East Meets West on the Champs-Elysées

Louis Vuitton did not open its glitzy new Paris flagship last October for the two million Parisians that are a mere minority in the City of Light, but for the approximately 25 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 George V—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 161,000-square-foot store (Vuitton’s largest) that a Parisian woman might mistake it for a gallerie marchande—a shopping arcade. The layout 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—no indication that luxury is “aspirational,” about rising above the masses.

“What 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 renovation. “We no longer expect shoppers to walk up to the top floors to see products. In fact, we eliminated the very notion of floor levels, replacing it with a succession of terraces in a spiral pattern.”

In the retail world getting people to visit the top floor of a store is the number-one concern. Assuming that customers would rather walk down than up, Carlson adopted a labyrinthine “promenade” scheme, routing shoppers through a circuitous downhill course that ensures they will have a leisurely opportunity to experience Vuitton’s products in all their variegated expressions tucked into niche boutiques along the way. The result is counterintuitive. Walking down breaks one of those unspoken rules that are self-evident to every Parisian: military parades roll down the Champs-Elysées, but pedestrians stroll up! Plus a theatrical stairway suggests that in such a luxurious environment you might choose to rise to the occasion. Marc Gobé, author of best-selling Emotional Branding, believes that—like the American woman—the French woman is partial to the grand staircase, where she can see and be seen. “Centrally located stairs in stores are not only decorative, they also provide a stage for customers who want to flaunt their fashion flair.”

In doing away with the idea that status is synonymous with uphill grandeur, Carlson and the rest of Vuitton’s in-house architecture team (about 30 full-time employees) created an antithetical experience: the layout of the four-story emporium is like that of an amusement-park ride. A trip up the 65-foot-high tunnel-like escalator tucked away in the back of the store is much like the ascent to the top of a roller coaster. Though not exactly a nosedive, what you experience next—which could indeed be described as “being swept off your feet”—is a disorienting loss of control, like being swallowed inside a glittering vortex. To get back to the ground floor you must proceed through the descending terraces—each a store within the store, a unique concept by Carlson and interior designer Peter Marino, who believe 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 of the products,” he 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 offers 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 fun house would be complete without its goose-bump moment, and the Vuitton flagship is no exception: as you go around a bend you eventually discover the central attraction, a secluded skylit atrium bristling with slender metal rods that seemingly hang in midair, 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 seventh 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 legendary American artist James Turrell, described in a Vuitton press release as “an architect 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.

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 entertaining goes against the very concept of luxury. A glamorous shopping experience is not supposed to be a playful acquisitive venture but rather an uplifting quasi-spiritual endeavor.

Carlson—a graduate of Kansas State University who was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan—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 acquiring the latest bag, shoes, leather jacket, or suitcase bearing the famous LV logo. “Asian shoppers are a large part of our customer base,” Carlson says. “They are extremely sophisticated, not only in terms of their personal taste but also architecture and design. What they demand from a luxury store is decor that integrates art and culture.”

In the Paris flagship store an Eastern sensibility rules. More than a French or an American, an Asian woman is most likely to appreciate the craftsmanship of the goods—as well as to detect a stylistic faux pas from her favorite luxury retailer. Japanese customers in particular are sticklers when it comes to brand etiquette. Unlike their American counterparts, they expect a meticulous approach from the brand. “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 the country. “Owning a 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 the many other emblems of the brand in the Champs-Elysées store. (Appropriately, the Vuitton monogram, designed 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 reinterpreted 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 110,000 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 semiprivate alcove. Ornamented in places with precious inserts made of crystal, porcelain, leather, or wenge wood, the skin looks variously like delicate lace, stained glass, and richly embroidered brocade.

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.” And 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 interior feature of the Paris store, in most other locations it envelops the outside of the building. The thin nonstructural encasing is now a Vuitton signature that is not only distinctive but also 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 1967 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 thousands of light-diffracting metal circles.

Aoki collaborated with Carlson on two more projects in Tokyo: the Nagoya store, with a skin as elaborately variegated as kimono fabric, and the Omotesando store, whose facade mimics a pile of oversize trunks. Aoki covered parts of the marble front of the New York 57th Street store with large glass and acetate panels, transforming what had been a gaudy Warner Bros. toy store into a Vuitton landmark. One of his most successful wrapping projects, the facade is a veil through which one can discern the window pattern—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 headed up the Champs-Elysées 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.

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