Moving on and Review of Merci, Paris

Happy New Year to you all!

2013 has been a great year indeed: lots of new projects, lots of travel, lots of discovery… But 2014 ushers in a new chapter for me as I start work at Director of Innovation at Right Angle Studio no later than tomorrow! Leaving Arup was a difficult decision, but all good things come to an end. I could see the potential to grow my line of work within an organisation where my skill set and experience is core. Arup has been a fantastic platform for growth and discovery. Few are the companies of that side that could attract and retain the kind of people that I met there and that made me the professional I have become. So a big thanks to Arup for everything and to many more projects together in the future…

On the plus side, joining Right Angle Studio is a very positive move I feel. Right Angle Studio has been on my radar for a couple of years, mainly as a competitor… Barrie and the team have really established themselves as unique thinkers in the urban space and have gained the trust of a wide range of clients. A few key things attracted me to Right Angle Studio: the entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to straddle strategy and implementation and strong execution of the work. I urge you all to have a look at the website as a way to familiarise yourself with the vast array of activities that Right Angle Studio dabbles with: http://www.rightanglestudio.com.au/

As Director of Innovation at Right Angle Studio, I will be leading, with Barrie, the consulting arm of the practice that sits alongside publishing, creative, and venue creation and management. Our objective is to make a difference in inner city living. The mission statement is intentionally broad which is both daunting and incredibly exciting. Some of the consulting projects so far have included the retail strategy for Barangaroo South, the activation strategy for the Goods Line in Ultimo in collaboration with Aspect Studio and CHROFI, the Paramount Coffee Project, the Golden Age Cinema to name a few.

Our offices will be at the Paramount Coffee Project, a building we share with the cafe itself, the Golden Age Cinema, Heckler, Tokyo Bikes and the Australian headquarters for VICE magazine. I couldn’t have wished for a better space in the city: central, connected and super cool. It will be a welcome change from the sterility of CBD offices…

In this time of transition, I have decided to take the time to go back to home to Paris and to catch up with the family a little. Going back to Paris is always a pleasure, despite its shortcomings as a city, it remains one of the most beautiful cities in the world. This beauty, steeped in the aged fabric of its streets, probably counter balances its ability to adapt, change and become a truly 21st century city. Having said that, I always look out for pockets of innovation within this fabric of conservation and for the person willing to look, there is much to be found…

One of the oft-recommended shopping spots in Paris is Merci. Located in the centre of Paris, just minutes away from Bastille and Place des Vosges, this hip shopping spot came recommended by people from all walks of life. It seems like the ethos and concept behind Merci had really captured the imagination of many with varying purchasing powers and varying tastes. This surprised me as I had always found Paris shopping expensive, overdone, and actually quite homogenous. It only takes one afternoon to realise that all clothing brands are sharing materials, designs and distribution chains. And also, there are no colours in Paris. Grey and black are de rigueur.

So when a radically different concept was seen to be successful, it was an opportunity for me to see how the French see retail innovation since the launch of Colette some ten years ago.

The first challenge was indeed to find this store. Its street presence is deceptive, as most of its retail floorspace is tucked behind two restaurants that, ostensibly, Merci also runs. It took the skills of a detective to actually find the entrance to what turned out to be a temple for hipster consumerism.

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The entrance is actually the repurposed entrance to an historic ‘hotel particulier’, the residences of the rich and noble in the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s been recreated with minimal deference to the original fabric and augmented with an Italian car, which doesn’t say much for French design at all.

Upon entry, the scale of the retail space takes you by surprise. Spread over 3 levels, the range of merchandise encompasses homewares, garments, jewellery, bedding, stationary and electronic equipment.

 

In true French fashion, none of this distinguishes itself through colour or patterns, the merchandise selection is in fact an ode to sobriety and measure. To an untrained eye, the selection can seem quaint, simple, even accessible to the average punter. This includes dishes, lighting and glass wear. But it is only with a little more scrutiny that one sniffs out the masquerade of normal and quite mundane household good passing as designer wear. The Duralex glasses are a great example of how to overprice something that is well designed but has been around for ages as a household staple.

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Around the corner from the much prised glasses, you find several racks of clothes. A-ha thinks the avid international shopper looking for something strictly Parisian to don back home. Well think again. Merci doesn’t really want the average punter or potential tyre kicker touching their garment collection with their filthy paws, no. Shopping for clothes at Merci is the preserve of a selected few, the ‘amis’ or friends of Merci. You have to be on a list to actually gain permission to buy there. Talk about a retail concept!

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Turn another corner and you find yourself in the jewellery section of the shop. It’s small, but it must be the cream of the crop. Again, as an uninformed shopper, one must assume that a small piece of fantaisie jewellery is one of the small tokens that one should be a able to acquire for a reasonable sum. You’d be forgiven for thinking that giving the dainty and understated nature of the collection on display but, once again, no such luck. It is with amazement that I discover that I would have to part with a whopping 960 euros to gift myself a sorry little bracelet.

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From this point onwards, you might be thinking that fashion isn’t your thing anyway and that there surely is another symbolic object you can project your emotions and attachment to Paris onto within this mercantile paradise. After all, Paris is the capital of fashion and entry into the fashion club must come at a price. You can live with the fact that other may have earned access to the upper stratosphere of fashion shopping and that you are not quite there yet. So to recover from this setback, you turn your attention to the electronics section. It’s small, and therefore almost invisible. But you’re desperate by now. Even if all you manage to carry out is an iPhone cover, you’d like a memento from this experience, because you can.

In an almost ironic turn of events, you spot the Marshall speaker that is actually being used to broadcast some light jazz throughout the store. What an effective use of resources. Although they look vintage, the speakers on display are far from being a vestige of the 1960s: this is a fully integrated bluetooth-enabled wonder, that will complete the home of any self-respecting hipster willing to splash the cash.

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This is when you turn to the stationery aisle in an act of desperation. Surely you can buy a simple notebook for a couple of shekel. You can, of course. For 8 euros approximately. Notebooks it is, for yourself, for your partner and for your new boss. Pfew!

To wipe off this series of disappointing events, I decide to find solace in a bit of food in the used book cafe. The space is a glorified corridor kept warm with the help of a heavy velvet drape. You’re not sure where to sit because every table looks like it is in the way but you finally muster enough courage to choose a set close to the draughty window. Good choice.

The menu is simple. Sparse even. It borders on the inexistent. Amongst the options you consider, none of them seem to actually be a complete meal: soft boiled eggs, a piece of toast, or a sorry bowl of yesterday’s soup. So you opt for the gravadlax ‘bagel’, which turns out to be a frying pan-shaped light bread (do these guys even know what a bagel is?) with two slices of smoked salmon. No capers, no onions. And for this, you have the honour of forking out 18 euros and an extra two for the questionable coffee…

There is a point in the development of a retail concept such as this, where the design of an experience can backfire and lack inclusion. I daresay that the ‘members only mentality’ was proposed as a way to let people feel like they are in the know and first informed but there is a point where exclusivity turns into exclusive and this is the last thing a retail business needs in this day and age.

Overpriced, overhyped and undercooked, it’s ironic that this place has taken the liberty of calling itself ‘merci’. As if it was doing a service to society. In protest of hype for hype’s sake and of unfounded cool, I do not hesitate in rebranding this temple ‘non-merci’ (no thank you).

More on Paris in the following weeks. Until then!

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