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Why Christmas Never Ends For Iconic Paris Department Stores

There is a lot of planning behind the Christmas window decorations you find around the French capital, and keeping it traditional matters.

Galeries Lafayette's famous Christmas window displays
Galeries Lafayette's famous Christmas window displays
Elvire von Bardeleben

PARIS — "I have a Christmas meeting every Monday morning of the year," says Benoît Laumaillé, director of visual identity at Paris' upmarket Galeries Lafayette department store. "When I'm at the beach in the summer, I often receive packages of Christmas ornaments to decide on ... My holiday home, by the sea, is full of tinsels," explains Frédéric Bodenes, artistic director of Le Bon Marché, an other department store in Paris. It may sound crazy, but for Parisian department stores, Christmas never ends.

There's a good reason for this: Christmas represents 20% of the annual turnover. At Le Bon Marché, it brings around 30% more shoppers while at Printemps, an estimated 10 million people visit the store. To put it simply, it's vital not to get Christmas wrong, especially in an era when department stores are suffering from the double rivalry of e-commerce and shopping malls on the cities' outskirts.

Still, department stores really do have a card to play. "The strength of department stores is their location," says Florence Brachet Champsaur, a researcher at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS). "These commercial temples have been erected in spectacular buildings that are visited like museums and lend themselves to impressive displays." Christmas is their territory, an opportunity to dazzle and win back lost customers.

Christmas in France must be traditional.

But things aren't that simple, because consumers know what they want and, more importantly, what they do not want. Christmas in France must be traditional: "One year, we had a cosmic kind of Christmas, in space," recalls David Molière, artistic director of the window displays at Printemps. "The children are happy as long as there is light, sparkles, and movement. But adults …" Not so much. They weren't exactly thrilled the year Printemps ventured to do something somewhat exotic. Nor were they happy when Le Bon Marché showed a film in their windows, instead of displaying the usual mechanical puppets. At Galeries Lafayette, nobody remembers any monumental failures of that sort, but the artistic director knows that any "attempt at modernity or at shaking things up would be a fatal mistake."

Department stores are therefore faced with an almost insoluble problem: to reinvent themselves every year without changing anything. "We have to use the same ingredients over and over again to make a different sauce every year," sums up Bodenes. Among the irreplaceable items: a Santa Claus, some red and some golden, plenty of snow, Christmas trees.

Unable to create substantial change, department stores are at least trying to distinguish themselves from the competition by relying on their DNA, which they each hope to be unique. Le Bon Marché insists on the ultra-chic, left-bank Parisian aspect. Inside, the store's 396 trees are decorated only with tinsel lights. Outside, the windows are elegant, minimalist: bare trees — not one ornament in sight — dance the French cancan or play the drum.

The artistic director of Le Bon Marché says he is inspired by dance, contemporary art or cinema. Not quite the same atmosphere at Galeries Lafayette, where "ideas sometimes come from ultra kitsch objects; for example, a plastic tree surrounded by an electric train," explains Laumaillé. "You shouldn't be snobbish. On the contrary, you should take inspiration from everything."

Use the same ingredients to make a different sauce every year.

In the window display, a choir of colorful puppets sings on the rooftop of the store's famous glass dome. And behind a three-eyed man, a multicolored maggot and a fluorescent hairy dragon, there are Arts Deco floral elements that hint at the store's architecture. "We've put the building in the window as if it was a product for sale!", says Brachet Champsaur.

The credo of the Galeries, which belong to the Houzé family, is to "give meaning" to their festivities. "The store is still one of the few places where there is a social mix .... Christmas is a time to remind us of our values and our historical mission: to bring everything that is beautiful and good in our time to as many people as possible," says Alexandre Liot, the department store's director.

With this in mind, Galeries Lafayette launched in January a competition in which children were invited to draw "the character of their dreams." Fifteen sketches were selected and turned into puppets. "We created a great relationship with the kids that lasted almost a year. They regularly came to see how the craftsmen were working to bring their drawings to life," says Laumaillé. He believes that it's also the store's mission to revitalize city centers in the provinces and, using Instagram, he shows videos of the excitement caused by the inauguration of the Christmas lights in the stores in Strasbourg and Angers.

BHV, the Houzé family's other department store, follows the same logic: "We must work as a unifying force," says Amandine de Souza, the general manager. "We always choose an accessible theme that is understandable by everyone." This year, they picked Mary Poppins, sponsored by the English Tourist Office and Disney, as a reboot of the classic movie hits the screens. Since they were not allowed to watch the newest film (which was under complete embargo until its release), the window decorators chose to replay the most famous scenes from the original movie.

Puppets must have a sense of humor.

For the past 45 years, Printemps has been relying on the exceptional work of puppeteer Jean-Claude Dehix, who is retiring this year. He passed on his passion to his children: His son does the window displays at Galeries Lafayette and his daughter at BHV. "Puppets must have a sense of humor, express a feeling. Their actions must not be gratuitous." And indeed, his sheep tired of walking are very convincing (they will travel some 600 kilometers over the November-December period), as are his bears, trembling in the cold. If they're shivering, it's because they are the only puppets in the "frosty valley" window display not to be equipped with a Canada Goose down jacket.

In the eternal dilemma facing department stores regarding their independence, Printemps has chosen branding: Four of the nine window displays are sponsored by diverse brands — Canada Goose, Dyson, Häagen-Dazs, and Ugg.

"The characters can wear accessories from the brand made for the window display, but none of those are for sale," says artistic director David Molière, who explains that about 10 years ago, customers had complained that Christmas was becoming too commercial and that they've rebalanced things since then.

For each department store, the question of sponsors remains a delicate one. At the Galeries Lafayette, luxury watchmaker Piaget is a partner of the gigantic Christmas tree that stands under the dome. Which is why its name appears in tinsel lights around the green giant and is visible from the Boulevard Haussmann. Moreover, the windows are more or less full of shopping suggestions. Among the bizarre characters created by the children there are, for example, sweaters by Maison Margiela and Paco Rabanne. "We try not to put the brands forward too much, no logo is too obvious," says Laumaillé. "But it's true that we remain a fashion store."

"Our windows are not sponsored, it's really a gift to customers," boasts Le Bon Marché. Its artistic director is also pleased that customers can attend small shows organized at regular intervals within the store (there are acrobats, excerpts from plays, and even a choir made up by the staff's children).

We try not to put the brands forward too much.

"Of course, we are merchants, but we try to offer something other than products to customers. A family can come to have lunch, look at the window displays, enjoy a show, without having to necessarily shop."

Making the most of the Mary Poppins theme, BHV is offering its customers to have their kids looked after by English nannies, to be escorted back in a black cab (available from 250 euros worth of shopping) or to attend a tap-dancing show.

"Back in the 19th century, department stores transformed shopping into leisure," says Brachet Champsaur. "They did this with an extremely large sales area, that must be very lively to keep the customer as long as possible." In the end, only the solutions change — because 150 years later, the problems remain the same. And while we are still in 2018, all department stores have already chosen their Christmas theme for 2019.

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