Most of you are too young to remember this, but back in the twentieth century it was customary for department stores to consist of — departments.
If you were looking for, say, men’s trousers, all you had to do was take a deep breath, enter the store, find your way through a maze of perfume and jewelry counters, and then somewhere near the escalators you would find a big sign with a list of ‘departments’, all with generic names. With any luck, there would even be a department called ‘men’s trousers’ on one of the upper floors, and when you got up there you would find some floor space where they were indeed selling men’s trousers of various sorts and sizes.
Of course in the twenty-first century no self-respecting store would want to be organized in such an anachronistic way, certainly not the Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann behind the Opéra Garnier in Paris.
To start with, at the Galeries Lafayette they don’t sell clothing, they sell fashions.
In the main building there are several huge floors devoted entirely to women’s fashions. Each floor has a name, like Mode Créative (Creative Fashions), Mode Tendence (Contemporary Fashions), Mode Séduction (Seductive Fashions) or Mode Évasion (Leisure Fashions).
The one about Évasion sounds funny to us English speakers, since evasion is one of those words that have negative connotations in English but mainly positive ones in French. In English we tend to think of tax evasion or breaking out of prison or finding some devious way to avoid answering an embarrassing question. But to the French the same word can also mean being entertained, relaxing, traveling, having a change of scene.
The seduction floor is also interesting, because it implies that we men are extremely hard to seduce, so they need a whole floor of seductive fashions just to get us into the mood.
Under each floor name there is a list of brand names, about twenty per floor. These are no doubt prestigious and awe-inspiring brands that make any true shopper’s heart beat faster in anticipation. Of course it is assumed that everyone knows what sorts of products are sold under each brand name.
Men’s fashions, by the way, are relegated to a separate (smaller) building across the street. This is presumably to get us out of the way, so we won’t interfere with the serious shoppers. But in the men’s store everything is also strictly organized by brand names. You won’t find a ‘department’ called ‘men’s trousers’ — although there is a Jeannerie, where they sell jeans, on the floor called Mode Sport.
On the roof of the Galeries Lafayette (main building) there is a popular observation deck where you can look out over the rooftops of Paris and of course see the Eiffel Tower. Just in front of the Eiffel Tower you might recognize the greenish roof of La Madeleine. The folks in my photo are sitting in the shade because it was quite a hot day when I took the pictures.
Since the store is only slightly higher than the surrounding buildings, the views are not spectacular, but they are still interesting and they are free. Anybody can go up there and have a look around, even non-shoppers like me. There is a guy selling coffee in cardboard cups and a young lady selling frozen yogurt with various kinds of fresh fruit.
As you can see, the roof is fairly large, so there is plenty of space for everybody to sit around or walk around.
The roof is covered by a sort of green spongy carpet that feels vaguely like a lawn, so people feel comfortable sitting on it or walking around to look at the views.
At the west side of the observation deck there is a plaque explaining that in the early twentieth century the Galeries Lafayette promised to pay 25,000 francs to the first pilot who managed to land a plane on their roof. In 1919 a pilot named Jules Védrines succeeded in doing this. He was given the 25,000 francs but only could keep 24,984 because he had to pay a 16-franc fine for flying over Paris, which was illegal, and for landing in a forbidden area.
The back of the Opéra Garnier is right across the street from the Galeries Lafayette.
Here we are looking down at the staff entrance of the Opéra Garnier. The little traffic circle in the foreground is called Place Diaghilev, named after the Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), founder of the Ballets Russes.
The street to the right of the opera house is Rue Scribe, named after the French dramatist and librettist Eugène Scribe (1791–1861). He was the author or co-author of the libretti (the texts) of numerous then-famous operas such as Auber’s Fra Diavolo and Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable, which I had occasion to mention in one of my Brugge posts, The Dead City. Scribe was also the co-author of the text to Les vêpres siciliennes by Giuseppe Verdi, which I have recently seen several times in Frankfurt.
The street to the left of the opera house is Rue Gluck, named after the German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787). I once saw Gluck’s opera Iphigénie in Aulis in Nürnberg, and later his Iphigénie en Tauride right here at the Opéra Garnier with the American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in the title role.
My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: The Samaritaine in Paris.