Mike MacEacheran | Paris and Zurich shopping, The Strait Times
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Paris and Zurich shopping, The Strait Times

There is no argument – Paris is the shopping capital of the world. The City of Light has some of the flashiest boutiques and department stores you’ll find anywhere on Earth and they rival each other for spectacle, style and service.

It helps then that the annual summer sales, or the soldes as the French call them, are regulated by the government – so shopaholics can plan accordingly as to what and where they want to buy. This year’s extravaganza runs from 29 June to 30 July, so there’s little excuse to miss out on any of the bargains – just keep your eyes peeled for bright pink, electric orange and vivid green soldes, soldes, soldes signs and placards that take over the shop-fronts and window displays.

Get your bearings with a visit to one of Paris’s grand magasins, the city’s historic department stores that effortlessly balance trend with tradition. The ten-storey Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann is a colossal temple of fashion and one of the city’s must-sees. During sales time, more than 1500 brands are marked down with prices slashed to 50 per cent off. For women, this can mean bargains from the likes of Ralph Lauren, Isabel Marant and Lacoste, and for men, discounts from brands including Adidas, Diesel and The Kooples. Should you need any more encouragement during the summer sale season, Galeries Lafayette’s motto is “On your marks, get set, sales!” Théophile Bader, who originally opened the shop as a humble haberdasher’s in 1893, would surely blush at today’s shopping festival.

Galeries Lafayette’s main competition is the Gustav Eiffel-designed Le Bon Marché on the Left Bank and Printemps, a symbol of Parisian pride for nearly 150 years – in part because of its beautiful art deco cupola and celebrated window displays. Here you’ll find everything from Estée Lauder, Gucci and Pierre Cardin to Calvin Klein, Jimmy Choo and famed Parisian glassmaker Lalique. There is even an entire floor devoted to luxury and one to timepieces, with popular brands including Roger Dubuis, IWC, Girard-Perregaux and Piaget. As the sales march towards a close, prices on the racks tend to be reduced from 30% to 50%, even on the best-selling designer names. If you’re lucky, you may pick up something with 70% off.

Characteristically, luxury retail is embedded in Europe and Paris remains its most important marketplace. So for prestigious brands like Louis Vuitton, Dior, Chanel, Kenzo and Ralph Lauren make a beeline for the streets between Place Charles de Gaulle and Place de La Concorde, in particular Avenue Montaigne and Avenue George V. American brands Banana Republic, Nike and Levi’s have muscled in on the world-famous Avenue des Champs-Élysées, but it remains as sophisticated as ever, helped by the presence of upmarket boutiques from Cartier, Bulgari and Swarovski. For something lighter on your wallet, head to the Marais in the 4th arrondissement for smaller boutiques and edgier fashions or Le Forum des Halles, behind the Musée du Louvre, for contemporary high-street brands like H&M, Zara and Mango.

The best way to get the best out of the sales, however, is to hire your own personal stylist and shopping guide from 10 Vendôme, the city’s premier luxury consultancy service. Guides have excellent contacts for all the haute couture ateliers and can organise itineraries that can include the fashion maisons of rue Saint-Honore or personal visits to rising young couture names before they go global.

ZURICH

Zurich’s showpiece shopping boulevard Bahnhofstrasse can easily rival Paris’s best. It curves its way from the main train station to Lake Zurich, a 1.4km-long strip dedicated to high fashion, luxury brands and Swiss watches. As Zurich is one of the richest cities in the world, it is only fitting then that international luxury brands – Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Armani – and home-grown names Omega, Patek Philippe and Rolex – compete for the attention of the wealthy bankers and hedge fund managers who work in the vicinity. It’s the kind of street where it’s handy to have more than one credit card – especially one tied to an offshore Swiss bank account.

As in Paris, the summer sales tend to start in mind-June and Bahnhofstrasse is the focal point for much of this activity. In particular, watches and jewellery are available at Bucherer, Gübelin and Türler, fashion and accessories at Bongenie Grieder and Swiss luxury and leather goods at Bally. Then there is Globus, which is to Zurich shoppers what Bloomingdale’s is for New Yorkers or Harrods is to Londoners. It stocks brands like Burberry, DKNY, Hugo Boss and Switzerland’s premier street-fashion brand Alprausch. With equally impressive credentials, the nearby Jelmoli is not only the oldest department store in the city but also the largest in the country. Inside, there are 1,000 different outlets and more than 250,000 items on sale.

Farther along the shopping strip, is Zett Mayer, one of the best places in Switzerland to invest in jewellery or a luxury watch. It may have only claimed its place on Bahnhofstrasse back in 2005, but that hasn’t stopped this exclusive boutique cashing in on its slogan – ‘time in its most beautiful form’. IWC Schaffhausen is one of its signature brands, but there’s also a roll-call of other Swiss-manufacturers including Tissot, Longines and Maurice Lacroix.

Away from the glitz and glamour of central Zurich, the shopping scene becomes markedly varied. Across the Limmat River in the warren of cobbled streets that make up the Niederdorf, Zurich’s old town, you’ll find goldsmiths, wood carvers, antique dealers, booksellers and florists. The main past-time here at the weekend is ladele (the local form of window shopping) and a great place to try it out is at Schweizer Heimatwerk, which sells a variety of Swiss-made cuckoo clocks, traditional cowbells and farmer’s belts from Appenzell.

For more contemporary trends, head to Zurich-West, where the best labels are often found in the unlikeliest of places. Über-cool fashion brand Freitag on Geroldstrasses is one such example as it is housed inside 17 reclaimed shipping containers. It’s a unique concept, but coming from a brand that specialises in messenger bags made out of old truck tarpaulins, used cycle inner tubes and car seat belts, it’s hardly a surprise. The label is now the pioneer of the city’s industrialised fashion ethic and inside the containers shoppers can choose from 1,600 shoulder bags, handbags, wallets and iPad cases – the biggest selection of recycled accessories in the world. Also in the area is Im Viadukt, a series of renovated railway arches that is now home to a number of up-and-coming designers. Check out Famous Ape, successful menswear store Fashionslave or Atelier Daniel Blunschi for urban designs.

Of course, no visit to Zürich would be complete without an indulgent splurge at Sprüngli, the city’s premier chocolate shop located in the heart of the city. Visitors tend to stock up on Swiss truffles, but the local secret is the delicate Luxemburgerli macaroon. For other sweet treats, check out Vollenweider or Teuscher, famous for its champagne truffles. To see chocolate making in action, head back to Merkur on Bahnhofstrasse, where artisan chocolatiers will let you watch the production process of chocolate perfection. It really would be criminal to not buy anything afterwards.