East Meets West on the Champs Elysées
Metropolis, March 2006
The Vuitton flagship is fun, but in France the idea that spending a lot of money is fun goes against the very concept of luxury.
Louis Vuitton did not open its glitzy new Paris flagship for the two million Parisians but for the 16 million tourists who mob the French capital annually. Though the mega-emporium happens to be situated on the Champs Elysées at the corner of the chic Avenue Montaigne, a five minute stroll from the Arc de Triomphe, its real location is a pricey piece of real estate in the imaginations of people worldwide for whom Paris is first and foremost a shopping destination.
So un-French is the concept behind the newly restored, 20,000 square-foot store (Vuitton’s largest), that a chic Parisian woman might even mistake it for a gallerie marchande — a vulgar shopping arcade. The layout of the store violates French expectations of what a Champs Elysées luxury store looks like. There is no sense of height, no grand stairway to ascend, no vaulting inner courtyard, and no uplifting vistas — in other words, no indication that luxury is “aspirational”, about rising above the masses.
“What the Vuitton customers now demand from a shopping experience is to be swept off their feet”, says Eric Carlson, the American architect who designed and supervised the unorthodox renovation. “We no longer expect shoppers to walk up to the top floors to see the products. In fact, we eliminated the very notion of floor levels and replaced it with a succession of terraces in a spiral pattern.”
In the retail world, getting people to visit the top floors of a store is the number one concern. Assuming that customers would rather walk down than up, Carlson rejected the idea of the grand stairwell, a standard feature in luxurious retail stores, and instead adopted a labyrinthine “promenade” scheme.
Shoppers are lead through a series of downhill platforms to the bottom of a long escalator that takes them directly to the fourth floor. Once there, they descend through a circuitous course that ensures they will have a leisurely opportunity to experience Vuitton’s ever-expanding lines of products tucked into niche boutiques along the way.
Marc Gobé, author of best-selling Emotional Branding, believes that, in elegant stores, a theatrical stairway encourages shoppers to “rise to the occasion” and spend money liberally. “Centrally located stairs in stores are not only decorative, they also provide a stage for customers who want to see and been seen, and are eager to flaunt their fashion flair publicly.”
But for the Asian tourists on a Parisian shopping spree, a soaring monumental stair would be a problem. Asian women are vastly more modest than European women. They are not comfortable in situations in which their legs might be exposed. The deliberate omission of a grand staircase is a sign that, in the LV Paris flagship, an Eastern sensibility rules.
A glittering vortex
In doing away with the idea that status is synonymous with uphill grandeur, Carlson and Vuitton’s in-house architecture team (about 30 full-time employees) created an antithetical experience: the glitzy, high-fashion emporium feels like an amusement park ride. The 65-foot high tunnel-like escalator that hoists you up to the top floor is not unlike the cranking mechanism that takes you to the top of a roller coaster.
Though not exactly a nosedive, what you experience next is a disorienting loss of control, like being swallowed inside a glittering vortex. To get back to the ground floor, you must proceed through a series of cascading balconies, each a store within the store, a unique concept by interior designer Peter Marino. He believes in breaking down large retail spaces into small intimate areas specifically tailored to highlight the products they contain. “My specialty is to keep the human scale and the scale of the products”, Marino says. “I don’t want customers to feel like they are in a train station. I like to give people a choice between a semi-enclosed feeling and a more open one.”
The convoluted layout provides a couple of escape routes: you can bypass entire sections of the store and take diagonal shortcuts — hidden stairs or hallways — that might or might not get you to where you want to go. No funhouse would be complete without its goose bumps moment, and the LV flagship is no exception: as you go around a bend, you eventually discover the central attraction, a secluded sky-lit atrium bristling with slender metal rods that seemingly hang in mid-air, transforming the hollow space into an enchanted grotto.
But for the ultimate thrill, you must line up with other shoppers in the atrium to take a 40-second sensory-deprivation ride in a claustrophobic pitch-black elevator — an installation by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson — to the building’s top floor, where an art gallery will soon open and you can recover from the spooky ride up by admiring the stunning view over Paris’s rooftops. Other art installations throughout the store by American Land Art legend James Turrell, described in a Vuitton press release as “a sculptor of light”, and video maverick Tim White-Sobieski, an abstract “painter of motion”, call on the latest technology to instill the place with a video-game atmosphere.
Granted, shopping the Vuitton flagship is fun. But in France (and let’s not forget that Vuitton is one of the oldest French brands), the idea that spending a lot of money should be fun goes against the very concept of luxury. A glamorous shopping experience is not supposed to be a playful acquisitive venture, but a quasi-spiritual uplifting endeavor.
An exacting brand etiquette
Carlson — a graduate of Kansas State University — is not keen on such Old World nuances. He is first and foremost a problem solver. And frankly, his task was not to placate the upper class delusions of the occasional Parisian customer who happens to wander into the Vuitton flagship on her way up the Champs Elysées, but to seduce and entertain the wealthy tourists from the Near East, Central Europe, and particularly Asia for whom a trip to Paris would not be complete without a chance to part with some substantial amount of disposable income in order to acquire the latest bag, shoes, leather jacket, or suitcase bearing the famous LV logo.
“Asian shoppers are a large part of our customer base”, insists Carlson. “They are extremely sophisticated not only in terms of their personal taste, but also in terms of architecture and design. What they demand from a luxury store is a decor that integrates art and culture.”
More than the French or American woman, an Asian woman appreciates the craftsmanship of the goods sold there, but she is more demanding as well. Japanese customers in particular are sticklers when it comes to brand etiquette. Unlike their American counterparts, they wear LV shoes, carry a LV bag, and don LV clothes when shopping at Vuitton — and they expect the same ceremonial approach from the brand itself.
“In Japan, formality is seen as the appropriate attitude for most public situations”, explains John Givens, a brand expert with Landor credentials who used to live in Japan. “Owning an Louis Vuitton bag is not just a status symbol. It is an affirmation of knowing how to behave correctly, and a way to demonstrate your inclusion in a group.”
That’s why meticulous attention is given to the LV logo and to the many emblems of the brand in the Champs Elysées store. Incidentally the design of the Vuitton monogram, created in 1896 by the son of Louis Vuitton, was influenced by japonisme, a French Nipponese fad. The place is a den of symbolism, with the celebrated monogram’s elements interpreted and re-interpreted in every way possible. The interlaced initials, the crest, the four-pointed star, the diamond, the flower, and the checkerboard motif are silk-screened on wood, embossed on leather, inlaid as marquetry, projected on video screens, and sandblasted on glass throughout the interior, as well as being printed, stitched, engraved, or woven on every piece of merchandise.
Yet the most salient interior-design element is what Carlson calls the “skin”, a metal latticework designed to evoke the famous Vuitton pattern. Made of 70,000 diamond-shaped pieces, it coils inside the store, following the building’s external contour like the continuous peeling of a giant grapefruit. It screens the windows, acts as a room divider, and now and then curls to form a semi-private alcove. Ornamented in places with precious inserts made of glass, porcelain, leather, or enamel, the “skin” looks variously like delicate lace, stained glass, and richly embroidered brocade.
Architecture as gift-wrapping
The Paris store was the ultimate testing ground for the Vuitton architects’ retail philosophy — wrapping a building in a “skin”. “In Japan, anything not packaged is not formally transferable”, Givens says. “You can’t give an unpackaged gift, no matter how casual the occasion. The store, of course, is the ultimate package.”
Packing things is the company’s original craft, after all. The first Vuitton trunks were portable wardrobes custom-designed to hold the voluminous dresses of the ladies of the court of Napoleon III. To this day, the word malletier, meaning “trunk maker”, is used in association with the corporate logo.
Though the skin is an inside feature in the Paris store, in most other locations it envelops the outside of the building. The thin non-structural encasing layer is now a Vuitton signature that is not only distinctive but practical, because indigenous building materials can be used within the scheme. Carlson came up with the initial idea in collaboration with French engineering firm RFR and the Czech fabricator Sipral. Marino, the keeper of the Vuitton stylistic vocabulary, acts as consultant on most jobs.
As demonstrated in the 1969 cult book about traditional Japanese packaging inventiveness, How to Wrap Five Eggs, the Japanese can bundle almost anything elegantly and economically. So it is no wonder that Carlson’s idea was particularly well received in Japan.
In Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills in 2003, with the help of then-unknown architect Jun Aoki, Carlson and architect Aurelio Clementi were able to perfect their new packaging concept. they covered the facade of the boxy structure with a skin made of 30,000 small glass tubes and lined the inside of the store with a second skin made of thousand light-diffracting metal circles.
Jun Aoki collaborated with Carlson on two more projects in Tokyo: the Ginza store, its skin as elaborately variegated as a kimono fabric, and the Omotesando store, whose facade mimics a pile of oversized trunks. Closer to home, Aoki covered parts of the white marble facade of the New York 57th street store with large frosted glass panels, transforming what had been a gaudy Warner Bros toy store into a Vuitton landmark. Probably one of his most successful wrapping projects to date, the Vuitton facade is a veil through which one can discern the pattern of the windows — a playful geometric composition whose edges look mysteriously softened.
In most locations Carlson has been unencumbered by issues of historic preservation. However, the outside of the Paris building was landmarked. So his creativity was put to the test when Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s dictatorial chairman and CEO, Bernard Arnault, asked him to “Vuittonize” the entire facade of the 1932 Art Deco corner building.
“We worked on the facade by working right behind it”, Carlson explains. “We lined the inside of every window with the gold and silver metal skin. In addition, we managed to convince the historic landmark commission to let us put a version of the LV monogram wherever the building had commercial signs in the past.” Theoretically 80 percent of the exterior now bears the company’s imprint, though to the casual stroller, the handsome structure looks like a pristine Art Deco edifice
With 345 stores worldwide to date and about 20 new building projects a year, the Vuitton in-house architects are now administrators more than creators. For Carlson that means it is time to move on. Though he still acts as an occasional consultant for Vuitton, he recently opened his own architectural practice in Paris. Called Carbondale, it is in the up-and-coming second arrondissement, a world away from the touristy Champs-Elysées and the flagship that —turned outside in as well as upside down —is a fun house setting for what has become a global brand experience.
1/5 - Vuitton's new Paris flagship defies French expectations of luxury
2/5 - A four-story escalator takes shoppers to the top of the ride
3/5 - The main floor, like the rest of the store, is embroidered with gold latticework
4/5 - This sketch by architect Eric Carlson describes the "promenade" concept
4/4 - The four levels are experienced as one continuous ride down the Champs Elysées