The Last Days of Colette
How did the legendary Paris concept store, which closes this week, make a business out of "cool"?
Photograph by Philippe Lopez for Getty Images.
The smell hits you first. Blackcurrant berries, galbanum, fresh jasmine, lily of the valley, cedarwood, musk, and fig-tree leaves. “Air de Colette,” it’s called. A security guard in a cardigan greets you. A feeling of calm is instilled; then: chaos hits. Humans. Humans everywhere. Humans in every corner; in cliques, in couples, all alone. A mother and a daughter pet a fur coat, try it on, take photos in it, put it back on its hanger. Saint Laurent. 11,000 euros. A grey-haired woman adjusts her Bose noise-cancelling headphones, stares at a Diptyque candle, goes to light a stick of incense, is stopped by an employee. A younger woman, with Apple AirPods, rifles through a rack of 100-euro t-shirts like she’s at TJ Maxx. The organizing principle: “cool.” One of a kind in its cool—the transaction of cool for capital, capital for cool has never happened before like it happens at Colette. Candles, sneakers, ball caps, iPhone cases. Everyone, it seems, is in her own world. Few talk. Eyes on objects. Objects. Beautiful objects. Hardcover magazines. Chunky watches. Matches. Moncler parkas. "Fuck-me boots" taller than some people.
It’s the last week at Colette and humans are everywhere—more, even, than the usual overcrowding. After twenty years of being an arbiter of trends; after twenty years of being the destination for lines that stretched down the rue Saint-Honoré; after twenty years of collaborations with nearly every luxury fashion house, top shoe company, and prestige car manufacturer, Colette is closing.
Upstairs, the walls are painted black. You first think it might be a memorial to the store, the death of its signature playful blues and whites. Upon announcing its closure in July, the store posted on Instagram: “Until our last day, nothing will change. Colette will continue to renew itself each week with exclusive collaborations and offerings.” But it feels different. You walk slower, examine objects more carefully. You have always come to buy things, but, more often, you have come to look at things. Now you have come to really look. To see what the trick to coolness is. Is it about a certain arrangement? A certain throw of light? You have come to Colette in its final week as an explorer, a pre-mortem archeologist, Howard Carter sweeping at King Tut’s tomb, Kathleen Kenyon digging up Jericho; you are trying to discern how such a store lasted for so long, thrived so intensely, and will go out neither with a bang nor with a whimper—a bourgeois-bohemian bastion that will just go dark.
The black paint upstairs is not a memorial though. It is for a Saint Laurent pop-up. The final show. Morbidly beautiful; grossly expensive. This is Colette; there will be no fire sale. A motorcycle helmet with crystals—a collaboration with Ruby. 10,000 euros. Cigarette rolling papers in a Saint-Laurent branded leather case. 295 euros. Jackets, blouses, trousers, boots on rollerskates. It’s early enough in the morning that it’s not yet crowded upstairs. A bored cashier runs a lint roller over her black shirt. She turns and hands it to her colleague, who rolls it down her back. An employee walks through adjusting every hanging jacket, moving them, at most, half an inch. Downstairs, it had been the same man pushing magazines ever so slightly together, moving them sometimes not at all, blocking a group of six who were trying to pass. Beauty over experience. Always.
For a moment upstairs, there is silence. Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness. Intense attention, hagiographic, almost—a museum. Thou foster-child of silence and slow time. The aura, the price, the universal acclaim. For years, Colette has felt like a museum, but one in which you can run your hand down furs, spritz perfume, flip the glossy pages of magazines. Colette is best experienced like a library of rare books, like a museum of unique specimens. There are far fewer objects than the space allows. The idea is to live with the objects, individually. They burn with cool. You want to take them with you; you want to buy them and make their cool yours. You can.
Some stores promise to make you feel rich or elegant or even smart. Colette promises to make you feel like you were there first. Besides the magazines and candles, almost everything is exclusive to the store. Even the cameras, the phone cases, the watches—they’re nearly all tweaked just enough—an added color splotch, a different kind of dial—to qualify as different. You can’t recreate Colette anywhere else because the objects aren’t anywhere else. Devotion to objects! Ah, the bourgeois dream, made bohemian in its trends!
Three men burst through the downstairs door, two with giant, cinema-quality video cameras cutting into their shoulders, another shooting photos. Everyone stops looking at their objects. We are pulled from our spheres of magic; we look up. Sarah Andelman, the short-haired creative director of Colette, who co-founded the store with her mother, Colette Rousseaux, is showing a young English man around. The cameras follow. The two act normal even as they’re being recorded, even as the photographer is pacing in circles around them, leaning awkwardly to his side, getting, ostensibly, that perfect shot.
“Who is that?” you ask the photographer, as he follows them upstairs. “Shhh,” he tells you. “Who is that?” you ask a security guard. “Aucune idée,” one says—no idea. “Who is that?” you ask another. “Mmmm,” he says. (Later, you learn it is a blogger from Fashion Insider.) Nearly everyone who had been looking at objects upstairs now clears out.
“So this is an original collaboration?” the blogger says meaninglessly, leaning over Saint Laurent-branded matches.
“It is,” Andelman says, humoring him.
This is a dance of dialogue from which it might be more pleasant to look away.
The serenity of the museum space has collapsed. The temple to trends and to euros has been infiltrated. Or has it? Cameras and meaningless words are the end to any successful enterprise, their banality the way you know you’ve made it. Capitalism and cool—can one exist without the other? Has one ever existed without the other? To be able to take, to possess, to own an object filled with so much externally applied meaning—its brand, its exclusivity, its rarity, its presentation. It is almost too much to take. When old age shall this generation waste, thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe. You decide to leave. You stop. The camera crew has finally left. The space of serenity, of devotion to objects, descends once more. A mother stares at a silver bracelet near the window. Her son grabs at the hem of her dress. “ Maman, maman,” he says. “Can I have that?”
“No sweetheart,” she says. “But I can.”
She takes it to the register and puts it on her wrist. Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all ye know on earth. She leaves with less money but more cool than she had before. The original Colette transaction. The only transaction.