Fellow Francophiles take note: 213 rue Saint-Honoré is where it’s at. That’s if the inevitable queue to get into the place is anything to go by, and the palpable anticipation of those shuffling forward for their turn to walk through the doors. And then there’s the clientele themselves.
At times, large SUVs and a swarm of security clog up the tiny road that serves as a gateway to the boutique, because, you know, Pharrell Williams or Katy Perry or even Queen B herself are in town and need to shop.
But the store won’t close on their arrival as once you step onto Colette soil, all are considered equal – everyone shops together and will be treated just the same. Five metres before entry, the experience begins.
A few model-type bloggers hover around the corner fixing up their hair, pouting another layer of gloss on their lips, doing the once-over in the reflection next door before jumping in the line. When you’re inside, there’s an adrenalin hit, like you’ve just been let into the coolest club possible without even trying.
Seventeen years on and we remain cutting edge due simply to our key constituent of ‘never the same’. We change everything all the time and we look for exclusivity because we like to offer something special to our clients.
Do I stride over to the book section (then remembering this area usually costs me at least an hour), do I get lost in the T-shirt stand that’s one big party of design collaborations? Perhaps I should head to the Little Miss and Mr Men wall or maybe I want the latest python sneakers or Sacai Vans with ankle fur? Gee, those Keith Haring candles are so distracting…
Security acknowledges you, there’s underground hypnotic electro-funk pumping, this time it’s the playlist of Parisian fashion designer Julien David who made the selection just for Colette. No wonder Karl Lagerfeld is known to buy his music here.
The current window display is by Insta artist Donald Drawbertson, there’s a Rapper’s Delight: The Hip Hop Cookbook, and Fuchiko just in case you need little Japanese figures to hang on your glass or mug.
Upstairs there’s a fashion gallery-style set up and again, security nods in approval as you reach to touch fresh from the mills the latest Mary Katrantzou or Christopher Kane dress, the unusual shape of a Comme des Garçons skirt, to pieces from yet-to-be-discovered designers such as Anna K and Paskal from the Ukraine, and the otherwise already famous Hood by Air.
All are intended to create an environment where brands mingle with each other instead of each being allocated their own corners.
“It’s a perfect balance,” affirms artistic director Sarah Andelman.
“Seventeen years on and we remain cutting edge due simply to our key constituent of ‘never the same’. We change everything all the time and we look for exclusivity because we like to offer something special to our clients.”
Sarah is half of the ultra-discreet mother-daughter duo who created Colette in 1997. Both sport pixie hairstyles and are media shy, with the store named after Colette Roussaux herself. Right from the beginning, their vision was non-conformist, they implore. It began with an abandoned 8000-square-foot space they loved for its beautiful light and then-idiosyncratic location.
They filled it with all their favourite things at a time when Paris – who covetously eyed Tokyo, Antwerp and London – was lacking a place that brought a worldly six degrees of separation. In turn, they created a universal landscape that was atypical, probing curiosity and quickly removing themselves from a traditional department-store template.
In a world where most department stores have lost some of their shine, along with a significant share of total retail sales, Colette beams.
“The fact we carry many different things and not only fashion helped us ride out the financial crisis,” says Sarah.
In effect, the financial model of varied revenue streams has provided significant cushioning in a fickle retail platform. And expanding to an online store, without diluting the cultural icon they’ve become, has been key.
“It’s fun to create a tangible mini world for a special event,” she says.
“Shopping in our store will always be another experience than online shopping. I also think it’s important to grow slowly, but surely.”
They hand-pick their products and sell them in small quantities, but the proliferation of collaborations with major fashion houses like Hermès, Chanel and Ladurée, as well as sports brands like Nike and Reebok, to create single objects has perhaps been one of their cleverest marketing strategies yet, and one that continues to stand the test of time. They have a similar approach when it comes to Colette herself – Madame Colette Roussaux never gives an interview to the press and only very few photos of her exist. The rationale? Only small quantities are required in a world of excess, and only minimal exposure in an over-exposed ecosphere.
The “marketing of frustration” presses the reverse-psychology button, says Sarah, and all of sudden the allure of mystery, the notion that something is limited edition or that will be hard to get a hold of takes over.
While some concept stores have tried to maintain the impetus of the unconventional and avant-garde, with few originals succeeding, and others have opened duplicate stores across key fashion capitals around the globe, many have the exclusivity stable but haven’t fulfilled on the promise of diversity across their edit. As Sarah says, many have plummeted into the ostentatious vacuum and become disconnected and disengaged from their customers.
“Change is part of Colette’s DNA,” she says. “It’s a non-stop curiosity, nonstop research, non-stop work. I don’t look for something special, I just have a look to everything around. Quality is also paramount, because of course, that’s our first priority for the products and for the service.”
Is it a question of how successful the sell-through was for the season that determines whether or not to reorder from the same designer?
“When we decide to start with a new designer, we generally hope it will be for more than one season. But then, it’s important the designers surprise me and don’t repeat the same ideas from [one] season to another.
“The selection is made like a puzzle, with each part working together, not at all related to sell-through. When taking on a new designer, I look foremost for creativity, quality of production, good delivery date is also very important, exclusivity – but that’s not mandatory. I always say to ‘follow your heart’.”
Colette herself is known across Europe as a fashion maharishi and at one time, swayed the French from champagne drinking to water because she indicated one was more in vogue than the other. And in doing so, she created a ‘water bar’ in the store serving more than 100 brands of bottled water with a lunch du jour for those wanting more.
Her daughter Sarah, a former art student and Purple magazine intern, might be the store’s artistic director but that’s always open to interpretation.
“Actually, I change [the title] every day. It can be ‘director’, ‘buyer’, ‘creative director’, which is maybe the same as artistic director. I can’t have a title for everything I do, between the buying, the curating of the exhibitions, the windows, the events…”
And just like the store itself, those at its helm are multifaceted and without a doubt, that’s a reason for Colette’s longevity. It has inspired cult concept stores around the world but what’s their secret to success?
“I always repeat to myself basic slogans like ‘just do it’, ‘nothing is impossible’. Colette really is my happy place and life… and my three words to live by never change – style, art and food.”