Our host, Junior Perfumer at Guerlain Frédéric Sacone has an important appointment in the capital and has left us to explore. It is a warm afternoon, and the Champs-Elysées is teeming with tourists. Every few meters a shiny new coach pulls up, belching visitors from the Far East onto it's cobbled walkways. My wife and I lose one another in the throng for a moment, but find each other again and knit our fingers together securely. We zig-zag through the masses with an urgency usually reserved for impending restroom breaks, but today we walk with a different purpose. Our growing frustration with the slow, shuffling crowds is dissolved only by the sight of Guerlain approaching at number 68. I draw my breath in sharply, and my wife lets out a sigh. "There it is", we chime simultaneously, as if rehearsed. Our steps quicken, and we suddenly begin to feel self-conscious, like two kids chasing an ice-cream truck. We slow our pace and take in the spectacular facade. "Wow!" we exclaim, lingering in front of the boutique entrance. We take out our camera and capture a few frames... passing pedestrians from all points on the globe stare at us blankly and glance through its doors before continuing on their way. How could they know what this truly means to us? To be standing on the doorstep of Maison Guerlain. At last.
* * * * *
Guerlain have been trading at No. 68 Champs Elysées for precisely 100 years. In 1914 - four years after the passing of Aimée Guerlain - the flagship store shifted from its previous habitation on the rue de la Paix to the current high street address on the world-famous bustling boulevard. The building itself, constructed in exquisite Art Nouveau style, has retained its splendour since, but its interior has seen incremental changes over the decades. In 2005 the space received perhaps its most significant facelift - a massive undertaking realised by French design dignitary Andrée Putman and architect Maxime d'Angeac. The interior of the site is heritage listed, so the modernization proved incredibly challenging: Putman and d'Angeac needed to assimilate and execute changes that subsumed a strong sense of tradition. More recently however, Interior Designer Hall of Fame recipient Peter Marino has woven more magic into the intricate tapestry of the House. In 2013 Guerlain unveiled an entirely reinvented space - one which not only honours historical convention, but also exhibits an appreciation for original materials; crystal, marble, mirrors and marquetry. Simply said, Marino's manifestation has resulted in one of the most extravagant and palatial retail environments the world has ever seen.
The ground floor foyer is exquisitely fitted in rich red / green / amber panels of marble. Mrs Sorcery of Scent and I are greeted warmly by a swan-necked mademoiselle who strikes a stunning silhouette in black. A gruff security guard with microphone in his ear stands to one side, but his gravity is broken when he too shoots us a smile. We take in the opulent space for a few moments, stopping to sneak a photo of a trio of exquisite 1.5 litre Shalimar presentations standing on a counter that have been decorated with jewels. I quickly review the stolen frames I've taken with my smartphone. "You may feel free to photograph as you please, Monsieur", Mademoiselle whispers with a wink. We are relieved, and I retrieve my Nikon DSLR from my bag. We ascend the wrought iron / marble staircase to the first floor and gasp as we enter a shimmering corridor... the glinting hall of mirrors whose rippled, reflective panes hide a wealth of Guerlain artefacts from centuries past. We study the inset shadowboxes carefully, ooh'ing and aah'ing at the vintage flacons.
Today, we are practically alone on the first floor - the space made famous in 1939 when Guerlain opened one of the world's first spas... a beauty institute that has endured to this day. From the central hall of mirrors, several rooms fan out, and we follow the obvious path toward an incredible central perfume organ that sparkles under the recessed halogens. We walk around it, examining bottles resting in its 'branches'... it's sculptural form renders us almost too timid to touch them, for fear of spoiling its symmetry. The walls are lined with marquetry and modestly-lit shelves hold enchanting bee bottles, many embellished with handsome neck-ties and delightful 'poivre' puffers. The central organ area opens into a spacious room with modest furniture and wood panelled walls. This is the Sur-Mesure consultation room where one can have their very own perfume composed - by appointment of course. The bespoke perfume service at No.68 is a lengthy process - one that any perfumisto would relish - taking approximately one year to have one's very own signature scent composed by Master Parfumeur Thierry Wasser. Two backlit walls are lined with large bee bottles, and the final prize - a leather coffret comprising 24 baccarat crystal quadrilobe flacons filled with your very own preparation - is displayed for one to pore over. My wife and I examine it with a slight pang of envy.
We cross the hall of mirrors once more, and venture into the other adjoining rooms... one a beautiful showroom with exquisite Guerlain silk carré, perfumed fans and scented gloves for purchase. I see Mrs Sorcery of Scent lingering a long while over a pair of short La Petite Robe Noire mitts made of the finest buttery black leather, and I suddenly recognise "that look" in her eyes. We stroll through to the blanched lavishness of the Orchidée Imperiale Salon and cosmetics rooms where age-defying products and enchanting limited edition powder boxes are on display under perspex covers. It suddenly strikes us that not once have we been approached by a sales representative... we have of course seen them, but they keep a very low profile, allowing us instead to peruse the rooms and products at our leisure. The moment I look for a consultant, she materialises as if from the ether, almost as though she has heard me summon her by telepathy. "Bonjour Madame, Monsieur", she says, her eyes the colour of aquamarines. We enquire about a product, and she educates us passionately. "Where are you from?", she asks enthusiastically.
"From Australia", I respond. "You can't imagine what this visit means to us. We have travelled a long way to be here". I explain our love of the brand, its perfume and its history. Mademoiselle beams. She casts a quick look over each shoulder and whispers "Follow me!" Mrs Sorcery of Scent and I look at one another for a moment and chase after her... she is walking briskly through the rooms and brings us to a concealed door in a marble wall that we hadn't noticed before. Mademoiselle cranes her neck to see if anyone is watching, and then turns to us.
"I want to show you a very special place. You are passionate about Guerlain and have come across the world. We never show anyone this room... it is a secret. But I think you are deserving". With that she lifts a finger to her lips and mouths "shhhhhhhh". She opens the door and enters, beckoning us to hurry inside. We do not wait for a second invitation and scamper across the threshold. Our pupils take a moment to adjust... the well-lit salons are now behind us.
We are standing in a room that has been decorated in a light taupe marble. A sofa and handful of plush occasional chairs create a conversation area at the center of the room... they are upholstered in a complementary hue. Broad windows run along one side of the room, and potted plants bring a stroke of green to the hushed ecru palette.
"This is a very special space", Mademoiselle announces. "It is the original office of Jacques Guerlain and later, Jean-Paul Guerlain. Here they would sit for many hours, writing the formulae for the Guerlain classics... Mitsouko, Shalimar, Chamade and others. Here exists their original writing desk". She points to a beautiful antique French desk in ebony, and for a millisecond, I see their ghosts sitting there. My wife and I suck in the air and instantly feel the weight of the room around us. The three of us stand motionless for just a few seconds, as if observing a moment's silence. My eyes take in as much as they can, fearful that the image will one day soon leave my memory. Just as I think to reach for my camera, Mademoiselle opens the door beside us - a rectangle of white light penetrates the solitude of the space, and I recognise it is time to leave. We scurry outside and return to the enlivening white of the halogens. We thank Mademoiselle profusely, and she shoots us a wink - the long lashes around her aquamarine eyes flutter like ostrich-feathers. They are carefully painted with mascara. Guerlain, no doubt.
* * * * *
It is difficult to pinpoint what it is that makes a retail space successful. My family come from a very strong retail background, and I too have worked in high-end retail for many years, but there is no single theory or strategy that will trigger a customer's decision to buy. Rather, its a profusion of factors that will influence one to loosen their purse strings. One can recognise that sensible fittings, intelligent lighting and ease of access each play a role in providing a relaxing environment in which to shop, and one can argue that repetition, colour and symmetry are all key to merchandising, but for me, I personally need to make an emotional connection with the object in question. I enjoy retail environments where focus is put on the product - not necessarily one where a sense of 'fullness' prevails. Maison Guerlain - to my mind - is exemplary. The salons, whilst infinitely luxurious, are not 'busy'... much consideration has been given to each space and where the eye should fall. In this regard, there is a silent and reassuring sense of French ease and straightforwardness here. Despite the opulent materials used in the renovations, once does not find any of it competing with the product - instead, product is highlighted by the negative space that surrounds it. Maison Guerlain's high ceilings, broad corridors and wide tables demand it. Marino's transformation has ticked all the right boxes, exhibiting a keen regard for spacial awareness, materials and scale. This author simply cannot find fault with it. Anywhere.
We return to the ground floor, walk through the marbled foyer, and into the renovated cosmetics hall that until recent years, was simply a pop-up shop situated beside the main boutique. It is lined with putty/white coloured marble, and a broad, striped marble staircase winds down and out of sight. Below, the new restaurant "Le 68" with its sweet indulgences, and a souvenir shop. But for us, those pleasures will have to wait for a future visit.
The cosmetics area - in stark contrast to the rooms on the first floor - is bustling with visitors. We analyse the products on display and admire the renovation's fanciful mirrored surfaces and crystal-studded wall art. At the cash desk, my wife and I inform Mademoiselle of our intended purchases, and she disappears behind a sparkling gold wall to ready them for our journey back to Australia. Upon presentation of our passport for the EU Tax Back program, the young ladies at the counter are in raptures. "It is so cute! Every page has a different animal printed on it! Look! A kangaroo... a koala... and a, um... what IS that??"
"A Tasmanian Devil", I respond with a laugh. We are fully engaged in conversation with these women when Mademoiselle returns with a beautifully ribboned bag. Their warmth and interest has been genuine, and we are sorry to be leaving.
"We are sorry to see you go too! Please return again soon!" they chime, and I feel they are sincere.
As we make for the exit of the hallowed boutique on the boulevard, Mrs Sorcery of Scent and I take one last look around us. We step around the group of ladies chattering excitedly at the La Petit Robe Noire installation; pass a man and woman talking intimately over a shared scented mouillette, and pause for a moment so that a tourist might take a clear photo of the impressive marble stair. Suddenly, we can see past the spectacular renovations and recognise a space that - irrespective of how it looks today or how it might look tomorrow - has always been (and always will be) a shopping destination for perfumisti the world over. And my eyes, there can never be one as important.
NEXT WEEK: GUERLAIN CHRONICLES Part III - "An Afternoon in the Laboratory with Thierry Wasser".
*Photos are the author's own, and also taken from Interior Design webzine, and the official Guerlain website.