Le Bon Marché: The First Department Store in France
Sun 9 Jan 2022
I rarely spend time in department stores but in November and December 2020, I worked for a French brand called Scarlette Ateliers at the Bon Marché. Surrounded by fancy French lingerie, I was settled in a comfortable armchair, embroidering knickers, pajamas, and nightdresses. On my breaks, I wandered around the beautiful building and began to discover the fascinating story of this Parisienne landmark.
The First Department Store
In 1852, Aristide and Marguerite Boucicaut began to transform a small shop on the corner of Rue de Sèvres and Rue de Bac into what became known as Le Bon Marché. Today it is lauded as the first department store in France and many of the innovations introduced by the Boucicaut have come to define what we understand as shopping today!
With a keen sense for retail psychology, they allowed customers to enter and browse freely in the beautiful Belle Époque surroundings designed by Gustav Eiffel, with prices clearly labeled there was no fear of embarrassment, catalogs were issued with fabric samples included and mail order was offered for those who couldn’t make the trip to Paris. Returns, reimbursement and exchanges were offered for dissatisfied customers. Displays were beautiful, offering inspiration and temptation. Homewares, underwear, ready-made clothing and accessories for women, men, and children, a haberdashery and furniture were all under one roof.
They held Art exhibitions, concerts and installed an all-important reading room for waiting husbands. Le Bon Marché became a destination for the bourgeoisie of Paris. Perhaps the pièce de resistance in their long list of innovations was the January sales when ‘blanc’, the white linens for the home, were placed on sale and customers flocked to their doors, dispelling the normal downturn in sales after Christmas.
Le Bon Marché enjoyed so much success that they embarked on another business venture just across the street and built the beautiful Lutetia hotel for their out-of-town customers to enjoy the pleasures of shopping without the stress of tiring travel.
Le Bon Marché has even featured in classic French literature when Émile Zola wrote Au Bonheur des Dames, in 1883. The novel tells the story of Denise Baudu, a young woman who comes to Paris seeking work. She is employed as a sales assistant at Au Bonheur des Dames, a fictitious department store owned by Octave Mouret and based on Le Bon Marché. Surrounded by beautiful items and rich clientele, Denise must navigate the politics amongst her colleagues while dealing with the amorous advances of Octave.
Le Bon Marché is now owned by LVMH and remains a destination for many Parisiennes and tourists alike. They have expanded to include Le Grande Épicerie, a fabulous food department filled with really delicious temptation. And what of the wonderful heritage of haberdashery? There are still clues outside in the beautiful mosaics surrounding the building…
I really enjoyed embroidering at the Bon Marché, especially surrounded by all the history and elegance of 19th century Paris. The Scarlette Atelier embroidered knickers were a hit! They sold out in no time and I was busy, busy working on pajamas, nightgowns, dressing gowns, and even napkins. I embroidered so much that at one point I ran out of thread…
There was no need to worry, I simply rushed over to the Homewares department to the new Maison Sajou consignment at the Bon Marché! As many of you already know, Maison Sajou closed their doors permanently in December but you can still find them at the Bon Marché and order from them online.
I thought I’d leave you with these gorgeous Summer styles and swimwear from the Bon Marché, dreaming of warmer weather and traveling to faraway places…
About the Author:
Rebecca Devaney is a textile artist, researcher, and facilitator with a BA in Art and Design Education (2006) and received the
prestigious Thomas Dammann Junior Memorial Trust Award (2015), to research hand embroidery in Mexico. The resulting
exhibition, Bordados, a collection of photographs, interviews, and textiles, has been presented internationally. In 2018 Rebecca
worked as a professional haute couture embroiderer in Paris for Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, Dior, Valentino, Givenchy, and
Louis Vuitton. Her research into the origins, history and heritage of haute couture embroidery was selected for the ICOM
Costume conference at Versailles (2020) and published in the Embellishment exhibition catalogue at the Hasselt Museum of
Fashion, Belgium, and was presented at the National College of Art and Design, Griffith College Dublin, and the Belfast College of Art (2019).