I'm not even talking about the obvious ones: Serge Lutens and his bell jars or the gorgeous Guerlain boutique. It's more about the variety and the many options, far above and beyond what we're used to see here.
Let's start with Sephora. While I've been told their stores vary and not all of them are that amazing, the flagship on Champs-Élysées is a huge wonderland. They had just about any beauty and makeup brand I could think of, including Bobbi Brown and Armani (the former has been gone from our Sephoras years ago, the latter has never made it). As far as fragrance goes, I was surprised to see the entire Serge Lutens export line, Bond no. 9, many other brands and scents that have been taken off mainstream shelves in the US (Kenzo Jungle L'Elephant!) and the entire regular (not the Exclusifs) Chanel range in all concentrations, including parfum.
Speaking of Chanel, the perfumes can be found everywhere. From department stores (more about them in a minute) to big and small perfumeries, and the parfums are right there on the shelves. The same goes for Robert Piguet. Here, you're lucky if you see Fracas at a brick & mortar store, but in Paris you can go out and also buy Bandit, Baghari, Cravache and Visa (I think I need a bottle of that. I spritzed it at just about every store I visited, and the verdict is that it makes me happy in all its fruitiness).
A special pleasure are the lovely boutiques of niche and semi-niche lines, where you get to play with the entire range. Parfums de Nicolaï have a couple of stores. We visited the one on avenue Raymond Poincaré, tested a few things and liked the brand as a whole, couldn't find anything we absolutely had to have right away, though Maharnih might be calling my name, after all. There was something in the rich base that grabbed my attention. Maybe the (synthetic) civet.
The Maître Parfumeur et Gantier boutiques are on the baroque side of interior design with their marble floors and lavish decoration, full of ornamental bottles, scented gloves (their specialities) and thy stock the full range, including those scents you rarely see on our shores. They also have an impressive (and expensive) line of home fragrance (I adore the amber). I still prefer their masculine scents to the girly ones, and there is a bottle of Racine in my future.
My one disappointment was Evody, a store famous for niche offerings. I hoped to see a much better selection of Parfumerie Generale and was certain I'd be leaving it with at least one bottle, but they only had about 1o of the scents, which is far less than what you can find at Scent Bar in L.A., and none of the limited editions. They did have all the Lutens, Piguet, By Killian, The Different Company and several other lines, as well as Marc Jacobs Daisy, for some inexplicable reason. Actually, Daisy was everywhere, you couldn't escape it.
We visited Colette, mostly so I could smell their Le Labo exclusive, Vanille 44. It's far less vanilla and much more labdanum, and while I liked it, it wasn't a must-have. I've heard people complain about the noise and chaos atmosphere in Colette, but I actually enjoyed it. It's very informal and you can play with the perfumes (many niche lines and the unavoidable Daisy) as much as you want without a SA breathing down your neck and trying to explain to you about the Comme des Garcons aesthetics. The Blond has fallen hard for Hinoki, which smells fabulous on him: dark and earthy, the funky notes are far less prominent on him than the incense and vetiver. I did my best to like the Juliette has a Gun scents, but failed miserably. One was too fruity and young, the other a boring rose. They didn't like my skin, either. The fashion floor at Colette was fascinating. Hair-raising expensive and gorgeous items. You're not allowed to take pictures and the security guys are very efficient about it, so I have nothing to show, you'll just have to believe me it's worth a visit.
Paris Department stores are not your local Macy's. I don't think I saw even one bottle of Britney Juice or Eau de Donald, but both Printemps and Le Bon Marché have an amazing selection of luxury and niche brands. On top of the many others I've mentioned above, you can waltz in and buy Tom Ford Private Blend, Armani Privé, the entire Miller Harris range, L'Artisan, Annick Goutal (because, apparently, all the free-standing Goutal boutiques are not enough), including Les Orientales (lovely and raising the question regarding Musc Nomade: exactly how many musks do I need?) and Lubin. Le Bon Marché was especially amazing, offering the Il Profumo line (I don't think I've ever seen them outside of Scent Bar) and the quirky bottles of Isabel Capeto. They also have a mini Guerlain boutique (like the one at Bergdorf) that had all the rarities, from the Art et Matière line, Les Parisiennes and the Four Seasons collection.
Something that made my day (or week, even): Printemps have a nice L'Occitane counter. It wouldn't have been worth mentioning, considering I have a L'Occitane store practically a walking distance from home, except for one thing: They were clearing out old stock of the original Neroli perfume, an old favorite of mine, which I was left with less than 1/4 of my last bottle (and recently watched how a bottle on eBay has gone well over $100. I'm not paying that for a L'Occitane). It was 40% off and now I have a lifetime supply.
Less satisfactory but very interesting was a private perfume store, Parfumerie Victor Hugo (130, Avenue Victor Hugo. It's a few stores down from the Frederic Malle boutique and around the corner from Parfums de Nicolai). A mom & pop shop (literally. The owner, her husband and daughter can all be found there) with great selection of cosmetics and fragrance. The makeup includes Chanel, Dior and Clarins, and the perfume section would make your head spin. I don't think I ever saw all the Dior masculines on one shelf, including Jules (!!! I really should have made the Blond get it). There were several other colognes that are considered extinct on our side of the pond (the original Lagerfeld and Calvin Kline) as well as new stock like Encre Noir. On the feminine front they had all the Chanels, including bath and body products, all the export Lutens, By Killian, Piguet and many other brands, old and new (when was the last time you saw Ma Griffe in an actual store?).
I was testing happily when I suddenly saw a very familiar blue box. Niki de Saint Phalle. And I don't mean the EdT. They actually had the parfum, both 1/2 oz and a 1 oz. The prices were outrageous: the smaller bottle was north of 200 euro and the 1 oz was marked well over €300 (I can't remember the exact price for the life of me). Niki, in all its weird glory is among my most favorite perfumes and I was dreading the day my 1/4 oz runs out. So I decided to treat myself to the smaller bottle. Thus begun an hour in which the store's owner and her husband tried to make their their credit card reader work. It took them a while to discover it wasn't connected to the phone, and then there was a whole other saga which we couldn't understand due to the language barrier. It was so aggravating I wasn't thinking straight, otherwise we'd have just walked to the nearest ATM and paid cash. But I just gave up, which turned out to be a very good thing, because I just discovered that Parfum1.com have the 1 0z bottle currently in stock for 1/5 of the price. There's also a 10% coupon floating around and free shipping. My bottle has arrived today and I couldn't be happier. It's the real thing and smells as gorgeous as ever.
On top of all the niche and luxury brands you can easily find, there's the mainstream market. There's a Marionnaud store on every corner, which is more or less a b&m equivalent to Fragrancenet, albeit far more expensive (I don't think Paris believes in discounters). But you can try everything on, so no need for crazy unsniffed purchases. I was interested to check the Balmain exclusive, La Môme, which wasn't yet available here. I thought it was nice, but for the price (49€) my socks remained fully unrocked. The same went for the other new Balmain, Ambre Gris that you could see all over Paris. Of course, upon my return I started kicking myself for not getting them, if only for the sake of their hard-to-find status. Thankfully, I didn't have to kick too hard. If you've seen the various perfume forums you know that Parfum1 now has both scents for a lot cheaper. Last week it was $25 each, before the discount code. Now it's been kicked up slightly to around $30, but still a bargain that would make our friends in Paris cry. It's an interesting lesson in global marketing, if nothing else.
All photos are mine. The two at the top are of Niki de Saint Phalle's Stravinsky Fountain near the Pompidou Center. Sadly, the fountain, the sculptures and the entire area are dirty and run down. Some pieces are missing and there's no sign that explains anything about the artist or this creation. We stumbled upon it by chance and immediately recognized her work. One of the sculptures is very similar to the snakes on the perfume bottle.
More perfume shopping in Paris:
Etat Libre d'Orange