When I realized that this post would be my 100th on the blog, I knew I couldn't just write about any ol' store. No, to celebrate this mini-milestone, I would need to feature a brand that influenced the fashion world like no other. Who's founder changed the way women dressed and touched their lives, even if they couldn't afford her precious goods. I think there's no arguing that even if you're not the type to run around in a tweed jacket, you'll most likely still be influenced by Chanel, whether it's the quilted bags, timeless designer fragrances, strands of pearl necklaces or just a simple little back dress. Coco Chanel famously liberated women from tight corsets and overly ornate garments, saying that "simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance". My earliest memories were seeing bottles of Chanel perfume on my mother's dressing table, then saving up to get my first Chanel lipstick in my early teens. I remember when Rouge Noir was all the rage and watching Vanessa Paradis swing around in a birdcage during a TV commercial. Chanel is one of those brands that is everywhere and has most likely been present for most of our lives. Which is why going into the Rue Cambon flagship always feels like you're entering a sacred place.
Entrance and mirrored staircase next to the boutique (right image: Notcot).
The original flagships always play an important role in brand history and tend to define a brand more than anything else. It's definitely the case with Chanel's oldest and first boutique - bags have been named after the address, the Chanel No. 5 bottle is modeled after the shape of Place Vendôme nearby and the simple interior of the store is the basis for the design of every other Chanel flagship in the world. While Coco herself lived in an apartment in the Ritz, just opposite the Chanel building, the 31 Rue Cambon location she bought in 1910 housed everything else related to the Chanel business: the boutique on the ground floor, haute couture on the first, an apartment on the second (which she used for social and entertainment purposes), the atelier on the third, where Karl Lagerfeld now does most of his Chanel work and lastly a rooftop garden at the very top, with supposedly one of the best views of Paris.
Entrance to the apartment (left) and sitting room (right image: Materialiste)
The famous mirrored staircase, which allowed Coco to view every single room when she sat at the top, still remains unchanged. The same goes for her apartment - only accessible during certain events or occasions - which is surprisingly ornate given her love of simple design and looks nothing like the sleek interiors in the rooms below. Whenever Coco paid the building a visit, it was said that staff would scurry about in advance spritzing every corner with Chanel No. 5. And while the interlocked C's of the Chanel logo, the number 5 (her lucky number) and her favorite camellia flower can be found throughout the apartment, the boutique itself is sparse, allowing the pieces to speak for themselves.
If you've seen a Chanel boutique before, chances are, this one won't look any different. And in fact, it's probably not terribly exciting either if it weren't for the history surrounding the building. The flagship is huge though - not the largest in the world (that one is in Tokyo's Ginza district), but big enough for you to find almost anything you could possibly need. And just knowing that Coco herself used to work away in the floors above (and now Karl) adds a special something to the boutique experience. There are two entrances you can use coming in - one of them is near the valet area (yes, Chanel has a valet service), which leads you through a large entrance hall filled with a few bags and rows of sunglasses, yet other than that, it's relatively empty. The other entrance will lead you directly to the accessories and handbag area, if you have no time to waste in finding that perfect purse. I tend to use the main entrance, just because there's something majestic about walking through the large hallway towards the stairs that lead to the ready-to-wear collections.
As intimidating as the boutique may look, don't be discouraged.... even during a weekday you won't be the only customer there. There's a lot of security staff scattered around and SA's are numerous as well, though fairly helpful - and they won't follow your every move. Once in the entrance, I turned left first, where I saw more bags, some from SS09 and a few from the current season. What you'll mainly find here though is accessories and jewelry - most of it costume and a very small selection of fine jewelry and watches.
Next up, further to the left, you'll find another room, again filled with a few more bags, but also a small selection of shoes, such as the lovely sparkly ballerinas, smaller clothing items including cashmere cardigans and a select range of scarves and shawls. Everything is laid out to avoid any rummaging, but more stock can be found behind the large black panels next to the shelves. During sale season you can look yourself, but otherwise I'd get the staff to help you out.
Most of the shoes are displayed in the next room, usually a small selection of what is available, so again, I'd ask if there's a particular style you're looking for. The footwear mainly consisted of boots and booties, though I did spy some wedge sandals and more ballerinas.
If you keep walking, you'll get to the main handbag area, though I tend to leave this for last (so I can use this exit). I walked towards the large stairs that lead to the clothing section. This area is my favorite - not that I can afford anything, but the lights on the ceiling remind me of stars in the sky and occasionally they'll bring down a screen in the center on which the latest Chanel runway show is projected. You'll find a few comfy seats here as well, but if you're like me, you'll probably immediately start looking at the various items hanging in their little spaces. Conveniently, everything is hanging facing you, so it's almost like you're looking at pieces in a museum. Sometimes the appropriate shoes can be found below, with bags and other accessories in a shelf above.
If you can tear yourself away from this area, you'll find more stunning pieces in the next room. This one had a more cosy feel, with a lounge area on the left, where you can watch more runway shoes on the three screens facing you. From there you can also view most of the clothes, but again, I couldn't resist going around touching every garment. I sighted a few beautiful pink gowns (last season), thick wool coats (this season) and some lovely dark tweed pieces that Mr. Lagerfeld revamped to give them a more youthful edge.
The staff in the ready-to-wear section are usually a bit friendlier, I'm guessing because they rarely deal with the full force of tourists and locals who come in or call every 5 mins asking whether a certain bag is in stock. But if you think they have nothing to do, you're mistaken. Every time I've been there, a society lady or upper-class madame would have an appointment booked. The staff will then prepare one of the changing rooms, which can be found behind the wood-paneled sliding doors in the next and final room, and stock it with items the client has requested or pieces they feel the customer would like. Ahhh, to lead that life... I think most people would be happy enough with one signature Chanel item! It's in this room I found some of the Paris-Moscou range in addition to sports wear and other more casual items. Once again, only a select few pieces were on display, but there's more behind the panels. During sale season this changes of course - the entire stock then hangs from racks (side by side), categorized by size.
Walking by, I paused briefly at the make-up and fragrance section at the bottom of the stairs, just to the side of the entrance hall. You might think it's trivial to buy something so minor in such a large boutique, but after a friend told me she got a lipgloss here, which was then lovingly packed in a small Chanel bag and adorned with a white camellia, I can understand that buying anything here is a special experience.
My last stop was the handbag and accessories section at the other end of the store. The selection is large, but as everyone tends to come here first, coveted items are just as hard to find here. Although this area is usually the busiest, it was surprisingly quiet when I last went. Again, you'll find sofas and tables with a TV screen at the end, where you can relax (or cry) after spending too much money. Most bags are on display on the shelves, while smaller accessories and more costume jewelry is housed in the glass cases along the counter.
Even if you've been confronted by snooty Chanel SA's in the past (I've heard of plenty of cases), it's definitely worth taking a peek in the legendary flagship if you're ever in Paris. If you're not going anytime soon, I hope this virtual shopping tour gave you a good idea of what it looks like. I will add that staff in all the Parisian Chanel boutiques (i.e. the four other flagships, which all happen to be in the same area) are quite friendly, whereas I've had hit or miss experiences in the department stores. And even if you don't plan on buying anything, there's nothing that brings out a little Coco in you than wandering through this historic boutique and browsing the gorgeous pieces Lagerfeld designed in her memory.
Address: 31 rue Cambon, 75001 Paris
Opening Hrs: Mon-Sat: 10:00-19:00