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Experiences and Sneakers Dominate at Le Bon Marché

·5 min read

PARIS — If proof were needed that the sneaker rules the shoe closet, Parisian department stores are proving it by putting it at the center of their footwear sections. The latest evidence is Le Bon Marché‘s revamped shoe offering, unveiled late last month, where kicks are front and center.

On the female-oriented second floor, the sneaker space has moved from a long stretch along a side wall of the building to a central area once home to heritage brands. Taking pride of place here is sustainable shoemaker Allbirds, whose temporary space is entirely upcycled using wool and wood parts, a spirit that permeates the rest of the area.

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“The sneaker is where we feel brands are pushing the envelope to experimenting with plant-based leathers or waste-reduction strategies, so we followed it by not doing a redo,” said women’s footwear buyer Morgane Toullec, pointing out the original structure and the Pierre Paulin sofas that had been extracted from the department’s considerable cache of vintage furniture and dressed in blush pink fabric.

Here, the mix includes must-haves like the Isabel Marant wedge sneaker and Off-White’s collectible pairs or classics like Vans presented alongside Swiss running specialists On, which will drop a collaboration with Loewe later in the month.

The rest of the 17,000-square-foot department has likewise been organized. Around the sneaker space are season offerings — rain and winter boots starting in the fall, sandals in summer months. Under the glass canopy, which was renovated in 2015, contemporary brands are highlighted in the “Atelier Parisien” space, with one twist.

“We noticed a trend toward women-led brands in the contemporary market, in an overall field dominated by brands designed by men for women,” remarked Toullec, outlining a selection that went from established labels like Vanessa Bruno and Carel to emerging brands Nodaleto, By Far or Berlin-based contemporary label Aeyde.

A similar reshuffling has been done at the basement level in the men’s department, where the department store built the “Station Sneakers,” a 2,700-square-foot replica of a metro station. “We wanted to play with this idea of being ‘underground’,” said Thomas Jamet, Le Bon Marché’s men’s footwear buyer.

By grouping the full breadth of the offer, from accessible labels like Converse to luxury mainstays such as Balenciaga and rare items like On Running’s Roger low tops, named after tennis champion (and investor in the brand) Roger Federer, Jamet said the department store wanted to put the accent on “sneakers being now for all ages, all styles and all walks of life.”

Beyond product, both spaces highlight the notion of sneakers as a culture and a pivotal lifestyle element, ranging from a selection of books on the subject prominently displayed alongside men’s styles, to a program of themed runs developed with Paris-based runners Marais Running Club and personalizations, this time with French label Amrose’s knit footwear and adornments.

These fleet-footed changes were only part of a busy fall for the Left Bank department store.

In addition to Thebe Magugu’s philanthropic flower-themed installation, the department store offers a wider-than-ever array, from vintage furniture and homeware finds — currently on the second floor but expanding into the adjoining building’s home department — to sports classes on the ground floor.

Was this busy and buzzy schedule a bid to entice customers now preferring the convenience of e-commerce, or scared off by travel disruptions? Neither, according to Patrice Wagner, the department store’s chief executive officer, who revealed that August’s turnover was neck-a-neck with 2019’s pre-pandemic figures.

The secret sauce? A capacity and desire to dedicate some 16,000 square feet to experiential retail, according to Wagner.

“Everyone is [now] talking about entertainment in living spaces and commerce, but it’s something that I’ve been hearing about for three decades, and applying here since I arrived [11 years ago],” the veteran retail executive said. “We’re just continuing in this direction because we have always believed that the customer has to come out of the store enriched, not just having lined a retailer’s pockets.”

Cue the services and experiences offered everywhere in store.

In the first floor pop-up space, turned over to a duo of very Parisian names — beauty label Holidermie and contemporary fashion label Ba&sh — salt-cabin appointments, a drinks bar with health-oriented concoctions and a program of wellness and sustainability masterclasses were put on equal footing with Ba&sh’s ready-to-wear and the product selection drawn from the holistic universe of Holidermie’s Mélanie Huynh.

The ground floor reveals two fields that became fast favorites during lockdown: sports and plants. French sports club Champion Spirit, founded by four-time Thai boxing world champion Abdoulaye Fadiga, occupies the exhibition space near the main Rue de Sèvres entrance, complete with a boxing ring that hosts children’s boxing classes and tai-chi sessions for adults, as well as the possibility of designing a home gym with apparel and interior design experts.

At the other end of the store, the “Concept Vegetal” pop-up offers a selection of living plants, garden furniture and miscellaneous items for green-thumbed customers who want to create their own urban gardens.

Even brands that traditionally focus their efforts on deploying their own identities first are starting to branch out. Take Tag Heuer, which renovated its ground floor shop-in-shop into an open area with the feeling of a chic lounge. “We wanted to make the space into a living space that is fit for conversations around shared interests, like meetings between watch collectors and car enthusiasts [with the Porsche collaboration], not just commercial transactions,” said the watchmaker’s CEO Frédéric Arnault.