Destination DFS takes on a new, thrilling dimension

Welcome to an especially memorable edition of The Moodie Davitt Spotlight Series, one that celebrates what surely ranks as the most ambitious store opening of this or any other year in travel retail history.

When French President Emmanuel Macron and LVMH Chairman and Chief Executive Bernard Arnault pulled back the rich blue cloth covering the inauguration plaque for La Samaritaine amid tumultuous applause on 21 June they were doing far more than simply opening a store.

In fact, they were marking the rebirth of a revered Parisian institution, a place – shuttered since 2005 for safety and then restoration reasons – that had evoked a special emotion in the hearts of the French capital’s citizens since 1870, when Ernest Cognacq and his wife Marie-Louise Jaÿ opened a store on the corner of Rue du Pont-Neuf and Rue de La Monnaie.

The couple, who had met when Marie-Louise was working as a shop girl in the dressmaking department of another department store, Le Bon Marché, first leased and then bought the shop and over the ensuing decades turned it into one of the world’s most remarkable and sustained retail success stories.

Samaritaine quickly became the ‘go to’ place to buy the trendiest dresses or to dine at Le Toupary restaurant with its breath-taking view of the Pont Neuf and across Paris. But it was also synonymous with surprises and delights at every turn and an accessibility in both price and range that made it beloved by all and not just the rich – a reputation that survived throughout the 20th century.

Parisian art de vivre nestled in the heart of the French capital

“It was where you could find pretty much anything at a reasonable price, from hammers and fishing rods to bathmats and pet food,” noted Secrets of Paris. “Not that you couldn’t enjoy a bit of Parisian glamour as well; you could get a chic hat, try a new perfume, and shop for a new summer dress without fainting at the price tags.” ‘On trouve tout à la Samaritaine’ (‘We find everything at La Samaritaine’) ran a long-time advertising slogan.

From its early days La Samaritaine was far more than a store. In 1883 Cognacq met Belgian architect Frantz Jourdain, a pioneer of the Art Nouveau movement and iron-frame architecture. Jourdain reimagined the store interiors to wondrous effect, his genius later complemented by that of a fellow architect Henri Sauvage, who extended the building in Art Deco style towards the nearby Seine river. Jourdain later designed the majestic new extensions on Rue de Rivoli. From that point La Samaritaine was emblematic of the heart and soul of Paris.

Comprehending that historical context is critical to understanding both the reborn La Samaritaine and DFS Group’s role within it in creating Samaritaine Paris Pont-Neuf by DFS.

As DFS Group Region President Europe & Middle East Eléonore de Boysson, who led the project says (see page 9), “We started from the great history of Samaritaine. What is Samaritaine for Parisians? What will we say differently from the other department stores? It was a very important question because the store has a very rich DNA. Its founders Ernest Cognacq and Marie-Louise Jaÿ were very innovative and quite courageous for their time; in fact they were avant-gardist in terms of how they used the architecture of art nouveau or art deco.”

LVMH and DFS opted to design and curate Samaritaine’s rebirth by simultaneously embodying the founders’ adventurous spirit with equally daring modernity, both in terms of architecture and the shopping and dining offer. “We want Samaritaine to be a place of discovery, surprise and experience,” says Ms de Boysson, “a place where customers can witness the avant garde of creation and taste the cuisine of a contemporary chef, treat themselves to a piece of luxury while enjoying an espresso prepared by an expert barista, discover artisanal designer jewels and relax in the spa, or meet young artists and discuss the surrounding architecture with a historical guide.”

In the days leading up to the grand reopening LVMH called on a beautifully ironic French idiom, ‘C’est pas trop tôt’. That translates as ‘It’s not too soon’ but really means ‘You are late’ (Tu es en retard)

A 16-year wait is over as French President Emmanuel Macron and LVMH Chairman and Chief Executive Bernard Arnault formally inaugurate the reimagined La Samaritaine {Photo courtesy of DFS}

Emmanuel Macron and Bernard Arnault stand astride the Grand Staircase, an integral component of the Pont-Neuf building and an emblem of Samaritaine’s history. To restore the grandeur of this legendary staircase, the railing was renovated with particular care given to the 16,000 gold leaves, the Art Nouveau ceramic under the landings as well as the 270 original oak steps. {Photo courtesy of DFS Group}

DFS Group Chairman & CEO Benjamin Vuchot (see page 7) echoes the sense of responsibility as well as excitement that underpinned the project, something accentuated by the hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. “To open a store in a building that has always been a temple of retail for the Parisians, one that been closed for 16 years, represents this reopening of the centre of Paris, which is very important. We have opened our arms and our doors to the curiosity of the customers who live in or are visiting Paris.”

Vuchot describes the store as “an incredible turning point” for DFS, one that allows the travel retailer to showcase its savoir faire of being a trusted companion for the luxury traveller and to create “a destination within a destination”.

Come judge for yourself by the words and sumptuous images in this special publication. ‘Destination DFS’, a phrase originally coined by DFS co-founder Robert (‘Bob’) Miller – still a committed shareholder at 88 years of age – has never been a more thrilling place to visit.

Martin Moodie, Chairman, The Moodie Davitt Report