Purely Paris: Happy Birthday, Bon Marché!

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Paris fashion: Le Bon Marché poster

Le Bon Marché poster/Archives le Bon Marché.

This year le Bon Marché celebrates 160 years as a Paris fashion mecca. Such a special event even has a muse of its own: the iconic actress Catherine Deneuve. Deneuve has chosen her ten favorite left bank haunts, which the store has transformed into quirky windows. Created by cartoonist Marjane Satrapi of Persepolis fame, these look like leaves out of a children’s pop-up book. “Paris is the world,” says Satrapi, “and, to me, Catherine is the world of Paris.” The windows stay in place through October 27.

Certainly, le Bon Marché deserves respect. With it, founder Aristide Boucicaut invented the department store. He also altered leisure in Paris forever. Boucicaut trained selling shawls on the rue du Bac. But his breakthrough concept was to build a retail temple—one where shoppers could find different merchandise under one roof.

Windows by Marjane Satrapi for le Bon Marché

Windows by Marjane Satrapi for le Bon Marché.

This innovation alone made him a retail hero, but Boucicaut proved a bottomless font of ideas. Under him, le Bon Marché also pioneered fixed prices, seasonal catalogs, home delivery, glamorous displays and mail order. The shopkeeper who trained Boucicaut, Simon Mannory, invented the annual sale. But it was his pupil who made sales an institution.

Within years of its 1852 debut, Boucicaut’s baby had become a legend. It even became the subject of a best seller by Emile Zola. Zola’s Au bonheur des dames (The Ladies’ Delight) remains a great read today. As well as capturing how fin de siècle Paris worshipped the store, it reveals the details of Boucicaut’s own management style.

Aristide’s expertise was more than equaled by that of his wife. Born out of wedlock, Marguerite Boucicaut began her working life as a laundress. But, after Boucicaut’s death in 1877, she took over the running of le Bon Marché. Its ads, posters, catalogs and circulars were careful to tout the store as the ultimate family enterprise. Marguerite made the image real, offering her employees on-site dining rooms, company medical care, a profit-sharing system and a savings bank. When the generous widow died, she willed her whole fortune to the Paris Assistance Publique.

Le Bon Marché/Archives le Bon Marché

Le Bon Marché/Archives le Bon Marché.

Today’s Bon Marché building, undertaken in 1869, was engineered by no less than Gustave Eiffel. It has profoundly influenced the whole arrondissement. The Hôtel Lutetia, for instance, was created to house foreign visitors to the store. Its manager François-Emile Morin designed the rue de Babylone’s Pagode as a ballroom. The garden in front of the store is even home to Square Boucicaut, with a statue in honor of Marguerite.

Le Bon Marché also prefigured the “concept store.” In 1873, it began holding in-house concerts and, from 1875, it showed works by trendy painters and sculptors. The management searched for fine goods around the world, from Oriental carpets to “novelties of London.” Eventually, it developed its own fabric and furniture brands. By the 1930s, Le Bon Marché had a tearoom, a salon de coiffure, a bank—and its own travel agency.

For its celebrations, the store is hosting pop-up shops filled with birthday fashions, home decor, jewelry, perfume, makeup and accessories. (Over 300 brands and designers have contributed.) Satrapi’s window designs are being sold as a boxed collection, in a limited edition priced at 900 euros.

160th birthday shoes/Repetto for le Bon Marché

160th birthday shoes/Repetto for le Bon Marché.

Deneuve herself has starred in a 23-minute movie (Catherine Deneuve Rive Gauche) made for the occasion by Loïc Prigent. It screens for all shoppers, without charge, in a birthday cinema. You can check it out on the store’s ground floor.

There’s no better excuse to start your fall shopping!

“160 Years of Innovation: Aristide and Marguerite Boucicaut,” September 15 to October 27, second floor; an exposition about the founders’ effect on Paris fashion.

“160 Years of Landmark Illustration,” September 15 to October 27, first floor; a privileged peek at the store’s vast visual archives.

“Catherine Deneuve Rive Gauche,” now to October 27; ten illustrated windows by Marjane Satrapi starring Catherine Deneuve, in a celebration of her favorite Paris places

Catherine Deneuve Rive Gauche, September 15 to October 27; a film by Loïc Prigent, exploring Madame Deneuve’s Paris, in the ground-floor cinema

TIP
In addition to the new film by Loïc Prigent, maker of Signé Chanel, the store offers two great buys. One is Monica Burckhardt’s coffee-table book Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche (Assouline, 19 euros), the other is the DVD Au bonheur des dames (a fascinating 2011 Arte documentary, 21 euros).

Related Links

Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche

Catherine Deneuve

Aristide Boucicaut

Simon Mannory

Marguerite Boucicaut

La Pagode

Loïc Prigent

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