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Fashion Faux Pas? Big Brand Retailers Transform Paris' Champs-Elysées

Changes are afoot along the Champs-Elysées, where big-name clothing brands like Abercrombie & Fitch and Marks & Spencer are occupying more and more commercial space. Critics say soaring rents and new business regulations threaten to turn t

Foreign fashion retailers line the Champs Elysées
Foreign fashion retailers line the Champs Elysées
Nicole Vulser

The popular U.S. clothing brand Abercrombie & Fitch, a favorite among teenagers, opened its first shop in France this week. Where else but along Paris' Champs Elysées? Another American company, Banana Republic, is expected to follow suit, as isBritain's Marks & Spencer, which left Paris a decade ago but is now on its way back.

They're hardly the first megabrands to set up shop along the pricey Parisian promenade. Jeans giant Levi's has recently obtained approval to expand its Champs Elysées shop. Sweden's H&M opened an enormous boutique there last October, and Lacoste, a major local logo, has just finished a makeover of its flagship shop.

How can one explain the fashion retailers' craze for the place, given the soaring rents on the Champs Elysées, the world's fifth most expensive avenue in 2010? While it may be less expensive than certain streets in Tokyo or London, Champs Elysées tenants still have to pay a whopping average of 6,965 euros per square meter, which can climb up to 10,000 euros for the best situated spaces.

The answer seems to be traffic – of the foot variety. "This atypical avenue, where shops and restaurants are open even on Sundays, attracts 300,000 visitors each day," says Pierre Raynal of Cushman & Wakefield, a real estate services firm. "The total turnover for the entire neighborhood is close to 1 billion euros a year."

Visitors particularly like the avenue's sunny side (the even numbered addresses), where rent prices can be as much as 30% higher than on the already expensive shady side. Either way, shelling out for a foothold along the Champs Elysées is worth every penny, insists Raynal, who is convinced shops are not "overpaying" for their exclusive addresses.

"For big brands, sales from their Champs Elysées sites may be 20% to 30% higher than that of their second biggest outlet in Paris," he says.

According to a study performed by Clipperton, a finance firm, 39% of the shops on Champs Elysées were rented by fashion brands in 2006. Although the data has not been formally updated, the firm's director, Philippe Vincent, estimates that "the number is today close to 50%."

If that is indeed the case, the Champs Elysées is now more dominated by brand-name fashion outlets than the average French mall, where clothing shops are limited to 40%, even if they are usually twice as lucrative as other stores.

Why so many clothing boutiques? Vincent points to the loi de modernisation de l"économie (LME), a recently implemented law that loosens rules for opening businesses. The law has also raised the threshold for authorization from 300 to 1,000 square meters. The risk posed by these changes, Vincent explains, could be less commercial diversity and less interest on the part of the consumers.

"Do we really want to see the Champs Elysées, a symbol in France, the place where every new president of the Republic walks and where people gather every December 31, become an outdoor mall?" he says.

While Vincent sees no point in trying to oppose the LME, he does support the idea that each store be based on a "unique concept." An example is H&M's Champs Elysées flagship store, which was designed by world-renowned architect Jean Nouvel. The Louis Vuitton store is also said to be the only one of its kind in the world.

Others, however, question whether the Champs Elysées should somehow be exempt from the new law. Edouard Lefebre, head of the Champs Elysées Committee, a group of 160 stores situated on the avenue and neighboring streets, says the four drug stores still present in the area will find it difficult to stay afloat if they must, as the new laws stipulate, close down earlier on certain days. "The rents are starting to be too high for certain types of businesses to afford them," he says. Cinemas, especially those screening independent films, are particularly as risk of getting priced out.

"We are operating in an ultra-free market environment and the Champs Elysées is a great place to be," says Lyne Cohen-Solal, a Paris councillor. "This is the law of the jungle, survival of the wealthiest. There is absolutely no way we can prevent the arrival of fashion giants and preserve the Avenue's commercial diversity. They are the only ones capable of keeping pace with the soaring rents."

Cohen-Solal is convinced big brands such as H&M were given a "blank check" when invited to set up their stores – something the companies firmly deny. The best the Parisian municipal government can do, Cohen-Solal says, is delay permits for the big-brand boutiques by a couple of months. The final word, however, rests with a national commission, which tend to side with the companies.

The city councilwoman also thought about trying to save the old cinemas, at least, by tagging them as cultural monuments. In the end, however, "the law wouldn't let us do it," she said.

If the commercial landscapes in New York, London and Hong Kong are any indicator, Cohen-Solal may be fighting a losing battle. In those cities, cinemas have long been absent from the most famous avenues, replaced by endless clusters of luxury and prêt-à-porter outlets.

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