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09.24.09

Voilà, Le Gap!

How did the most American of retailers get mixed up with a hoity-toity Parisian boutique? Choire Sicha heads up to Merci Gap to survey the T-shirts, shop-kids and couture.

At the south end of Manhattan’s prime shopping strip, at Fifth Avenue and 54th Street, there is a tiny Parisian store with a third arrondissement address. Confusing!

Shoppers pop in, and store-children explain: This is the joyously confusing temporary outpost of the equally baffling French store Merci, which opened in Paris in June.

At the Fifth Avenue store, a video plays of the Paris store, to help slow Americans parse, as they browse a mix of porcelain pewter plates (made in Italy, $69, 27.5 centimeters) and women’s wear (a lone, tiny Herve Leger black silk dress, $1850).

It is like Santa’s French workshop in there, and the conceptual prank is in a way on Gap, which volunteered its massively expensive Fifth Ave. ground-floor retail to these out-of-towners.

"So it's a big store?” asked a customer.

"Fifteen thousand square feet," said the sales clerk, who was, in fact, an employee of the Gap. For the store is actually a conceptual undertaking, tucked into a storefront owned by that most Main Street of American retailers.

Anita Borzyszkowska, Gap's VP for PR, based in London (but in New York for a week each month), explained that Gap and Merci shared a worldview. "The Merci philosophy is that, as well as being philanthropic, things don't have to be incredibly expensive in order to be beautiful and be great quality and very appealing, and that's what we aim for at Gap as well," she said.

Merci is owned by Marie-France and Bernard Cohen. A few years ago, the Cohens sold off their kids' store Bonpoint—you may remember the brand from Michelle Obama's shopping trip there this summer.

But here in America, they were definitely falling into the Gap, as the commercial used to say. There was even a brisk trade in gray T-shirts up front that say "Merci" in red, some in sans serif, some in a suspiciously Coke-ey script (circa $25). Still, there is vintage couture in the back. And some crystal thingies from Prague!

Well. Perhaps it is the French flair of the Cohens that connotes class even while dabbling in Gap, but they do not feel so common. Mme. Cohen was in New York for the first week the store was open, and she delighted in wrapping customers’ newly bought packages herself. It took her an indescribably long time to prepare a vintage Yves Saint Laurent dress; it was an art, an easily distracted art, and one that would make a typical New York buy-it-and-return-it professional shopper scream.

"When we opened in Paris, she spent two weeks doing that," said M. Cohen. "She loved it." He is also adorable.

The store opened on the evening of September 9, the day before the official start of Fashion Week. There were French people galore crammed in—it is the size of an enormous studio apartment--and two kinds of Champagne (not sparkling wine, non! One was Henriot!) were passed by boys forced into Gap uniforms and Converse. The storefront has two tables up front, one with little things like packs of cotton serviettes de table (that's French for napkin!): One pack of red cotton napkins, measuring 21cm, made in Spain, cost $19.

It is like Santa's French workshop in there, and the conceptual prank is in a way on Gap, which volunteered its massively expensive Fifth Ave. ground-floor retail to these out-of-towners. This week, while Midtown was shut down for the arrival of various diplomats and presidents, the sales clerks were giggling and playing and trying things on. The adorable French people have come in to give the staff some fun, and tart up the Gap’s jeans with paint and assign them individual numbers and also more than double the price—and then Merci donates its profits to starving children in, like, Madagascar. Seriously.

Along one wall were hung seven pairs of jeans--investment pieces! They were Gap jeans (made in Peru) with little paisley linings, pour femme, adorned individually with paint splatters by Laurence Amelie, retailing at $149, each with a handwritten certificate d'authenticité on rough paper, tucked in the back pocket, all tied in a ribbon. (Gap's women's jeans, not investment pieces, range from $59.50 to $69.50.) These do not seem to have been big sellers—either that or they have been numbering the jeans beginning at #5 over and over again.

On opening night, Marie Claire’s Nina Garcia showed up in crazy black heels. She held up one of the Merci Gap-customized (now a collection piece!) trench coats; her mouth flapped open like a Muppet's. "Please, 'It's Raining Men'?" she asked everyone, reading the printed iterations. (Common sayings about rain had been painted, in English, on the rain coats.) "How cute!" she exclaimed. (The coats retail for $295; the Gap's unadorned women's classic trench sells for just $88.)

"I'll stop by again," said Garcia, hugging publicists on her way out.

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Choire Sicha is co-proprietor of The Awl and is at work on a nonfiction book for HarperStudio.