Photogragh by Pierre Su / Getty.

Au Revoir, Colette: The Store That Created the Concept of Concept Stores

Nadja Spiegelman on the legacy that Paris's high-fashion temple will leave behind when it closes in December.

by Nadja Spiegelman
Jul 13 2017, 6:23pm

Photogragh by Pierre Su / Getty.

This Wednesday, Paris was abuzz with the news: Colette, Paris's high-fashion temple, the store that created the concept of concept stores, plans to close its doors this December. As with everything Colette has done since it first opened, the decision, announced on their Instagram account a little before lunch time, was profoundly unpredictable. "[Owner] Colette Roussaux has reached the time when she would like to take her time," the post's caption read, a little opaquely, "and colette cannot exist without Colette." By the time the sun set, it was difficult to find anyone under 40 in Paris who had not heard. People repeated the information to each other, stunned, eyes wide: "Colette vas fermer!"

Since 1997, the legendary space, on Rue Saint Honoré, has displayed an ever-changing selection: designer clothes high tech gadgets, art books, sneakers, and even 50-cent candies and Balenciaga-branded lighters. It spans three stories and a sprawling 8,000 feet, with a "water bar" in the basement that serves over 50 brands of bottled water alongside dishes that range from Hawaiian poke to quiche. Its shop windows, entirely reimagined every Sunday, tell stories as concise and ever changing as a magazine's pages. For the past 20 years, the store has been an incontournable destination for members of the fashion elite. Katy Perry was spotted shopping there just last week, and Karl Lagerfeld sings the store's praises far and wide.

The tale of Colette's origin has been told and retold into myth: in 1997, Rousseaux and her daughter Sarah Andelman (then Sarah Lerfel) moved into an apartment in what was then a somewhat desolate stretch between Rue Royale and Les Halles. The retail space on the ground floor was long vacant and each day, as they passed, they dreamt together of how they would fill it. As a single mother, Colette Rousseaux had opened a fashion store in Paris's Sentier neighborhood. But, in conversation with her daughter, who had recently graduated from art school, the two began to dream of a store that would hold far more than clothes: magazines and books, CDs and art. Paris's department stores were stale and staid: each high-fashion brand occupied its own small corner of the grand Galerie Lafayette or Printemps. They imagined a store where everything could mingle, high and low, a reflection of their own personal tastes. Though few stores like it existed at the time (10 Corso Como in Milan was the only one) the idea had antecedents in Paris's "Drugstores" of the 60s and 70s—the city's first 24-hour shops, where one could eat and buy books as well as pick up medicine.

Colette was a success from the moment it opened: brands jumped at the chance to have their offerings reimagined in a setting outside their own stores. The pair's eclectic yet impeccable taste—they once said in an interview with Madame Figaro that "the only fashion faux pas is to believe that there is such a thing as bad taste"—has been instrumental in launching trends from street art to sneakers. In the beginning, the store was staffed with unsmiling proto-punks and goths, but today the store's employees greet crushing waves of tourists with warm smiles and perfect English.

When one witnesses the consistently long lines at the cash registers, it is difficult to imagine that the store has been struggling financially. But recent trends in consumer spending have moved away from retail and towards the Internet, and Andelman has said that the store, like many others in Paris, has struggled from the city's sluggish tourism in the two years following the terrorist attacks.

Though Colette's signature blue 293C Pantone color is instantly recognizable to most in the fashion world, Rousseaux herself has preferred to remain discreet. Legend has it that she occasionally mans the cash registers, unrecognized by the store's patrons. She does not disclose her age, but her daughter told The New York Times in March that even when they opened 20 years ago, Rousseaux hoped that it meant she might work a bit less. Instead she has worked tirelessly, on the floor each morning before the doors open and rearranging the store's window dressings each Sunday. The mother-daughter team has consistently refused to open secondary locations (to which they could not give the same personalized attention) or to license their brand: Colette is Colette.

The high profile collaborations that the store has orchestrated, with brands as wide-ranging as Hermès, Pez, Balenciaga and BMW, are slated to continue until the day the store closes this winter: Sacai in September, Thom Browne in October, Chanel in November, and, finally, Saint Laurent. Saint Laurent will likely then take over the space on Rue Saint Honoré, re-opening it as one of their stores.

Colette's relationship with Saint Laurent has not always been smooth. In 2013, Hedi Silmane, the brand's creative director, took issue with Colette's decision to sell t-shirts emblazoned with "Ain't Laurent Without Yves"—a gentle dig at Silmane's then-recent decision to change their name. Saint Laurent said the t-shirts "seriously damaged" the brand and demanded Colette discontinue them. Colette removed the product from their website but continued to sell it in their store, provoking Saint Laurent to announce the end of their then-15 year partnership. Andelman told Le Monde at the time, "I found the decision disproportionate. I sent emails, I tried to talk to people around him to open the channels of communication, I even hand-delivered a letter myself to Hedi's studio. I've gotten no response from him."

Slimane left Saint Laurent in 2016, and it seems the channels of communication have since reopened. In their Instagram post announcing the store's closure, Colette wrote, "Negotiations are under way with Saint Laurent and we would be proud to have a brand with such a history, with whom we have frequently collaborated, taking over our address."

In a phone interview with the New York Times on Wednesday, Andelman suggested that she may go on to work as a consultant, though her plans were in the early stages. Within the Parisian fashion world, rumors abound that she will certainly go on to create something new: she is a tireless worker, and those who know her cannot imagine her lying dormant. In the meantime, there is only one thing to be done: a final pilgrimage to the fashion temple on Rue Saint Honoré.

Karl Lagerfeld