End of an Era | colette, Paris ‘Home of Cool,’ Always Put Spontaneity First
The fashion community collectively sighed this month when lifestyle retailer and Paris’ premier emporium colette announced that they would be closing their storefront in December after two decades of business. Dubbed “the trendiest store in the world” by Forbes, the three-story, 8,000-square-foot concept shop offers a mix of high and low end, fashion-meets-street items including clothing, tech, art, streetwear, home goods, and beauty. It is the first stop for the fashion crowd, locals, and tourists alike, and when it comes to incredible product collaborations and kick*ss window displays, no one does it better. Fearless to associate luxury labels with mass consumer brands, colette championed a new kind of shopping experience pioneered with a sense of hard work, spontaneity, and fun that has yet to be replicated.
colette was founded in March of 1997 by Colette Roussaux, a single mother who sold her store in the Sentier neighborhood of Paris to open a new shop alongside her daughter, Sarah Andelman. Roussaux purchased space for the venture on the ground floor of their apartment building on the historic rue Saint Honoré in Paris. (While the area has grown to be popular with the arrival of other small boutiques like streetwear fave Starcow and historic luggage brand Goyard, such was not the case at the time). With a youth-first mindset and neither industry contacts nor a marketing plan, the duo admittedly built the company on “equal parts curiosity and frustration.” Roussaux handled all things in-store while Andelman acted as the public personal and sole buyer, traveling often in search of unique, hard to find items that weren't available in town and that ultimately turned colette into a veritable launch pad for young designers.
“Paris was a bit off the radar, and we had the chance to travel and discover products we couldn’t find here,” Andelman told Business of Fashion in an interview. “We wanted to bring [these products] all together under the motto ‘style, design, art, food’ with the idea to have a store, a gallery and a restaurant that was open all day… Since the beginning we have had [a] mix of young designers and more well-known brands; we changed the windows every week, and voila!”
Overnight, Roussaux would work hard with her team on the displays, its windows greeting the morning with branded themes ranging from Barbie to havaianas, to Ikea Billy shelves and Lack tables. colette is currently working on a series of month-long store takeovers with its newest deemed, Les Vacances de Lulu, launching on August 7th. The installation pop-up will be curated by local PR guru Lucien Pagès and will include limited edition creations from brands like Le-Tan, Astier de Villatte, and John Lobb. In true colette fashion, the store will also offer “impulse items” like frisbees, caps, and lighters for those with a tighter budget. The shop’s current collaboration with Balenciaga -- the first brand to take over the entire store -- will be up until August 5th, with additional takeovers to be curated by Thom Browne, Chanel, and Saint Laurent.
colette has gained popularity not only through the in-demand brands that they feature in store, but also for their limited edition runs of co-created products. 2005 saw colette and COMME des GARÇONS come together for a collaborative shopping experience in Japan and enlisted Raf Simons to rework a pair of Vans Slip-Ons to mark the occasion; in 2011, colette teamed up with Chanel for a pop-up in a defunct gas station down the road (which now currently houses Balenciaga); Coca-Cola joined the list of display collaborators for the 2016 UEFA European Championship with the help of artist Maztrone. Partnerships also included limited edition scarves with Hermès and the launch of the Apple Watch in April 2016. Items produced were very scalable and collections ranged from things like a pack of Air France chewing gum to a branded Aston Martin. The shop has housed up to 20,000 different products on the floor at one time, but selling these finds isn’t necessarily a top priority.
“We never take things just because we think it’s going to sell,” Andelman says. “It has to be different, something unto itself, that’s of high quality and that we’ve never seen before. It has to have integrity and be new. With everything that already exists out there, it’s really hard to do something new.”
To celebrate their 20-year milestone in March, colette partnered with Brooklyn-based design firm Snarkitecture and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs to bring to Paris an interactive installation called “The Beach.” The event featured an enclosure filled with 300,000 recyclable plastic balls and was free and open to the public. In true colette spirit, they also launched 20 limited-edition product collaborations, each a different play on colette’s signature shade of blue (Pantone 293c). The lineup included toys, jewelry, accessories and gadgets, as well as some kicks from Nike Air and Converse x Club75 and color-changing lip balm by Edward Bess. Music producer and DJ Pedro Winter also created a 20th anniversary CD featuring one track for every year, with a limited run of only 1,000 copies.
With a well-earned reputation for being an all-around cultural hub, the impeccably-curated retail experience also boasts an around-the-clock subterranean water bar and a restaurant with free wifi and has hosted various concerts, panels on sneaker culture, and book signings. Andelman has an eye for talent on all levels and began working with current streetwear stars early on. The list is impressive, of course, and includes the likes of Virgil Abloh (pre-Off White), OAMC’s Luke Meier (post-Supreme), and Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver. She also supported the music and fashion ventures of artists including Pharrell Williams (and Billionaire Boys Club), The Weeknd, Rihanna, and Kanye West, and they were all a success.
“Any brand that was picked by colette automatically gained some coolness,” commented Isabelle Tardieu, associate director at colette’s marketing agency BETC Pop. She added that colette's tactics have caught on, as the "idea of doing limited editions and odd brand partnerships has now become quite ordinary."
The official announcement to close colette cited retirement plans for the founder, and comes amidst rising rent for local retailers in an era when consumer traffic is heavily shifting from in-store to online. But while most brick-and-mortars are losing foot traffic at an exponential rate, only about 25% of colette’s 2016 sales came from e-commerce -- a testament to its awesome in-store experiences as well as consumer excitement of seeing the next cool feature. Andelman told the NY Times that they are aware people will think it’s “crazy” to close the shop rather than sell the name, but that it wouldn’t be the same if it was run by someone else. “colette cannot exist without Colette,” she says.
This sentiment rings true with those throughout the industry, including Paris-based fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld. “There’s no such thing as one without the other... It’s that mother-daughter osmosis that makes colette colette,” he said. “They have invented a formula that you can’t copy easily.”
Roussaux and Andelman are currently looking to Saint Laurent to take over the store space in the new year, but no matter to whom they decide to sell, there's no doubt that the decision for the future will be all theirs.
“What makes the difference is that we don't need to ask anyone else about what we want to do,” Roussaux said in a rare interview earlier this year. “I think that’s the secret: work and spontaneity.”