The concept store, with its vague hint of something more highfalutin than your everyday department store or single-brand boutique, is by now a global phenomenon. Yet some among us may still be a little fuzzy about what exactly one is. In a nutshell, a concept store mixes fashion and design and is meant to convey a unique vision of what those two together might express.
What most concept stores sacrifice in quantity and variety is amply made up for in quality and originality, which, along with high style, are their highest aspirations. Boutiques range in atmosphere from delirious “department store” (Colette ) to something barely distinguishable from an art gallery (The Broken Arm ). Most of all, the concept store is an experience, and Paris is an excellent place to sample the genre in full flower.
A Little History
We can date the arrival of the concept store in Paris to 1980, with the opening of L’Eclaireur (The Scout) by fashion visionaries Armand and Martine Haziza, who had a knack for spotting new talent. The boutique was the first to introduce the likes of Helmut Lang, John Galliano, Martin Margiela and Ann Demeulemeester to Paris. By contextualising the clothes with contemporary furniture, design and art in spaces that became increasingly imaginative, L’Eclaireur was selling more than just fashion, it was peddling lifestyle – and keeping miles ahead of the crowd.
L’Eclaireur’s seven Paris outposts, particularly the Marais and Rue Hérold stores, are experiences unto themselves, and, as leaders in cutting-edge fashion and design, the boutiques are still going strong. (Branches at: Le Royal Eclaireur, Le Marais-Malher, Le Marais-Sévigné, Place des Victoires-Hérold, Fauborg St Honoré-Boissy d’Anglas, Champs-Élysées and Saint Ouen-Le Village Vintage.)
In 1997, the three-level concept store Colette electrified the fashion world and breathed new life into the Rue Saint-Honoré, quickly becoming Paris’s hippest, if not quirkiest, purveyor of lifestyle, with an unfailing radar for everything utterly of the moment – from books, music, toys and bicycles, to candles, cameras and cosmetics, and of course, pedigreed designer clothes and accessories. Colette also masterminded the designer collaboration, now a concept store staple. (213 Rue Saint-Honoré, 1st +33 1 55 35 33 90)
More recently, Merci  brought a fresh new take to the superchic upper Marais in a soaring, light-filled space on three floors, each with a different focus: house, kitchen and hardwares in the basement (alongside a charming café); clothes, jewellery and special exhibits on the ground floor; furniture and design on the mezzanine. Catering to the bourgeois-bohemian set, the far-flung specialty items include luxury all-linen sheets, those indispensable French nesting bowls, Marc Newson chairs – whatever the urban sophisticate requires. (111 Boulevard Beaumarchais, 3rd +33 1 42 77 00 33)
The most recent crop of concept stores, opened in the last year or so, stake out territory in two of Paris’s trendiest districts, the aforementioned upper Marais and the more youthfully hip Canal Saint-Martin, and range in approach from archly chic to socially aware.
Named after one of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, The Broken Arm’s minimalist aesthetic conveys a restrained, ultra-sophisticated cool, and like the prankster artist elevates everyday objects to works of art (never has a shoe or trouser looked so sculpturally elegant than when displayed here). Paris’s latest go-to place for design-conscious fashionistas who appreciate a hypercurated selection of A-list brands for men and women (not always entirely distinguishable), The Broken Arm’s choice garments hang sparsely from a few minimal racks. They include vivid separates from the likes of Kenzo, Phillip Lim, Raf Simons and Cédric Charlier (whose candy-coloured skirts, tops and trousers for women steal the show), collaborative sandals by Camper, leather lace-ups from the superb Christophe Lemaire and snazzy flowered sneakers by Carven.
The luminous space, all pale wood and windows, makes a refined setting for singular pieces – a gorgeously elaborate necklace, a few jaunty hats in black or electric blue, choice leather goods, a one-off vase, and select books on architecture, photography and contemporary art. You may not be spoilt for choice here, but let’s face it, sometimes it’s nice to have someone do the thinking for you. By contrast, the store’s wee café next door is a cosy, bustling place to drop in for a small but gourmet lunch menu, teatime, or a good cup of coffee and piece of lavender-blueberry cheesecake. (12 Rue Perrée, 3rd +33 1 44 61 53 60)
A quick walk from Rue Perrée, Coïncidence  champions underexposed designers alongside diffusion lines from the fashion stars – Damir Doma’s Silent, Dark Shadow by Rick Owens – whatever catches creative director Lenny Guerrier’s unerring eye. The boutique’s beautifully conceived interior makes the most of the building’s creamy walls and ancient hand-hewn beams, which double as sculptural elements, to provide a neutral backdrop for clothes which are anything but, such as a surprisingly understated fine-mesh green-and- gold-metallic dress, a line of chic cotton T-shirt tunics from Brazil and elegant black-jersey separates with Yamamoto- worthy tailoring. Under the cellar’s vaulted ceilings, Guerrier offers some expertly chosen stationery, scented candles and tableware plus jewellery and accessories. (11 Rue Chapon, 3rd +33 9 80 54 21 79)
Back up Rue du Temple, a slew of independent boutiques pay testimony to Canal Saint-Martin’s transformation into another übertrendy Paris enclave – a soul-sister to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The neighbourhood’s eclectic mix of vintage shops, wine bars, barista cafés, trendy eateries and chic boutiques is drawing the hip crowd in droves.
Channelling the neighbourhood’s low-key cool, Babel, the newest kid on the block, dispenses with minimalism altogether, daring to project a more homey vibe via props like grandma’s garde-robe (hoarding a chic assortment of those demure flower-print dresses that beg to be unbuttoned), vintage furniture both scruffy and sleek, graffitied walls and exposed piping.
The open loft space is sectioned into ‘departments’, with stations for cosmetics and accessories, a pigeonhole cabinet full of chic scarves, cool iPhone cases and Mondrian-inspired belts. A corner cupboard proffers chocolate pralines from the historic Parisian confiserie Mazet, and a hardware section entices DIY-ers with a selection of design light bulbs, fabric wiring and all the doodahs necessary to make your own lamp.
Although glamour may be beside the point, some fabulous one-of-a-kind, reversible kimono-esque creations by Kamomeya in silk and floral cotton could be worn as a winsomely provocative robe or popped over a T-shirt and jeans. Besides well chosen, and well-priced, largely unisex basics, there’s unpretentious jewellery, stylish leather bags and a downstairs ‘flea market’ brimming with vintage clothes and housewares. (55 Quay de Valmy, 10th +33 1 42 40 10 95)
A few blocks away, Centre Commercial ’s wholesome white storefront and radiant, glass-topped interior may seem like celestial proof of the purveyor of ecologically sound and ethically sourced merchandise’s unblemished soul. But no one wears its ethos less pedantically, and besides, who can resist the rapture of shopping with a totally clear conscience? Let it be said that Centre Commercial has done its homework in more than just the ethics department, the boutique’s stellar selection of clothes and accessories for men and women are superstylish, comfortable and timeless.
A spare,warm interior, embellished with chic vintage furnishings and oriental rugs lends a welcoming vibe for a leisurely perusal of fine, handpicked wares. Spotted for spring: Maison Olga’s featherweight cotton batik sundresses, skirts and tops for wearing under a superb indigo blazer, and a lacy scarlet shirt and must-have python booties by the French brand Roseanna. The men’s clothes include Steven Allen’s much-coveted buttondowns, soft French and Belgian-made T-shirts, sweaters and meticulously cut outerwear.
A well-stocked shoe department offers classic seasonal styles by Repetto, New Balance, Veja (the store’s own brand) and a slew of fabulous, lesser-known labels. There are also artisanal leather goods, Egyptian-motif jewellery, scented candles in fragrances which recall the great outdoors, all-natural skincare products from Portland General Store and a nice selection of enlightening books. (2 Rue de Marseille, 10th +33 1 42 02 26 08)
Whatever you do and whether or not you have children – someone you know does – don’t miss Centre Commercial Kids around the corner. You’ll be confounded as to whether to choose a Mini Rodini elephant-print sweatshirt, Mormor’s miniature sweaters hand-knitted by real Danish grandmas or, for that intrepid six-month-old, a fire-engine-red vinyl onesie which looks exactly like the getups Formula 1 drivers wear. There’s also a black-and-white, throw-size illustration of Paris just itching to be taped to the wall and coloured in, some spectacular mobiles of trumpeter swans or undulating black apostrophes that you’ll want for yourself, adorable vintage furniture, and the best kids’ jewellery in town.
Who says lifestyle is just for grown-ups? (22 Rue Yves Toudic, 10th +33 1 42 06 23 81)
From France Today Magazine