Tungate, Publications

Here for Ladurée

How a Paris patisserie became a global brand.

A customer’s first experience of the Ladurée brand is one of waiting. You are either waiting in line at the Parisian patisserie to buy a box of exquisite macaroons – the product for which Ladurée is justly famous – or waiting to be seated in its quaint but crowded tearoom. In either case, a visit to what may be the world’s most luxurious pastry shop requires steely patience. It’s pleasingly ironic that the brand’s name means “duration”.
I waited a long time, too, to speak to somebody about Ladurée’s ambition to become a global lifestyle brand. My phone calls and e-mails were politely but consistently rebuffed. This was due, I was told, to the fact that the organisation was “in a period of extreme rush”. Perhaps that was only to be expected, as Ladurée had become newsworthy for almost the first time since the 19th century.
The latest, most unexpected chapter in its history in November 2007, when French retail chain Sephora – which sells perfume and beauty products – teamed up with Ladurée to launch a range of what it called “gourmet cosmetics”. It included lip gloss that tasted of violet and whipped cream, bath salts of the same fragrances, and a body powder that dusted its user with the gentle scent of brioche. After all, it’s not a great leap from cosmetics to pastry: the same laboratories that create odours for perfume houses often fabricate taste and scent for food companies.
Following the successful partnership with Sephora, Ladurée decided to go the whole hog and launch a standalone range of beauty products. This time the creams and lotions are based on almonds. The most celebrated ingredient of the brand’s macaroons, almonds also contain shea butter, known for its soothing and regenerative qualities.
In fact, Ladureé’s beauty products are the latest in a string of brand extensions that includes scented candles, room perfume, disposable picnic accessories and coloured notepaper. “We want to communicate the spirit of Ladurée on a worldwide basis,” confirms Safia Bendali, who refers to the company as a “maison”, or “house”, as if it’s a French couturier. “Our positioning is that of an affordable luxury brand.”
Every luxury brand requires a strong heritage, and Ladurée certainly has one to play with. It was founded in 1862 by Louis Ernest Ladurée, who opened a modest boulangerie (baker) on the site of today’s flagship boutique at 16 Rue Royale in Paris. Ten years later, the place burned down in a fire. Turning this disaster into an opportunity, Ladurée transformed the baker into a chic patisserie, hoping it would attract the fashionable crowds that were now flocking to the up-and-coming Madeleine quarter. The interior was decorated by Jules Chéret – a painter better known for his faintly naughty posters of dancing girls (or “Chérettes”) advertising the Folies-Bergère nightclub. Chéret also designed the Ladurée cherub, which became the brand’s logo.
It was Ernest Ladurée’s wife, Jeanne Sochard, who encouraged him to open one of the first tea rooms in the French capital, as a way of giving wealthy ladies somewhere to lunch. Another member of the family – this time Ladurée’s grandson, Pierre Desfontaines – created the brand’s iconic treat at the beginning of the 20th century, by securing two fragile biscuits made of almond, egg and sugar with creamy chocolate filling.
By the early 1990s, however, the “maison” had fallen on hard times. The Holder group, owner of the Paul chain of upmarket boulangeries, acquired the business in 1993 and pledged to expand it. Francis Holder had been in the catering trade for 40 years, having joined his parents when they took over the Paul boulangerie in Lille in 1953. He inherited the family firm five years later and slowly developed it into a national, and then international, business. Today there are more than 300 Paul bakeries around the world, including 17 in Japan.
Holder and his son David felt that Ladurée had similar potential. They opened an ornate new patisserie and tearoom on the Champs-Elysées, followed by one in Saint Germain. More recently, branches have appeared in Monaco, Geneva, Lausanne and London. And in September 2007, Ladurée arrived in Berlin, in the shape of a “corner” within the Galeries Lafayette department store. Tokyo and Kuwait are expected to follow in 2008.
The once quaint pastry shop now bears all the hallmarks of a slick marketing operation. But despite the glossy repositioning – the kind of thing that occasionally irritates French gourmets – Ladurée remains as popular with true Parisians as it is with tourists. On a recent visit to the Rue Royale branch, I queued up behind a Japanese couple, a lone American man – and a French father and son, who spent the entire 20 minute wait discussing the size and flavours of the macaroons they wanted to buy.
Communications director Safia Bendali does not believe that there is a disconnection between what is essentially a posh bakery and the concept of a global lifestyle brand. “Ladurée’s image of femininity and accessible luxury is close to that of a fashion brand,” she suggests, “although this clearly contrasts with the brand’s timeless quality. Our key brand values are quality, savoir faire and aesthetics. We’re selling the French art of living.”
The very Parisian appeal of Ladurée did not escape the film-maker Sofia Coppola, who placed its colourful fare in several scenes of her film Marie Antoinette. Unfortunately, in a work riddled with historical inaccuracies, this was yet another fabrication: Marie Antoinette was guillotined in 1793, almost 70 years before Ladurée opened its doors.

© 2018 Mark Tungate
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