Byline: Katherine Weisman

PARIS — Galeries Lafayette is getting a makeover. Finally.
Fifteen years of aging at this venerable fashion institution are fading away, thanks to a hefty storewide $60 million facelift. The women’s fashion floor remodeling won’t be completed until the end of 2002, but a look at the designer boutiques and other women’s brands on the store’s first level — which reopened last month — has resources and customers cooing, “Ooh, la la.”
Not only is the new space remarkable in its clear layout and sophisticated design, but it’s already a commercial success. Since the reopening, same-area sales for those designer labels in the new space previously carried by the Galeries flagship have doubled over a year ago, according to Philippe Houze, co-president of the Galeries Lafayette group in charge of store operations.
In the new strategy, apparel is being merchandised by lifestyle rather than price point — a departure that was spearheaded by Houze. Many are surprised that Galeries, which has seemed to resist change for so long, embarked on such a daring move.
“I risk, I profit,” Houze told WWD following a recent financial press conference that revealed the retail and services group earned $79.6 million on pretax sales of $5.4 billion. The tall, elegant Houze is also quick to credit his team, including Galeries Lafayette managing director Joel Mornet and fashion director Marie-Helene Robinet.
“You need to differentiate yourself to affirm your presence in the retail business,” said Houze. “Everyone is trying new concepts as department stores have tried to reinvent their standard formulas. But a store atmosphere has to have magic, be theatrical and emotional vis a vis the client.”
The move to renovate and develop a new concept was partly fueled by a 1998 study the group conducted among 600 women to find out how Galeries Lafayette ranked, compared with other Paris department stores. The survey asked about everything from fashion selection to shopping comfort. While Galeries ranked far ahead of its next-door rival Printemps in terms of fashion, the store lagged in shopping pleasure.
Given Galeries’ impressive statistics — 18 million visitors annually, 73 percent of whom are female; one out of two visitors make a purchase and 24 percent come back once a month or more — the change was long overdue. Designer apparel executives could not be more enthusiastic about Galeries’ overhaul.
“For fashion, the new look definitely makes Galeries Lafayette more exciting,” said Tom Murry, the president and chief operating officer of Calvin Klein. “What makes Galeries distinct is this new blend of product, presentation and service. The new format sharpens the message, which we think is great. We’re very optimistic about moving our CK women’s line to the first floor [from the second]. It’s a great opportunity for us.”
Even competitors said it’s a move in the right direction.
“I am very positive about their concept,” said Philippe de Beauvoir, the president of Left Bank department store rival Le Bon Marche, a much smaller store that will soon begin its own $6.5 million overhaul of its first-floor women’s apparel and shoe departments. “Galeries’ concept will help clarify the overall offer. There was confusion, and they needed to do this.”
In the new strategy, the first floor above street level is called “Vibre,” or vibration, and is dedicated to more fashion-forward brands, said Robinet. The new section mixes labels such as Comme des Garcons and Ann Demeulemeester alongside somewhat lower-priced, but trendy sportswear brands such as Isabel Marant or Irie. Nearby is a revamped Agnes B. in-store shop. The floor also has stands for junior and contemporary resources such as La City or Max & Co.
The architecture and design incorporates standard white walls and ceilings, and warm, bright lighting for in-store shops, which can then be customized by the resources. The aisles have become clearer, more delineated by dark wenge wood, while paler parquet surrounds the shopping space. This marks a major change for Galeries, where navigating the brand stands and in-store shops could leave shoppers running in circles.
The subdued walls and floor are accented by bits of red, like a neon band that circles the centrally located Art Nouveau dome and the sweeping red velvet curtains that hang in front of the dressing rooms.
The new women’s concept is helping Galeries attract new brands, including Lanvin and Chloe, which launched at the store this spring. A Prada Sport stand will open this season and Anna Sui is coming for fall, said new designer buyer Sylvie Choux.
“We wanted department store visibility, but wanted to be in a selective designer environment. We are very satisfied with this association, and the level of sales thus far is already proof of the concept’s success,” said Karin Gregersen, the sales director of Chloe.
The second level is dubbed “Equilibre” and houses what Robinet describes as “essential fashion brands.” That includes labels such as Sonia Rykiel, Christian Lacroix, DKNY, Ralph Lauren, Max Mara and Spain’s Adolpho Dominguez. There will also be a sportswear section with brands including Esprit or New Man as well as designer jeans lines such as Armani Jeans, Robinet added.
The design concept will be based around tones of white and beige, explained architect Jacques Ory and designer Didier Gomez of Ory Gomez here, which worked with Galeries on the fashion floors. The redistribution of space and the merchandising themes on the two women’s fashion floors were developed by Greenwich, Conn., architect Mark Bradin of Mark Bradin International.
The goal of the new fashion concept “is to make creativity and luxury accessible to the largest number of people,” said managing director Joel Mornet. Executives felt that the store had to get rid of price “ghettos” and mix goods in a way to correspond to how women shop.
“We are aiming for clients who can and will buy the $30 T-shirt and the $300 jacket,” Robinet said.
“The timing is perfect,” said Christine Mascella, managing director, Escada France, whose Laurel and Escada Sport will remain on the store’s second floor when it reopens in mid-2001. “When Marie-Helene Robinet did a presentation for me a year ago, I was very enthusiastic. It’s a new atmosphere. Women can shop from brand to brand in an ambience that suits her lifestyle.”
“For a fashion label, Galeries Lafayette offers very important visibility,” said Valerie Hermann, president of John Galliano, which opened a corner on the first floor in fall 1998. “The new space is much better in terms of presentation, merchandising and lighting. The choice of the labels is very esthetic, and the location is superb. The first day it opened, our stand had three very significant sales.”
In addition to the new designer section, the first floor has a designer “lab” highlighting collections from new or recently launched labels. For summer, it has items from Junya Watanabe and Tom Van Lingen, among others.
For fall, the lab will feature Jean-Paul Knott and Tracy Boyd, said Choux. The floor also has a trend area, dubbed Lafayette Trends.
The minimalist brushed steel and glass cases definitely are reminiscent of Colette, the hip store here, but effectively highlight the of-the-moment fashion, accessories and home goods.
On a recent visit, it had fringed handbags from Ursula Beaugeste and home wares from Philippe Starck.
Galeries managers said they plan to have a trend space on every floor. Along with that, the escalator landings on each floor will have “hostesses” who can help direct clients. The hostesses are part personal shopper, part store guide, since the basic idea is to help shoppers find specific items that will appeal to their tastes.
Comfort is a key component of the renovation. Most dressing rooms will grow by 20 to 30 percent. Plus, the fashion floors will also include rest areas with upholstered furniture and beverages. There will also be a somewhat upscale branch of the popular Parisian sandwich chain Lina’s.
The store’s sixth floor, which opened an elegant Lafayette Cafe cafeteria three months ago, with dramatic views of the Paris Opera rooftop, will add more food service with a quieter, sit-down service environment, said Mornet. The store’s successful Japanese cuisine Cafe Sushi on the fifth floor will remain in place.
Mornet said the store began thinking about a renovation several years ago, but the action was postponed for several reasons, due in part to a heavy debt load related to acquisitions at the beginning of the Nineties, and costly upgrades of provincial stores. Once the debt level shrunk, Galeries decided in 1998 to get the ball rolling. The store got its toes wet last fall revamping the fine jewelry and accessories area. It added prestige brands such as Louis Vuitton and French jewelers Boucheron and Poiray to the main floor.
The third floor, slated for renovation completion in 2002, will house junior collections and jeans. The decor is going to be inspired by a streetwear and techno music promotion held at Galeries last year, called Move Expo, Mornet said. The third floor will also house lingerie and heavy goods such as coats.
The men’s business, housed in a building next to the main flagship, got an initial facelift last fall. But it’s also planned that the department will expand into an adjacent building currently under construction. That should reopen at the end of next year. Mornet said Galeries is considering an active sportswear and sporting goods concept, but nothing has been decided.
“It’s up to us to create the desire to buy, to capture the attention of shoppers and alert their senses,” said Robinet, adding: “Shoppers should no longer have to say: ‘This is a nightmare.”‘