Byline: Katherine Weisman

PARIS — With snazzy renovations and special exhibitions, Paris’s three major department stores have launched an all-out market-share war this week for La Rentree, France’s back-to-school period.
Major projects at Printemps and Le Bon Marche, primarily in the accessories departments, are practically done, and the Galeries Lafayette flagship, Europe’s largest department store, has this week unveiled an ambitious exhibit dedicated to New York City fashion and lifestyle.
In this back-to-school battle, Printemps is betting on baubles. The store made a $10 million gamble on buying accessories, and next month the flagship unveils two entirely redone floors — the street level and the first floor of its fashion store — for scarves, handbags, hats, shoes and fashion and fine jewelry.
“Only a department store can house a global offering,” Printemps France chairman Philippe Vindry said recently, explaining the company’s steep investment.
Women’s fashion and accessories director Catherine Royer added that in France, apart from specialty stores such as Agatha, selling its own brand, few boutiques are devoted solely to accessories. The Printemps executives say they plan to fill that void, and they see accessories as a vehicle for higher margins and quick sales on the floor.
In merchandising accessories, Printemps organizes accessories brands by price points and fashion statements.
The main floor, roughly 44,400 square feet, will house middle to upper market brands. New entries include 31 Fevrier, Ursule Beaugeste and DKNY for handbags. In scarves, there are the Richard Fisher, Neisha Crosland and Giorgio Armani labels. For hats, the store will offer Philippe Model, Christophe Coppens and Patricia Underwood, and in jewelry key names include Jordan Schlanger, Kenneth Jay Lane and Kuo Design.
Luxury brands will be housed in 22,200 square feet on the first floor, which will also feature an upscale tea salon called Ladure. Newcomers include Ferragamo, J.P. Tod’s and Philip Treacy. Vintage fashion specialist Didier Ludot has opened a shop-in-shop there too.
In addition, Ludot is organizing an October exhibit at Printemps called Women in Flower, relating fashion to flowers. A new fine jewelry department welcomes Bulgari and Chaumet.
High-end labels which have been mainstays at Printemps include Christian Dior, Sonia Rykiel, Celine and Chanel.
But Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton are no-shows. Vuitton is a sore point with Vindry, since he is selling Christian Lacroix, Dior and Celine, which like Vuitton are controlled by luxury goods tycoon Bernard Arnault. Rumor has it that Vuitton pulled out at the last minute after learning that neither Prada nor Gucci was going to be present. Vuitton executives would not comment.
Printemps executives shrug off the absence of these heavy-hitters.
“Prada? It’s almost too everywhere,” responded Mylene Borrel, an executive responsible for accessories development. “We feel that Didier Ludot and Treacy are much more original.”
Printemps may have a run for its money, though, as Left Bank rival Le Bon Marche is also revamping accessories and other areas. Le Bon Marche, weighing in with non-food sales of $177.4 million (1.1 billion francs) is considerably smaller than its Right Bank rivals, Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, whose flagships had 1996 sales of $419.4 million and $612.9 million, respectively.
Renovations at Le Bon Marche began several years ago, but the store has since raised its budget, attempting to become la creme de la creme of Paris stores.
“We want to create an incomparable shopping experience,” said Philippe de Beauvoir, president of Le Bon Marche, which is controlled by Bernard Arnault. “I am clearly being a megalomaniac, but we want to be very high end and unique — like Bergdorf Goodman in New York.” To reach his goal, de Beauvoir has some $5 million to spend annually until 1999.
While the complete transformation of Le Bon Marche’s fashion and accessory areas is pegged for 1999, some changes appeared this spring with the opening of a new lingerie space with salon-like dressing rooms complete with telephones and a week-end casual area dominated by Polo Sport.
This fall, the first phase of renovating the accessories area on the main floor will be complete, boasting a new Christian Dior shop and Paris’s first Louis Vuitton shop-in-shop by the middle of this month. This summer, the store launched a luxury watch area and a new hosiery space.
Next year, the store plans to rework its perfumery area, which currently has a confused setup marked by high-end brands juxtaposed to mass market personal products.
Back on the Right Bank, Galeries Lafayette is hardly fazed by the works undertaken by rivals.
“We are the biggest store in Europe, with sales of $612.9 million [3.8 billion francs],” boasted Jean-Michel Hallez, director of the Galeries flagship on Boulevard Haussmann. “Le Bon Marche is much smaller, and we do 70 percent more sales in women’s fashion than Printemps and 43 percent more in accessories.”
Hallez attributes these measures of success to management’s continual investments in the store, roughly $5 million per year, on everything from renovating branded shop-in-shops to staging the store’s annual Festival de la Mode.
There are seasonal exhibitions too, like the one honoring New York City, where it once had a branch.
Galeries continues to be the launchpad in France for new products. This fall, men’s collections from Nautica and Tommy Hilfiger are making their debut in France in the Galeries men’s wear department, which was renovated last year. Other examples of launches include Gap and DKNY a few years ago, and various Calvin Klein products in more recent seasons.
Overall, the store is the exclusive home to some 42 labels this fall, Hallez noted, including Gucci and Prada accessories, which are not going to be at Printemps.
Galeries is spending some $35 million at current exchange rates in renovations for its entire chain — slightly more than what Printemps is spending on its flagship alone.
“If I were at Printemps, I might say that I needed to do something,” Hallez observed, noting that in the last 10 years, the Printemps flagship suffered from ownership and management changes.
“We can always strive to be better,” Hallez said, “That’s the good side of competition.”

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