Wednesday, April 17, 2024
HometravelWhy Paris is always a good idea: 5 shopping experiences in the...

Why Paris is always a good idea: 5 shopping experiences in the city of love and tax refunds

PARIS – There is a reason so many go to Paris to shop.

Home to luxury houses and maisons that are centuries old, it is the fashion capital of the world. The city pulses with an energy that only a place with such a rich fashion history can provide.

It was where a young Louis Vuitton first came to ply his trade in the 1800s; where the Hermes founders set up shop to sell saddles, then bags, to nobility; where, beginning with hats in 1909, Coco Chanel would embark on a life-changing entrepreneurship journey.

For the ardent shopper, there is magic in walking along the city’s most famed shopping streets – from Avenue Montaigne to Rue Saint-Honore to the touristy Champs-Elysees.

And who can resist the allure of tax refunds (of up to 12 per cent) and beneficial exchange rates?

When I arrive on a Wednesday morning in April, the air is crisp and the sky perfectly blue. As luck would have it, the city has just cleared the mountains of rubbish accumulated from the recently ended three-week sanitation strikes.

Paris is restored to its former beauty and tourists can shop, somewhat selfishly, in peace.

Though it is not my first visit to the city, it is my first time here with adult money, and that feels so empowering. I pop in and out of luxury department stores, flitting from one designer label to the next to try on accessories I have no intention of buying – just the knowledge that I could, if I wanted to, is enough.

It takes me a minute to realise I have stumbled upon Place Vendome, an octagonal square in the 1st arrondissement that is known as the jewellery capital of the world.

The square is lined with boutiques from every major jewellery house – Cartier, Boucheron, Graff. Fun fact: The shape and bottle stopper of Chanel’s iconic No. 5 perfume is modelled after Place Vendome.

There is a thrill in finally seeing the places I have always read and written about. And, as it turns out, Paris is not just for lovers, but for shoppers too.

Planning a quick stop in the city? Make the most of the European summer and check out these five stores for memorable retail experiences.

1. Polene

69 rue de Richelieu, 75002 Paris

This French brand has been making the rounds on TikTok, through handbag unboxings and videos urging viewers to “follow me to the Polene store in Paris”.

A second flagship opened in New York City in 2022, and boutiques are planned for Tokyo and Seoul – but as with many desirable French brands, Paris is where it began.

It is quickly becoming a must-go for many Singaporeans too. One friend deputised her sister to return from her holiday with three bags – the maximum one can purchase in-store.

From the outside, the store is as quietly minimalist as its bags – with just the brand’s name etched below a sculpted column. I arrive 10 minutes before opening to find that a line has already formed. I avoid all eye contact and death stares and slip sheepishly inside. Media perks.

Architect Valeriane Lazard was tasked to manifest Polene’s universe in physical form, and the store opened at the end of 2020. The result is poetic – with its brand signature of clean lines and fluid curves designed elegantly into the space – and a perfect backdrop for its covetable leather bags.

Take some time to appreciate the little details in the store interior. Shelves are made from individually selected travertine stone, while the handrail of the circular staircase leading to the storeroom is covered entirely with leather.

But the eye goes straight to a leather-clad exhibition niche displaying a selection of bags.

Moments later, it is controlled chaos (the store lets in 15 to 20 shoppers at a time, so the space never feels too cramped) as men and women alike try on bags by the dozen.

The crescent-shaped Numero Dix and Cyme tote are easily the most popular styles here. But do not sleep on the Numero Un – the brand’s debut style which catapulted it into fashion consciousness. A backpack-like shape, it is worn as a crossbody and made from an array of beautiful, sturdy leathers.

Priced from €160 (S$230) for a micro bag to €380 for a Numero Dix in smooth leather, items are considerably cheaper here than if you were to shop online, factoring in shipping (US$25 a bag), import tax and your VAT refund. Prices of small leather goods start at €60.

The brand also launched its first jewellery line recently. Inspired by nature’s organic forms, the two debut collections are Eole, featuring swirling metal ribbons and sculptural spirals in reference to wind; and Eroz, which draws from mineral landscapes and the phenomenon of erosion – with materials sculpted to resemble rock textures.

Crafted by artisans from Italy, the pieces are made of brass and gilded with 24-carat gold. Prices range from €110 for stud earrings to €240 for the Eroz necklace.

2. Ex Nihilo

352 rue Saint-Honore, 75001 Paris

Why not pick up a new signature scent, personalised for you, to commemorate your time in Paris?

Go back to the place where Ex Nihilo was born 10 years ago. While this niche fragrance brand is available in Singapore, its flagship boutique on the historic Rue Saint-Honore stretch is where you can do exclusive personalisation of perfumes.

Appointments are available at ex-nihilo-paris.com. A perfume ranges from €310 to €470.

Choose from the Initiale and Babylone collections, and build on top of these with highly concentrated essences that include the absolutes of iris pallida, vanilla bourbon and rose centifolia from Grasse.

Note that you cannot build a fragrance from scratch, as there are olfactory combinations already pre-approved by noses (perfumers) that the brand works with to bring out the best of each raw material.

The boutique aims to create for customers the experience of being their own perfumers. With half of the store displaying its full range of fragrances (including limited-edition collaborations not available to purchase elsewhere), the other half is laid out like a mini-laboratory with beakers, weighing scales and other scientific apparatus.

All the mixing is done not by hand but by using the “Osmologue” – a high-tech machine that weighs and blends exact proportions of the ingredients contained in a fragrance. A compact version of the industrial-grade one used in global fragrance manufacturer Givaudan’s factory, it is available only in certain boutiques internationally, including flagships in Los Angeles and Dubai.

After sniffing your way to the perfect fragrance, watch as the Osmologue distils your chosen essence into a beaker, mixing it precisely with water and alcohol. Then the concoction is finished and bottled by hand.

The fun part comes in customising the bottle with a cap of your choice. Pick from a selection of collectible engraved caps in precious materials that include mother of pearl and onyx. The glass bottle can also be personalised with traditional engraving.

For those who enjoy the frills of the luxury shopping experience, drinks are served and you even get a certificate of authenticity for your final product.

Upstairs, the two-storey boutique houses a consultation space for VIP clients and those who desire more privacy.

If the taste of fragrance personalisation has you wanting more, there are completely bespoke perfumes that come with a six-month consultation and refinement process – and start from a hefty €25,000.

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3. CityPharma

26 rue du Four, 75006 Paris

Yet another TikTok favourite, this discount French pharmacy in Saint-Germain-des-Pres has become a must-go for bargain-hunting beauty lovers. Here, you can stock up on French skincare brands at prices lower than what you would find in Singapore.

The three-storey building carries more than 500 brands across health and beauty categories, with discounts of up to 30 per cent.

The first floor is where most of the chaos takes place. Think floor-to-ceiling shelves of products from brands including Avene, Caudalie, Bioderma, Nuxe, Vichy and La Roche-Posay – and very little aisle space. Less easily accessible brands such as Embryolisse and CeraVe are available here too.

On the upper floors, you will find all kinds of medicines, vitamins, toothpaste and other pharmaceutical goods. Do not hesitate at the bins of travel toiletries, where the lip balms and best-selling skincare are good-value buys.

CityPharma opens from 9am to 7pm on weekdays, and 10am to 4pm on weekends. Go early if you can, before the store is thronged with shoppers.

Also, go with a researched list of what you want to buy. I make the rookie mistake of browsing while hastily looking up products and almost give up in the madness – but I eventually power through the mass of shopping baskets to make it to the cashier.

Good news for those stocking up. You can claim VAT refund if you spend more than €175, so take along your passport.

4. La Samaritaine

9 rue de la Monnaie, 75001

Those on the hunt for a luxury bag should check out this underrated, less crowded alternative to popular department store Galeries Lafayette.

Owned by LVMH, the iconic French department store reopened in June 2021 after a 16-year renovation, in a steel frame and glass Art Nouveau building overlooking the Seine on the Right Bank.

That may be why it is not on the radar of many tourists just yet.

On a Wednesday afternoon, the building is empty, spacious and filled with light – a welcome contrast to the packed walkways of Galeries Lafayette which I had visited just the day before. No shoving, sweaty tourists, arms laden with shopping bags, or queueing here.

And the shiny La Samaritaine has no less to offer, with all the top luxury brands housed under one gleaming roof.

It is a bag lover’s heaven. Find all your favourite heritage brands here – Celine, Gucci, Dior, Louis Vuitton – alongside cool cult labels such as Ganni, Aesther Ekme, Mlouye, Wandler, Boyy and Toteme. French-girl favourites Maje and Sandro have offerings here too.

Every floor holds new treasures to discover. The basement level is home to the biggest beauty department in Europe. As you go up, floors are dedicated to shoes, watches and jewellery, ready-to-wear and more, ending with restaurants on the top floor.

It is a design geek’s dream too. Historical features in the architecture, such as the glass roof and monumental staircase, have been retained.

The wide open central atrium means you can admire the building’s stunning interior from every level.

Because of the open-concept layout, you can spend hours walking the floors of neatly categorised brands without ever feeling pressured to make a purchase.

Fun details in various corners keep any bored partners entertained. At one, you can mail yourself a postcard from the mall for free.

The building was featured twice in the second season of Netflix’s Emily In Paris (2020 to present). The first was in episode 4, “Jules And Em”, where Lily Collins’ Emily goes on a shopping spree and accidentally shoplifts. The second was in episode 9, “Scents & Sensibility”, at an event for perfume brand Maison Lavaux.

The site also houses a Cheval Blanc hotel and a Dior Spa, should you want to make a day of it.

5. La Galerie Dior

11 rue Francois 1er, 75008 Paris

True couture fans will want to bookmark a visit to this fashion museum chronicling the storied history of the house of Dior. Opened in March 2022, the exhibition of archival Dior designs is an immersive experience brought to life by scenography from interior architect Nathalie Criniere.

Consider it a tribute to founder and couturier Christian Dior’s first vocation as a gallery owner. It is a journey across three floors and 13 rooms, beginning with a spiral staircase and an Instagram-friendly rainbow diorama of miniature Dior designs.

Be introduced to iconic designs including the Bar Suit, a star silhouette from the 1947 “New Look” collection that shot Dior to global acclaim.

See a recreation of his office space, get up close with his sketches and creation process, and even get a peek (through a glass floor) into the dressing room that models used to prepare for his shows.

The designer had just a decade of fame as he died of a sudden heart attack in 1957.

But the story does not end there. Visitors are treated to gown after sumptuous gown, including from Dior’s succeeding artistic directors such as Yves Saint Laurent and John Galliano.

A cafe rounds off the experience with coffee and treats. And if the couture-ogling has whetted your appetite for a spot of shopping, the brand’s flagship store is conveniently located right next door.

Tickets are priced at €12 and reservations are recommended at galeriedior.com/en.

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