Byline: Robert Murphy
PARIS — The deejay cuts from one turntable to the next, seamlessly sustaining a deep bass drone and eliciting a rhythmic nod of approval from a group of streetwise twentysomethings.
This may seem like a common club scene, except it is happening in a store. Retailers and fashion houses here are increasingly grooving to a new beat and regularly scheduled on-site deejay performances are only part of the show in Paris boutiques. Some have also released signature record compilations or even founded their own record labels.
The reasoning, most executives and designers say, is simple: As fashion becomes more lifestyle-oriented, music provides them with a highly effective means of communicating with their clients.
“Music is one of the best ways for a fashion house to inform people of its identity,” said designer Barbara Bui, who this summer released a compilation disc of Seventies and Eighties so-called groove music. “Music works on several levels, and most important it creates an ambience that clothes, on their own, do not create: People feel music.”
In other words, music purveys attitude and personality, qualities that often elude even the most expressive designs when merely hanging on a rack. Hence, many designers and retailers said that they are hitching on to music because it helps to spark a more tangible reaction to their clothes.
“Fashion should promote a way of life,” said designer Christophe Lemaire, who sells a selection of jazz, funk and electronic music in his shop in the Right Bank Marais district. “A shop is a vector of communication. By putting music in my shop, I want to share an intimate part of my world with my clients. It helps them understand what me and my clothes are about.”
Designer Agnes B said: “Fashion is not an ends in itself. It is only given life when it is put into the real world. Music adds another dimension to apparel.”
Although the link between music and fashion has existed for years, the trend is gaining momentum in Paris. Le Printemps, the Pinault-Printemps-Redoute-run department store on the Boulevard Haussmann, started to sell music in its junior department in October. Last year, when the store redesigned its men’s wear floor, it included listening stations and live deejay performances on Saturday afternoons.
This fall, Agnes B gave customers a featuring electronic music mixed by France’s DJ Cam. Last month, the London-based, avant-garde fashion retailer Kokon to Zai opened a Paris unit that sells a selection of obscure electronic music. Stealth, selling streetwear on the Rue du Dragon on the Left Bank, bowed in September and sells a selection of music from hip-hop, rhythm-and-blues and garage bands. And in October, Gravity Zero, a trendy streetwear store on Rue Keller in the Bastille neighborhood, opened with a small music section.
Meanwhile, Le Shop, a streetwear emporium on the Right Bank near the Place de Victoires, has featured live deejay performances since it opened seven years ago. Colette, the uber-hip fashion store and restaurant, has sold music for three years since it opened on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore .
APC owner and designer Jean Touitou founded his own record label eight years ago called APC (Section Musicale), producing and distributing music to APC stores around the world as well as a handful of select music shops.
“A lot of people come in just for the music,” said Sarah, who owns and runs Colette with her mother, Colette, neither of whom use surnames. “It’s part of our global discourse of including all realms of design, fashion and art that we find interesting and interrelated. What is intriguing is that while some of the fashion clients pick up a disc, it is more rare for the music clients to also be interested in the fashion.”
Most fashion retailers admit that selling music, in itself, is not highly profitable. For the most part, their selections are small and highly specialized, for example, in electronic or new experimental music. Many stores said, for that reason, they just manage to break even. Still, they widely agree that allocating valuable floor space to music pays off in other ways.
“We aren’t trying to be a record store, it’s not our core business,” said James Greenfield, director of development at Le Printemps. “But it’s worth the floor space. In the past, a store would spend dollars on expensive fixtures or marble floors. Today, we spend that money on lighting and music, factors that can give a more modern meaning to the space.”
Retailers also said their decision to sell music is often directly influenced by the type of clothing they stock. For instance, streetwear retailers Le Shop and Gravity Zero spotlight underground electronic music, the movement to which that clothing is most intimately associated.
Colette, with a more upscale designer bent, offers sleek, lounge and jazz sounds with techno and trip-hop mixed in. Le Printemps, for its part, features boy bands and mainstream pop in its junior department, while the choice in the men’s area is palpably more progressive, focused on house, acid jazz and trip-hop.
“The clothes we sell are inspired by electronic music,” said Marc Knibbeler, one of four owners of Gravity Zero. “So it’s not a far stretch to sell music, too. In fact, without music, the clothes wouldn’t have the same appeal. Music gives the clothes clout.
“Most streetwear firms design clothes to accompany a certain type of music. Just looking at a design, you can almost always guess what type of music that person will listen to. Rappers will wear baggy trousers, for example. Or a lot of people who listen to techno music wear clothes in highly technical fabrications.”
At Printemps, Greenfield explained that the store also wanted to employ music to “recruit a new client base” for its revamped men’s store.
“Having music in a store can create a euphoric experience,” said Greenfield.
The philosophy is similar at Le Shop, a streetwear emporium near the Place de Victoires shopping district on the Rue d’Argout. Daily, between 3 and 7 o’clock, the store features live deejay performances, which in the past included members of the “French Touch” bands such as Air and Daft Punk.
“Young people identify with music more readily than with fashion,” said Georges Caufriez, director of Le Shop. “We don’t want to make the store into a nightclub, but it does create a certain convivial atmosphere that has become an integral part of our image.”
Caufriez explained that offering live mixing has lured customers to the boutique who may not have visited otherwise.
“Music has given us a notoriety that we maybe wouldn’t have had,” he said. “Certainly, it brings people into the store, which is consequently good for sales. But doing music can also be a slippery slope. If it’s not good, it damages the whole shopping experience.”
Caufriez said the store has been plagued by poor deejay performances. In that case, he said, it would have been better if there had been no music at all.
“We have to remember this is a store, with everything geared toward selling the clothes,” he added. “If the music isn’t good, it negatively affects customers’ attitude toward the product.”
To add to its music cache, this summer Le Shop released a compact disc compilation of electronic music, selling more than 30,000 copies.
“It wasn’t about making money,” said Xavier Barotin, who oversaw the CD and directs Le Shop’s music program. “We have always been about sponsoring young musicians. Since we opened seven years ago there have been more than 700 deejays who’ve played in the store.
“We have also sponsored a handful of independent record labels as well as various concerts. We have a long history with electronic music, and so putting out our own album seemed justified.”
However, Barotin thinks that many stores and fashion houses are now trying to associate themselves with music only because it’s the latest trend.
“That is a damaging position,” he stated. “If you don’t do a project with soul, it shows.”
Barotin is not alone in his thinking.
Frederic Sanchez, who does runway music for houses from Prada to Marc Jacobs as well as runs a record store in the Marais neighborhood, thinks the whole music and fashion angle has lost its edge. Last year, Sanchez linked up with Colette in a short-lived music collaboration in which he supplied a choice of his favorite discs to the store.
“Quite frankly, I don’t really believe in the approach of selling music and fashion,” said Sanchez. “If the approach is too commercially driven, the music loses its edge, it becomes less interesting. Today, so many stores are trying to jump on the bandwagon and sell music, but they all sell the same thing. Of course, there are stores that take a position and that’s when music is interesting: when someone is trying to promote a point of view.”
“Everyone’s trying to get in on the music thing,” complained APC’s Touitou, who has a recording studio in the basement of his Left Bank headquarters on the Rue Madame where he produces — and sometimes plays guitar on — the firm’s records. “There are lots of people in fashion who follow the recipe du jour. It’s all about marketing and not about soul.”
Touitou, whose list of records include Algerian singer Lili Boniche, blues musician Jonathan Richman and a Cuban compilation, said he was interested in music even before he dove into fashion.
“Personally, music has always been my first love,” Touitou said. “Fashion has given me the means to pursue it.”
Meanwhile, musicians aren’t always in tune with how designers use their music. During the runway shows in October, for instance, Paris designer Martine Sitbon staged her show to the tunes of the Canadian-born, Berlin-based rapper Chilly Gonzales, whose music, she said, captured the essence of a collection she described as inspired by the early Eighties underground scene in New York. But a month later, when Sitbon invited Gonzales to view a video of the show, the musician expressed his discontent.
“Fashion has such a perfect side to it, all of the girls look the same,” he bristled. “It has nothing to do with reality. I try to express reality in my music.”