Despite having no previous department store experience, the president and director-general of Printemps has put it back on the map as a shrine to Parisian luxury retail
If you take the metro in Paris and get out at the stop marked Chaussée d’Antin, there’s a sign pointing the way to the ‘Grands Magasins’. Arrive above ground and it’s apparent that the ‘big stores’ (a crude but accurate translation) referred to are Printemps and Galeries Lafayette - and they live up to the billing.
Both have been around for years and if you’re seeking department store gratification, look no further.
Beyond Paris it’s probably Galeries Lafayette that’s better known, but in terms of a store that has undergone an almost complete renaissance, it’s Printemps that holds the crown currently. And the reason for this is simple: Paolo de Cesare, president and director-general of the luxury department store. This is the man who took control of the 17-store chain in 2007 and almost immediately set about the tricky business of revamping the Boulevard Haussmann store to reposition it as a true luxury destination, a position it certainly already held, but it wasn’t a natural must-visit destination when compared with some of its department store rivals.
Prior to his arrival Printemps was sold to the Milan-based Borletti Group from PPR Group in 2006, when it had annual sales of €1.2bn (£1.04bn).
De Cesare arrived at Printemps with no experience as a department store boss. What he did have was half a lifetime working with luxury brands as a mover and shaker at brand owner and operator Procter & Gamble (P&G).
“I studied economics in Rome and when I got my degree I wanted to be the head of the Bank of Italy - it’s the kind of thing all economists want to do,” he says. “But then I saw an opportunity at Procter & Gamble and thought ‘let’s do something more exciting’.”
The “excitement” lasted 25 years and de Cesare became the president of P&G’s global skincare and perfume division, giving him exposure to department stores via perfume brands such as Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and Escada.
Ahead of him stretched the road to Cincinnati, the global headquarters of P&G, and faced with this de Cesare says Paris seemed a better option. “I saw an opportunity between what Printemps was and what it could be and I also had a good idea of what a flagship department store should look like,” he says. He took the Printemps job and looked at what needed to be done to reinstate the store as a possible leader in the world of Parisian department store retailing.
“One of the first things I did was to tell my team to stop looking next door [at Galeries Lafayette] and to consider what was being done at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York and Selfridges and Harrods in London,” he says. De Cesare’s global perspective led to the appointment of Canadian department store design duo George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg of interior design firm Yabu Pushelberg and, as he notes: “We worked for six months on how we would go about recreating the interior.”
The job was completed in April and the store has been transformed. De Cesare is clearly proud of what has been achieved, and it’s clear he has got what he wanted. “Under the previous ownership, there was an attitude of survival rather than growth,” he says.
Practically, this translates as a store where the fashion floors are a parade of luxury brands, but in which there is a democracy of approach. De Cesare points to the fact that each of the shop-in-shops, whether it’s Chanel, Dior, or De Beers, has the same size frontage and the underlying idea has been to make things “exciting” and “welcoming” for the shopper. This store is also about service, so at almost every turn there appears to be a personal shopper area or a tax refund room. There’s even one of the latter staffed entirely by Chinese assistants - providing a service for the many Chinese who seem to fill the store’s more upscale departments.
There is one exception to all of this: the Maria Luisa department, run by Maria Luisa Poumaillou, owner of the eponymous Parisian independent, which shut its doors this summer. This über-buyer and conduit through which many up-and-coming labels have found access to a wider clientele now has a department under licence in Printemps. De Cesare spotted her potential as a source of innovation and offered her a large space in the store, as well as a wider consultancy role in the business. Walking through the area devoted to her chosen brands including Christopher Kane and Marios Schwab, Poumaillou is busy arranging stock and greets de Cesare like an old friend.
Printemps’ total shopping area measures about 484,375 sq ft and Maria Luisa has been given 3,229 sq ft of that - the space given to some of the big international brands can be just half as big. In answer to the question of how many brands she has in her space, Poumaillou is clear: “Too many. I’m cutting down. But the thing is, you close the door and they come in through the window.” From de Cesare’s perspective, by having Poumaillou as a de facto member of the buying team he is ensuring the store is at the forefront of emerging talent.
It’s also worth noting that across the Rue de Provence from the main Printemps store is Citadium, a four-storey emporium filled with young brands such as WeSC, Franklin & Marshall and Loreak Mendian. Owned by Printemps, it is filled with young Parisians. De Cesare is pleased. “This is doing unbelievable business and I’d be disappointed if you knew too many of the brands, because it’s not for you,” he says, unashamedly. “This is really for a young shopper.”
Prior to this the store was still called Citadium, was still owned by Printemps, but was a sportswear proposition. Now with the magic wand de Cesare seems to wave over most things he encounters, it is doing good business. This store is 43,055 sq ft and de Cesare says a scaled down, 3,229 sq ft Citadium store opened in nearby Beaubourg earlier this year.
De Cesare is wary about figures but says he’d be “disappointed if we did only a 20% increase”. The other 16 Printemps stores in France account for about 50% of total sales and have also been revamped.
The question of what next doesn’t seem valid for de Cesare. In three years he has transformed the fortunes of one of France’s most famous department store groups and has carried the team he found in place with him. “We’ve invested a lot in service and taking care of the high-end shopper.” On the evidence of the flagship store, there are few who would disagree.
2007 President and director-general, Printemps
2002 Leaves Procter & Gamble as president of the global skincare and perfume division
1983 Trainee, Procter & Gamble
1983 Graduates from the University of Rome