PARIS, France — Before Armand Hadida can talk shop, he needs to change the music. “It’s like we’re in the Caribbean waiting for an over-sweetened cocktail,” he says as we take our seats at an imposing black table staged centrally in his Marais boutique. L’Éclaireur could be described in many ways — a pioneering retail concept, a luxury lifestyle store, a dramatic destination for directional labels — but a beachside bar would not be among them.
With an ambient groove now drifting through the space, Hadida underscores how L’Eclaireur has not reached its 35th anniversary by ignoring the multi-sensory elements that enhance a retail environment. Enter into any of his six stores — the French name roughly translates as “pathfinder” — and you will likely note the alluring scent, conceived by Christian Astuguevielle (if your nose is particularly perceptive, you might even detect that no two shops smell alike). “We’re so privileged to have our senses,” Hadida says. “We forget sometimes to give value to them.”
The retailer must be himself and not someone who repeats the language of others.
While it’s easy to accept these atmospheric enhancements as common practice today, the notion of a “concept store” barely registered back when Hadida and his wife Martine set up their first L’Éclaireur in the lower level of a gallery on the Champs Elysées in 1980. The decade was fruitful for forward-thinking fashion and, accordingly, the couple took risks on such designers as Martin Margiela, Dries Van Noten, Helmut Lang, Prada and Ann Demeulemeester. Pretty soon, the multi-brand shop had established a following among Parisians and in-the-know foreigners who gravitated towards clothes that nudged the eye and projected an individualist spirit. By 2000, the Hadidas realized that their vision was not limited to fashion and they began opening up striking outposts across the city; the rue Boissy d’Anglas location, for example, seized on a broader offering — objects for the home and fragrances — while introducing an in-store café-restaurant and a corner dedicated to the graphic product range of the late Italian artist Piero Fornasetti (the expanded and perennially popular line is maintained by his son, Barnaba).
Ask Hadida his role today and he describes himself as an “ambassador to creative people.” Officially, he wears the title of artistic director of both his mini-empire and Tranoï, the Paris trade show that made its New York debut this past weekend. Both, he says, draw on his strength as a communicator who stands out among equals. “The retailer must be himself and not someone who repeats the language of others,” he explains enthusiastically. “Most of all, the ideas and themes that are held commonly, must be avoided; he needs to singularise his own language so that he can see and hear and listen with full respect.”
As for Tranoï (launched by Mariel Gamboa in 1991), the purpose must remain elevated, he says. In New York, 80 brands representing 20 countries will arrange their concessions within The Tunnel, the former warehouse-cum-nightclub in West Chelsea. Instead of a bazaar-style presentation of countless denim and streetwear labels, Tranoï finely edits the roster, selecting niche brands like Isaac Reina, VSP and Pierre-Louis Mascia that, unsurprisingly, could end up merchandised at a L’Éclaireur alongside Lanvin or Christopher Kane. “We show the top of the pyramid,” Hadida says, citing jeans as the base. “We ask our buyers, ‘Is this something that could work or not?’”
It’s around this point in the conversation that Hadida, accessorised with a cultured black pearl necklace from Richard Wan, removes his custom Hakusan glasses; their champagne-tinted frame offsets their goggle thickness. Together, the two items convey a slightly eccentric, yet refined taste.
I was built by fashion, I blossomed thanks to fashion, I was formed from it.
And to hear the 65-year-old éminence grise recount his early days is to realise just how far he’s come. He arrived in Paris from Morocco after spending two years on a kibbutz in Israel. He was 20 years old and knew only that he had a knack for working with his hands. After miscellaneous jobs painting houses, a friend asked whether he could help out at a high-end boutique on the Left Bank during the frenetic sales period. With no retail experience and an acutely shy personality, he accepted, albeit reluctantly. On his first day, back in 1970, he served a beautiful woman doing her best to conceal her visage with a headscarf and sunglasses. That afternoon, he found out she was Brigitte Bardot. By the end of the week, he had made sales with a handful of other notable Parisians. Almost instantly, he overcame his timidity. “I found my therapy,” he says. “It is a fantastic field to meet people. I became passionate, I sold everything. I never said no. I put my heart, my head, my stomach into it — still today,” he says. “I was built by fashion, I blossomed thanks to fashion, I was formed from it.”
Developing an eye, he says, came organically once they opened the Champs-Elysées shop. “I learned like you learn the alphabet. But I was lucky to have excellent people alongside me. When we decided to do L’Éclaireur, we decided we would do everything except what everyone else was doing.” It is not by coincidence that the logo is an eye with a heart at its center — and its significance extends beyond a love of fashion. In addition to Martine, who is still actively involved — “She is everything; it’s that simple,” Hadida glows — one of Hadida’s daughters, Wendy, does buying from London, while Meryl in Los Angeles will be overseeing L’Éclaireur’s first forthcoming store on Robertson Avenue. Son David is the current CEO of Tranoï and eldest son Michael held the director role for nine years until deciding to launch a shopping site called Betoosee. All of which suggests that the family unit sticks together. Hadida, for this reason, is revealing little about their first retail venture outside France, leaving the details to his daughter instead of trouncing on her turf.
Instead, he points to L’Éclaireur’s latest location on the periphery of Paris in Saint Ouen among a cluster of prestige antique markets. Here, objets d’art and small accessories have pride of place over handbags. The main attraction, however, is a flat screen panel running nearly floor to ceiling that display new arrivals on continuous loop. Suppose a customer wants to purchase the latest Balenciaga “Papier a4” tote in citron yellow without traveling to the shop on rue Boissy d’Anglas: the item can be ordered and delivered within the hour. “We can now open a store anywhere and use this platform,” he says, adding that, for the moment, inventory remains centralised in Paris.
The idea runs counter to conventional wisdom that people prioritise store environments expressly because they can touch the product. “You are talking the old language to me,” he fires back with a smile. “I don’t want to think like that; I want to think different from classic and normal.”
As if on cue, the in-house motorcycle messenger walks into the Marais shop, dressed entirely in black. “We are really playing with new tools and the new technology — and not just to use the new technology but to build the bridge between the heritage of retail that is now obsolete and today.”
The integration of e-commerce has proved a significant evolution for the store. Hadida says online sales now represent 20 percent of his business and nearly double each year. He does not disclose sales figures, saying it is not customary in French culture to do so. Moreover, as artistic director, he says this is not his purview. As some indication of size, the L’Éclaireur team numbers upwards of 45. “The results are staying positive,” he offers.
Recently, the company made the decision to condense their men’s and women’s boutiques in the Marais, vacating the 12 rue Malher space that will soon be occupied by J. Crew (its first shop in continental Europe). As Hadida tells it, couples can now shop together: “It is more functional for us this way.”
In surveying his achievements, his ability to anticipate change is what stands out most. Hadida notes how, in some cases, retail has come on light years since the 15th century when merchant and proto entrepreneur Jacques Coeur established commercial ties between King Charles VII and the Middle East. But in others, specialty multi-brand stores have not kept pace with fast fashion. “They are suffering because they didn’t change their mentality and adapt to the market. We have a duty to always surprise the customer and make sure the store is not something static.”
Were he to start all over again today, Hadida admits the task would be overwhelming, especially if he were not equipped with his many years of experience. “I could do it with my experience but without — no,” he says, before adding: “But then, there are more opportunities today than before. It’s a virgin market in that sense. There is so much yet to build.”