PARIS — This is how Armand Hadida articulates his unconventional technique for drawing people into his upscale boutique:
“We close off the store, we lock the doors, we turn off the lights and voilà!” he explained in an interview, gesturing around the dimly lit L’Eclaireur boutique on Rue Hérold in central Paris. A handful of customers browsed the store, pausing to lift a shoe or pull out a piece of clothing for closer inspection while chamber music played in the background. “We are outside the norm on all fronts. We’re not on a commercial road, we have no store window, the lighting is bad, we never have sales — never, never, never.”
In French, an “eclaireur” is a military scout, the one who checks out the lay of the land before sending in the troops. For decades, Hadida and his wife Martine have built their reputation by rooting out emerging fashion labels and boosting their notoriety by bringing them to their unconventional retail settings that mix art, unusual architecture and a place to sit for a drink.
There are currently four stores in Paris and one in Los Angeles, opened last year by their daughter Meryl Hadida Shabani. Each unit is unique, with some selling a mix of up-and-coming labels like the Finnish street-inspired brand Aalto alongside mainstays at L’Eclaireur, including Maison Margiela and Yohji Yamamoto.
The Rue Hérold store was carved out of former stables for an 18th-century manor house. It has a concrete floor, exposed sandstone walls anchored by wide columns and the occasional archway. The decor includes animal skulls, their towering, spiraled horns still attached. Shuttered wood panels open to reveal a room to one side that houses a modern kitchen designed by Roland Szélé of No Name Kitchen, complete with a long dining table for 30 people. A cluster of dozens of bright, suspended lights hover above.
Considered precursors in the world of concept stores, the pair first opened a space on the Champs-Élysées in 1980 where they sold a mix of brands.
But Hadida was not interested in talking about the past. “Today, we have to talk about the future, because it’s the only thing that offers us a bit of mystery, the beauty of discovery — future experience,” said the wiry-haired retailer in his raspy voice, a scarf wrapped around his neck.
Each of L’Eclaireur’s four Paris addresses is different. The Rue Sévigné boutique, which opened in 2009, was designed by Belgian artist Arne Quinze, featuring Space Age movable walls made of scraps of wood and all painted in a uniform industrial gray. Nooks are carved out for shoes and handbags, hundreds of screens are scattered throughout the store, inserted into the moving walls. The boutique sells men’s and women’s wear from labels including Moncler, Rick Owens and Ann Demeulemeester.
The tony Boissy d’Anglas boutique — the only store with display windows onto the street — is tucked on a quiet street between Le Crillon hotel and the Hermès flagship. The more traditional format carries a mix of fashion clothing and furniture on the ground floor, and sells evening gowns on the upstairs level, including brands like Oscar de la Renta and Zuhair Murad.
The couple opened a space in the Paris Saint-Ouen flea market for a spell in 2013. What was supposed to be a two-year pop-up store selling design furniture stretched over nearly four years. In another Parisian address that has since closed, designed by Philippe Starck and located in the five-star hotel Royal Monceau, the retailers experimented with Faith Connexion’s customized services, whereby clients could order specific graffiti or other decorations by various artists.
“We have a great relationship and the collection remains popular,” said Hadida, of the retailer’s ongoing ties with Faith Connexion, which is still sold in the stores.
Like the rest of the industry, including his more conventional counterparts, Hadida is preoccupied with technological change. He related it first to experience — one of his principal obsessions over the years — before explaining how it has shifted the balance of power in his business. “These new technologies teach us to accelerate our way of thinking, our actions, and this is very appealing because it makes life more intense, much stronger. It’s a concentrated version of life that’s unfolding before our very eyes,” he said, leaning forward to emphasize his point.
While in the past he and his wife had to travel to find stuff, nowadays, so much information is at people’s fingertips. “We know everything about everything — right away!” That means less traveling for the pair, to start with. “This democratization, globally, is beneficial, but it can also be…” he trailed off, before adding: “I don’t want to get into the details. It’s beneficial. Period.”
Without further pause, Hadida went on to acknowledge the ways this has affected his trade, noting traffic flows in boutiques have slowed, with smaller crowds at fashion trade shows, for example — he is involved in Tranoï, the high-end fashion showcase in Paris run by his son David.
“We’ve lost the exchange, that rich form of communication. The exchange was rich, but also a bit unbalanced. Today, I think that the balance of power has totally changed,” he added, referring to the declining authority that retailers traditionally wielded over consumers. “We can even cite a number of consumers who are more alert and informed than certain retailers who continue to balk at bringing themselves up-to-date,” he continued.
L’Eclaireur counts around 70 employees, including some who have worked for the company for as long as 25 years. “We have certain requirements, we need people who understand our sensibilities, who dare also to do something that’s a bit off of the track, that’s not standard or classical, because that would just bore everyone and is of no interest to anyone,” said Hadida. Staff meetings are held daily, and others monthly, either in store spaces or over dinner in a restaurant.
“We talk about everything, we share, it’s a family—we’re very warm. We’d have a hard time generating this warmth and family culture in a company with investments funds backing it,” he added.
The internet team has expanded over the past year to count around a dozen. While sales in the stores are currently flat, business on the internet is growing, said Hadida, who does not reveal figures.
For around five years, the company has been selling its wares—such as a men’s shark-shaped hand bag for 2,300 euros by Thom Browne and slim sweatpants from Balmain for 690 euros, along with platters and candles from Italian design firm Fornasetti —through Farfetch.com, the London-based internet site that assembles high-end independent retailers in an online marketplace. Now, L’Eclaireur is working on its own site with the aim of launching it early next year, in March, to coincide with Fashion Week. “We need to represent our identity in a more accurate and personal manner,” Hadida explained.
This doesn’t mean selling all of the store’s products on the internet or excessively bulking up the online offer:
“We don’t have that ferocious appetite and we continue to stick to our duty of keep things organic — we’re not big fans of genetically modified crops,” he insisted, laughing. “We maintain a certain integrity, when it comes to the offer, even if it is reduced on the window that we have on the internet, it remains exactly in the DNA of our physical store…We try to preserve our formula, this way of working, because it’s also reassuring for our teams and for our clients who come into the shop.”
“We have a lot of small brands that we encourage, it’s normal, we can’t rest on our laurels—our duty is constant renewal, but also to accompany young people in their steps to support them,” said Hadida, who sees many young designers struggling financially these days.
L’Eclaireur’s clientele for the most part comes from outside of France. For a while, Japanese accounted for around half of the store’s business and the couple had a store in Japan for 10 years. But following a long spell of financial stagnation in that country, and with China’s rise, the retailer has experienced a significant upsurge in Chinese clients that has gained steam in the past couple of years.
“Why do we have Chinese here today? Because the Chinese are the most discerning when it comes to fashion these days. Once you have understood this, you can earn this clientele,” Hadida said.