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PARIS — Call it the first leg of Chanel’s triple crown.

The revitalized flagship on Rue Cambon here — the first of the luxe brand’s three major redo’s, with Tokyo and New York to follow — is now the biggest Chanel store in the world. And yes, one encounters marble, gold and even flecks of diamond practically at every turn.

This story first appeared in the October 7, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But as Chanel president Françoise Montenay stressed, the 8,600-square-foot flagship on Rue Cambon was built on a “human scale,” where luxurious materials are ubiquitous, but never ostentatious.

“Everything has been done to enhance the products, not overpower them,” she said during an exclusive preview of the store, which was expanded by some 3,400 square feet and completely refurbished over the past year by interior designer Peter Marino. “We have huge collections and we really need to be able to show what we have.”

The Cambon store is the first of three “megastores” slated for special design treatment. The next, a four-story unit in the Ginza district in Tokyo, is slated to bow in December 2004, with a major overhaul of the Manhattan flagship on 57th Street following in 2005.

New features include an area dedicated to Chanel knitwear and innerwear — the only one in the world — plus a sumptuous VIP area in the basement that’s roughly the size of a one-bedroom apartment.

“We wanted Cambon to be very special,” Montenay said, “and we want Chanel to surprise. We have customers who come in two or three times a week and they want to see new things.”

That shouldn’t be a problem. The store is so large that visitors even have a choice of three entrances — each with a signature white marble threshold. But the idea is for shoppers to navigate through a series of intimate “salons,” each with a different product focus and distinct decorative touches. Even the carpets — all beige and made of the highest quality wools and silks in the world — have subtly different weaves in each room.

The idea, Montenay said, was to avoid monotony and uniformity, while maintaining an overall color scheme and mood.

Texture is practically a religion at the Rue Cambon store, where Marino took pains to avoid any plain or flat surfaces. Where walls are painted black, they received a special treatment to make them resemble rock. On close inspection, gleaming black or burgundy enamel panels glint with embedded flecks of silver or gold. Some walls evoke miniature piano keys. Others, luminescent as real pearls, are composed of woven fiberoptic threads — and then pressed behind glass.

Some of the materials echo Chanel’s famous tweeds, from braided leather stools and nubby gold-flecked sofas to coffee tables depicting matte gold metalwork.

There are high tech features interspersed throughout, too. Giant, backlit images from Chanel advertising campaigns, shot by designer Karl Lagerfeld, peek out from many alcoves, while flat-screen TVs broadcast seasonal fashion shows.

Marino said his starting point for the boutique was Gabrielle Chanel’s famous apartment, which is located several floors above.

“We went through the Chanel apartment and what I did was keep the entire palette of white, black, ivory and gold with a touch of dark eggplant,” he explained. “Then I tried to do everything in a modern way. We’re trying to evoke the feeling of Chanel — elegant, chic and timeless.”

Accessories are carried in several rooms — and walls of sunglasses appear several times — but the overall merchandising scheme is relatively sparse. “We don’t want to overwhelm the customers,” Montenay said. “We want them to feel free to roam around the store and discover things.”

Apart from the knitwear room, ready-to-wear is housed in the back of the store in space previously occupied by Chanel offices and stock rooms on adjacent Rue Duphot. In total, rtw by Lagerfeld gets about 2,700 square feet of space.

Alight at the top of a brief flight of marble steps at the right time and visitors can watch the Chanel runway show on a floor-to-ceiling screen in a darkened room. At other times, the screen disappears, displaying Chanel sport looks. The final rtw room, in the furthest recess of the store, is devoted to eveningwear. Here, mirrored panels are meticulously wrapped in antique gold and silver ribbon — one mile’s worth.

Chanel began overhauling its global network of 191 boutiques and corners four years ago, starting with a remote location in a commercial center in Japan and tweaking, refining and individualizing the concept as it went along. The entire program should be completed by the end of next year.

But Montenay stressed that it’s an ongoing work to perfect and individualize boutiques. “In most of the stores, we have a specific atmosphere. A store in Austria is not the same as in Spain,” she said. “They are from the same family, but they are not identical. Each has its own personality.”

The Cambon location has a rich history, since the legendary designer opened her first boutique at No. 31 back in 1921. Today, the building also houses the couture salon, offices and Lagerfeld’s design studios.

Closely held Chanel, owned by the Wertheimer family, never provides financial information and Montenay declined to give sales projections for the large store. However, she could not hide the fact that rtw has been selling briskly at Rue Cambon. Some wall-mounted pegs, meant to showcase outfits from Lagerfeld’s collection, displayed handbags because the store has already sold 85 percent of its fall-winter inventory throughout Europe, she said. “We are now waiting for the cruise collection, which should arrive at the end of October,” she said.

She declined to pinpoint sell-through figures for other markets, but noted Chanel sales in the U.S. are up about 37 percent for the season. As reported, Bergdorf Goodman sold $3.1 million at a fall trunk show for Chanel last May, breaking records for the store and for New York.

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