Galleries Lafayette, City of Paris, Neiman Marcus

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The other day I wandered up to San Francisco’s Union Square, and into Neiman Marcus department store, which opened in 1982. In the front of the store is a fabulous rotunda which came from another store in town, which was called The City of Paris. The store had belonged to the Verdier family originally of Nimes, France. Two brothers were the first to come, in May of 1850, bringing with them all kinds of finery that the French community might need, especially since the Gold Rush was on. There has been a French community here since 1831, which was very involved in development of the city…not just for themselves but the whole community. According to an article by Robert H. Willson, in SF Examiner, 12/16/1923, SF became known as the “Paris of America”. The French numbered 8-10,000 in that year, had built the first rail road, over 200 laundries, numerous churches, clubs, 100 hotels (either owned or run by French, a library, a bank, and many other businesses, including restaurants, but of course ! The Verdier brothers actually sold everything on this initial voyage, before they could even unload, and ended up sending another shipment the following year. The family eventually opened a store named after the schooner they had sailed in on….Ville de Paris. The 1906 earthquake and fire wiped out the original City of Paris store but the rebuilding resulted in the 1909 masterpiece building with stained glass rotunda, which is incorporated into Neiman Marcus today. Not only did they prosper, but Mme. Paul Verdier eventually established, Galerie des Artistes Francaise as a cultural exchange for the community. I had read or heard that Galleries Lafayette, Paris, was the basis for the design of City of Paris…but the dates don’t quite add up to me. No matter, I had been in City of Paris only once before it closed in 1972…however, I never forgot walking around the circular-built store. When I finally saw Galleries Lafayette, Paris, all of those memories came flooding back. How thrilling to be standing looking at that dome…so similar to the one now in Neiman’s. I am part of group of Francophile ladies who have been going to a traditional Afternoon Tea at the Rotunda, Neiman’s. It is also our little bit of Paris each holiday season. How truly delightful to look around at the architecture, have a sumptuous Tea, reminisce about our various visits to Paris, and to look at the 4 story high Christmas tree, that reaches up to the salon area. Last year a woman, who had overheard us, caught up as we were leaving, to ask who we were and did we always wear chapeaux to Tea? After giving her a bit of history, she told us she had been helping relatives to travel to Paris, but had never been. Of course we counseled her to find a way to visit and that she would not regret it. By the look on her face as we parted, I believe she got the message. As I wandered in Neiman’s the other day, I stopped to see the Didier Ludow Little Black Dress Collection, which he is now reproducing. They are based on the vintage collection in his shop in Palais Royale. Though, understandably not of the same quality as the originals, it is nice to see some of those wonderful couture designs I had seen in Paris. Neiman Marcus also carries many French products. I had found Fauchon cookies, La Maison du Chocolate treats, and Le Palais des Teas in the last year. I am sure there are many more French products I am simply not aware of. You might also know the story of Theatre de la Mode? These were the traveling fashion dolls which were sent out from Paris in 1945 after WWII. The dolls had brought together many designers and artists of the day to show that Paris was still in the fashion game. These 27” dolls, left Paris dressed, coiffed and completely accessorized even to wearing fabulously real jewels. In their travels, they eventually arrived in San Francisco, 1946 to be shown at the De Young Museum. Since Paris had to get back to work doing it’s couture designs, the dolls were dismissed, and stored in the basement of City of Paris They were later donated to Maryhill Museum of Art, in Washington State, by art patron, Alma Speckles (founder of The SF Legion of Honor). There is a book and video available for more detailed information. In 1985 the dolls were tracked down by a Prof. Garfinkle, and the American Vogue Fashion editor, Susan Train. They were brought back to Paris to be completely refurbished, and exhibited in Paris, 1990. Now, this “time warp” of fashion history appears to be a traveling exhibit again. Nice to know that not ALL ladies of a “certain age” are lying down and dying, isn’t it? Speaking of design and fashion, I have been lucky enough to find 3 labeled chapeaux from the original City of Paris at a thrift store here. A friend also gave me her mother’s hat collection which included several chapeaux boxes from the original store. What a treat! I am afraid I must confess though, that the energy of Galleries Lafayette, Printemps, Bon Marche, and even the now defunct Sanmaritaine, have that extra zing that sets Paris apart for me though. Perhaps it is not completely the stores themselves, but J’adore Paris! As Mr….
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