
The restoration is being led by Christophe Bottineau, chief architect of the Historical Monuments directorate at the Ministry of Culture, and is expected to last up to 10 months. In the meantime, the column is encased in a vast grid of scaffolding that hides an elevator.
Meanwhile, several of the stores looking onto the square are shrouded in oversize hoardings — both Breguet and Van Cleef & Arpels are in the midst of renovations — giving the prestigious address the look of a temporary building site.
“For as long as I’ve know it, the Place Vendôme has been under construction,” shrugged de Plinval. “If you don’t do any work, you can’t be beautiful, and I must say, Paris is a city where the restorations are absolutely magnificent.”
Having spent her entire career at Chaumet, she feels at home in the 18th century square designed by architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart to the glory of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Its octagonal shape, which inspired the design of Chanel perfume bottles and watches, is enhanced by the use of stone in an array of gray, blue and beige tones.
“[It] gives you goosebumps when you arrive and retains its majesty even when it is overrun with construction and scaffolding – and that’s Paris,” she said. “I always say the Colonne Vendôme is our village steeple.”