I was looking through some of my old (and rather badly taken) photographs of Chingay when I stumbled upon a sign which brought to mind events of the 1980s. The decade was a time when the world around us was very much in transition and a time when the French decided on an invasion of Singapore. The invasion was one not involving any form of military force, but by forces of an entirely different nature – those of two of their well established retail giants, Galeries Lafayette and Printemps – department stores which are landmarks on one of Paris’ famous shopping streets, Boulevard Haussmann (it was a photograph with the Printemps sign that brought this to mind).
The entrance of the two stores into the local retail market came at the start of a decade in which Singapore was too see massive changes. Much of the resident population of the city centre had been or was to be moved out, and once bustling districts of shophouses which coloured much of the urban landscape was over the period, reduced to rubble. The 1980s also saw Orchard Road establishing itself as Singapore’s main shopping street and the economic success of Singapore – one of the four “Tigers” of the Asian economies, provided for the rising affluence among Singaporeans and with that a greater awareness of fashion trends. This influenced shopping habits and preferences and many overseas based retailers saw an opportunity to gain a foothold into the Singapore market, with two Japanese based retailers having by then already established themselves. Isetan came in 1972 and Yaohan in 1974.
It was Galeries Lafayette which lead the French charge, opening a 5574 square metre store in out-of-town Goldhill Square (since renamed United Square) in December 1982. Printemps followed soon after, taking up 4000 square metres of space on Orchard Road on the ground floor of the newly constructed Hotel Le Méridien (now Concorde Hotel) in September 1983. It was Printemps which perhaps had the greater impact – projecting an image not so much of Parisian chic but one of being hip, colourful and affordable – it was Printemps which introduced the colourful canvas espadrilles which for a while seemed to catch on with Singaporean shoppers (trendy as they might have been, they unfortunately were not the most ideal form of footwear for the local climate). Printemps colourful and cheap polo-tees were also rather a hit with the young.
Despite the apparent popularity of some of what the stores had to offer, both did have great difficulty in making inroads and were making losses. Galeries (as it was referred to by Singaporeans) closed its Goldhill Square store in May 1986. The news of that did not come as a shock as it had been plagued by rumours of its closing for several months before that even as it had expressed interest in taking up a space either at Crown Prince Hotel or the space previously occupied by Mohan’s at Orchard Shopping Centre. It was perhaps a poor decision made to open their store at a location far from the main retail scene in Singapore. The closure did turn out to be a temporary move. Some ten months after closing the Goldhill Square store, Galeries opened a 4460 square metre store at Liat Towers on Orchard Road and not long after that, a smaller 400 square metre outlet at Raffles Place. In spite of the problems the two stores faced in what was perhaps becoming a saturated retail market, the two did last a little longer. Printemps operated ntil December 1989 when it shut its doors. Galeries after its second coming lasted a little longer – it was in March 1996 when they did finally close again.