As the fashion industry looks forward to a post-pandemic world in which we consider stepping out to visit our favorite stores, will the experience of shopping still feel good after months spent exclusively browsing product on our screens? Will the brick and mortar experience feel like a special event after such sustained abstinence? These questions are surely preoccupying retail CEOs everywhere. But there might be some nuggets to glean from a little documentary on Colette, the beloved Parisian family-run boutique that closed its doors in December 2017 after twenty years on the rue Saint-Honoré?
Colette, Mon Amour, a film by Hugues and Eliane Lawson-Body, co-produced by HighSnobiety documents the final six months of the iconic store’s existence and attempts to understand why the announcement of its closure was received with such grief during a decade when store closures were already so commonplace that we’d coined the term retailpocolypse. The film, available to stream on demand, had a private release event in Japan last September, but perhaps typical of these Covid times, has sailed somewhat under the radar without a wider theatrical release. It’s almost fitting for an exploration of the duo behind the original concept store. Colette Roussaux and her daughter Sarah Andelman, are one of the most unflashy, discreet pair of trendsetters the fashion world has ever known.
Yet their impact is legendary. As Pharrell William’s says in Colette, Mon Amour, “You want to buy the future, you came here.” Or Kanye West on the fact that people would visit Colette before they’d go to the Eiffel Tower: “It’s like going over and stopping at a friend’s house or something when you got in town.”
Can brick and mortar retail be this good again?
What made the store so iconic? When it launched in 1997, with few racks of clothing but an army of mannequins whose outfits were changed weekly, the department store dominated global retail. This was a number of years before the first Dover Street Market would open in London. Colette, with its high-low mix of gadgets and luxury fashion was met with confusion. Paris Match called it a nightmare, writing dismissively of the odious sales assistants, the store’s trendiness. But from the outset its practice of elevating subcultures and eliminating hierarchies defined it as a melting pot of rap music, skate culture, luxury fashion and global innovation. The documentary also makes clear that the racial diversity of the staff was unusual in Paris of the late 90s when black and brown people were mostly visible as security guards. The staff featured in the documentary refer to the Colette community as a family, are well-paid, some of them having worked there for years. Each one has a direct relationship with the founders. Peggy Lopez, an employee for fifteen years, in charge of stock, says of the namesake co-founder, “She is someone who really counts in my life.”
A true family business, the mother-daughter relationship comes across as the essence of the store’s success. Madame Colette, as she is affectionately known, speaks of the complementary relationship and complete trust that exists between her and her daughter and admits the store would not have existed without her daughter’s ambition and ability to seek out fascinating people. Sarah is described as magical and fantastical, a relationship-builder and risk taker with meticulous taste, but also a ruthless buyer with a beyond-discerning eye. “She knows what you’re going to want,” says Pharrell. “She shops for all of us without us even knowing.”
Playful curiosity was behind the assortment and Sarah traveled the world to assemble the most unexpected items such as two-dollar chewing gum next to two-thousand dollar watches. The respect for product innovation drove every decision and for an example one needed to look no further than the water bar on the ground floor which served 80 flavors of bottled water. Before collab was such an industry buzzword, Colette had logged a diverse range of creative partnerships from Chanel to Kaws, Murakami to Hermès, that caused lines of pilgrims to camp out along the rue Saint-Honoré. The store was part museum, part club, part store, part church.
Speaking in the film, Virgil Abloh recalls his book signing when a fight broke out in-store involving ASAP Rocky, and remembers thinking, “This is an eyedrop of the energy of the new generation.”
The emotion behind the perfect retail experience
A certain element of serendipity figured in the store’s unique success. The founders describe passing the empty building many times before eventually going inside. Suddenly, just like that, they knew the physical space was something special. “I think it’s a love story,” says Colette Roussaux. “We fell in love with it the first time we saw it.”
But as the documentary makes clear, the success of Colette amounted to so much more than the physical 700 square meters over three floors located at the center of Paris’s main shopping district. The spirit of discovery, feeling of community, and the memories that are recalled when the name is mentioned years later did not come from walls or columns, shelving or stairs. All this was the outcome of the immense human effort behind the institution. Both women slept only a few hours each night, answered every email, invested everything in their twenty-year love story. The success of Colette was a result of these women’s work. Colette, Mon Amour pays tribute to it.
Main photo from Colettemonamour.com, second image screenshot from Colette, Mon Amour.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.