The last time I saw the Avenue des Champs-Élysées (maybe 30 years ago), it was lined with stores that were terrifying to the average tourist. Designer boutiques, purveyors of Rolexes, Tiffany, and Cartier, all in little polished box stores with no excess of stock visible, attended by lean chic Parisiennes wearing dark suits, dark hose, and needle heels, plus that particular Parisian frown that signals that you’re in the wrong rodeo, cowboy.
Since then it has gone all banal. Not my word—the City of Paris has been quite alarmed by the arrival of global chain stores and the tourists who love them. Tiffany is still there, but so is a Disney store, Adidas, Benetton, Sephora, FNAC, (the French Best Buy) and even a Monoprix. (The French Walmart.) The city began discussing “banalisation” in 2007 when it tried to bar an H&M from settling in. It settled in anyway, not far from the McDonald’s, which at least sports a discreet, charming sidewalk cafe with no arches.
Thus our visit to the Champs, dodging fellow tourists from all over the world, was more athletic than it was stimulating. The only places we stopped into were the Citroen showroom, boasting its new electric car, the Mercedes showroom, where you could buy a bear if not a Benz, and Peugeot, where we could buy salt and pepper mills with a logo. (Can you tell that Tom had a voice in store selection?) The street had become pretend-posh.
I am not complaining, of course. History has cycles, and once the rents on the north (sunny) side of the avenue became so high that only mass merchants could afford them, that is who moved in. Also the Embassy of Qatar.
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The name-brand retail stores chains do invite actual visitors and real commerce. Money changes hands. Who’s afraid to walk into a Disney store? Who’s scared of Sephora? Leery of Lacoste? It’s not terrifying anymore, but then, it isn’t interesting either.
One of the terrific joys of shopping in Paris, which is a pastime that goes back centuries, is the extraordinary amount of merchandise that we just haven’t seen before. Is that not the whole point of the sport? To be surprised, to be amazed, to be inspired, and to admire? Fortunately, I don’t have to rely on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. I am surrounded by a jillion fabulous boutiques, and yes, we’ll be talking a lot more about this. Stay tuned.