One of Paris’s most iconic stores is halfway through a £56m-plus makeover. John Ryan joins Printemps chief Paolo de Cesare there and learns of his vision to create a national monument

For anybody on nodding terms with the French capital, there are several destinations that are probably as familiar as, well, a salade composée, moules-frites and tarte au chocolat (the basis of a million prix-fixe tourist menus). Gustave Eiffel’s tower, Notre Dame de Paris and perhaps department store Galeries Lafayette would make the list and, for those with a taste for 1970s modernism perhaps, the Pompidou Centre would merit inclusion.

Rather more refined city knowledge would be required, however, for the other luxury department stores to appear on the itinerary. Currently, there are only two: Printemps and, across the Seine, Le Bon Marché. The latter is an outpost of luxury group LVMH, while Printemps, which was part of French retail conglomerate PPR, has been majority-owned by Italian family group Borletti since 2006.

The fact that, in the tourist imagination at least, Printemps sometimes plays second fiddle to Galeries Lafayette is curious. Not only is Printemps’ flagship located next door to its rival on the Boulevard Haussmann, but the vast 484,390 sq ft (45,000 sq m) emporium has all the Belle époque glamour you’d expect of a Parisian grand magasin.

However, at the moment its facade, with the exception of the 655ft (200m) of windows, is shrouded. The reason is simple: the store is midway through an internal and external renovation programme that may ultimately put it ahead of its better known neighbour.

Printemps president and chief executive Paolo de Cesare is clear about what’s involved. “We are doing a major renovation project, the biggest in 50 years,” he says. “It will take two years. We started six months ago, so we’ll finish by the spring of 2010, but by fall 2009 you will see major changes.”

Externally, some of these changes have already taken place. The store boasts eight elaborate cupolas covered with zinc leaves, parts of which are overlaid with gold leaf. It also features large numbers of bronze statues and carved elements, all contributing to one of the most striking buildings in the city and in keeping with the nearby opera house, famous for both its size and Parisian baroque overkill.

De Cesare points out that the Printemps flagship is “classified” – for which read listed – so the external renovation has involved the “help of architects from the Elysée and from the government, which means we have to be very, very thorough”.

All of which is no small undertaking. De Cesare flicks through a series of architectural drawings and renderings, commenting: “Each of the bronze statues is being individually cleaned. We also have a lot of mosaics and they had been painted over. About 25 to 30 per cent of the mosaics have therefore been restored, stone by stone.” The zinc leaves that cover the cupola closest to de Cesare’s penthouse office, across the road from the main store, have been produced by artisans in what he describes as a “mini-factory” inside the cupola itself.

De Cesare says the cost of the external work will reach E30m (£26.2m) once the work has been completed, the fascia cleaned and the various domes fully restored. No small amount then – but marginally less than the projected E35m (£30.5m) assigned to remodel the atrium at the heart of the store.

One of the trends followed by UK department store retailers – probably since Selfridges decided that it would be a good idea to open up the centre of its Oxford Street flagship with a see-it-all internal atrium and banks of escalators – is to create a sense of space. This is de Cesare’s vision and to make it a reality he has employed Canadian interior design firm Yabu Pushelberg. Designs from this company tend not to come cheap. On the other hand, department store Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, Bergdorf Goodman in New York and US chain Neiman Marcus all bear Yabu Pushelberg designs, so it is a well considered choice. It is also, says de Cesare, the first time the designer has worked in Europe, having declined an invitation to work on Galeries Lafayette earlier this decade.

Atrium in the making

Walk into the store today and there is a tastefully hoarded area in the middle of the shop, behind which teams of builders are doing their stuff. De Cesare says that by this summer there will be an atrium here, extending upwards from the basement through the ground floor and finishing on the first floor.

He is cagey about how the atrium will look when the project is completed, but the area occupies about 8 per cent of the store’s selling area and there has been a shuffling around of many of the branded spaces while work proceeds. De Cesare notes that in several cases, the temporary shopfits that the luxury brands have installed as they await their new locations have been less enclosed than previously and “surprise, surprise, they have proved more successful”.

By this summer, most of the internal work will be complete. The question then will be: has the multimillion-euro overhaul been worth it?

Take a longish walk across the Seine and sooner or later you will come upon LVMH’s Le Bon Marché, which already has its own fin de siècle atrium and bank of escalators. If there were a league of Parisian department stores, some might say that this one ranked third, behind the two Boulevard Haussmann behemoths. There is also the sense that this is a store for Parisians rather than tourists. Tourists, in fact, account for about a third of the Printemps flagship’s revenues, based on tax reclaims made. At Le Bon Marché this figure is likely to be considerably lower, pointing to a reliance on local trade. Le Bon Marché also happens to have what must be the city’s most glamorous food hall.

So why has de Cesare bothered with an expensive makeover for Printemps’ flagship – one of 16 stores in France – when sales must be difficult to come by? “I think we are moving things upwards in terms of quality and experience,” he says.

“At this stage, our intention is to make Printemps in France the top destination for the sophisticated, fashion-conscious consumer. It’s about doing something to a store that is a monument, an institution, for the local and international customer. I think there are only a handful of stores [in Europe] that can do this and Printemps can and should be one of those. There has to be a reason for people to come to us.”

De Cesare also remains upbeat about the future. His ambition is to keep sales in line with 2008 (although he claims he has a “Plan B” in place) and he believes that things will pick up in continental Europe before 2010. If this proves to be the case, after a period of relative quiescence, Printemps will emerge well set for the upswing.

See more pictures of Printemps and Le Bon Marché with commentary by store design expert John Ryan on our Stores Image Gallery.