We'll Always Have Paris

Artists, writers, philosophers, and even merchant princes, have always been inspired by the City of Light
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Posted February 19, 2018

Inspiration is everywhere; if you can’t find it, look somewhere else. And if you still can’t find it, go to Paris.

The soul of a city is reflected by its architecture and art, and Paris is no exception. From the splendors of the French Renaissance to the Classical Revival to the belle époque, and art nouveau to 20th Century art deco, the capital city’s architecture elicits a breathtaking gasp at every turn. The Grand Palais will touch your soul, and Sacré-Cœur will steal your heart.

If one needs further inspiration, visit the Musée d'Orsay and spend an afternoon with Monet, then head over to The Louvre to converse with Da Vinci, David and Delacroix. The Louis Vuitton Foundation is a hidden gem among a cornucopia of jewels, while the Musée Yves Saint Laurent will take you to the atelier of a 20th Century genius. And of course, great architecture was the clarion call of the venerable Parisian department stores, Le Bon Marché and Galeries Lafayette. 

It’s interesting to note that the visionaries who sparked the modern retail industry breathed the same plein air as Monet and Renoir. Some credit John Wanamaker for opening the first department store in Philadelphia, while others say the honor belongs to A.T. Stuart in New York. But it was Le Bon Marché (translated from French, it means "the good market") that began the phenomenon known as the department store. Founded in 1838, it was completely remodeled in 1852 by French entrepreneur Aristide Boucicaut, aided by the engineering firm of Gustave Eiffel, designer of the Eiffel tower. 

In “Au Bonheur des Dames" (The Ladies' Delight or The Ladies' Paradise), the 11th novel of Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, he addresses the changes in society at the time, including the advent of the department store and modern retail. Zola’s insights also delve into new concepts in architecture, urban planning and a new kind of feminism. Was he ahead of his time, or insightful enough to recognize the cultural shift? Zola’s tome was a romanticized reflection of Boucicaut and his brilliance in recognizing the opportunities brought about by change. 

I’m writing this piece from the third floor of a small, but charming apartment on the left bank of the Seine. I entered the building through an aged wooden door, and then continued through a narrow stone hallway. I gently stepped with trepidation on a rickety spiral staircase whose wooded treads creaked with an aged, high-pitched melody. And while the song of the stairs was delightful, I was totally surprised when I opened the door to my quarters to find the latest and greatest technology, from a modern cooktop stove to a state-of-the-art audio system, in this 19th Century abode.

Change is inevitable, and architecture and art chronicle those changes. Monet and his fellow impressionists faced strong and pointed criticism as their radical approaches challenged the accepted norms of the era. And while the resistance was harsh, they eventually revolutionized the art world. Ironically, the short brush strokes of color employed by the impressionists captured the passage of time.

Change is as inevitable as the turning pages of the calendar; great cities and great institutions remain great by adapting to change and embracing the opportunities that it affords. 

From the Paris circa “The Exposition Universelle,” in 1900, celebrating the achievements of the past century while serving as a portal to the advancements of the next, to the fashion emporiums of today on Paris’ Champs-Élysées, the City of Light emboldens and inspires as it moves seamlessly from one generation to the next. Similarly, the streets of Paris, from the cobblestone twists of Montparnasse to the eclectic mysteries and hilly passageways of Montmartre, it’s made clear that glancing back with reverence helps to pave the way to the future. 

So whether you’re in Paris, New York, London or Milan – centers of great architecture, art, fashion and retail – understand that change is not only inevitable, but it’s filled with opportunity that must be embraced. Change in an urban setting or a retail environment is the catalyst of success.

Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience.  He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Feigenbaum was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and formerly served as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York) from 2000 to 2015. In addition to being the Editorial Advisor/New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.