Crowds swarmed the iconic Samaritaine department store Wednesday as the doyenne of Paris shopping emporiums threw an opening party after a 16-year renovation, eager to discover -- or rediscover -- the Art Nouveau landmark.
Newsboys and girls sporting yellow gatsby caps greeted visitors waiting to get in, while passers-by took in the facade's polished grey lava stones and windows whose curtains were thrown open for the first time.
"It's not what I was expecting, it's very chic," said Lyne Garroum, a 19-year-old student who was just a toddler when the store was shut in 2005 after inspectors found widespread structural problems.
"It's really a legendary store, it's great to be able to be part of its history, to take the same steps that Parisians have taken for years," said Suvit Yeung, a Franco-Canadian visiting the capital.
More people appeared to be snapping pictures than actually buying, though sales staff assured that business was brisk -- dozens were lined up to check out the Chanel corner.
But the main attraction was the golden peacock fresco adorning the walls along the top floor, under a soaring glass atrium that bathed the exposed Eiffel iron beams in dappled light.
Luxury conglomerate LVMH spent some 750 million euros ($900 million) to restore its original glory -- the fresco in particular had been painted over, the honey-toned wood floors covered with linoleum.
"It's a store for two types of clients: Parisians... who I hope will return with pleasure, not only to buy but to enjoy and visit, take advantage of the restaurants," LVMH chief Bernard Arnault, currently number 2 on the Forbes billionaires list, told RTL radio.
"And tourists: it's mainly Parisians for now... but they'll be back of course in a year or two," he said.
- 'They had it all' -
Visitors who remembered the old Samaritaine, while admiring the architecture and newfound elegance, noted nonetheless that it was no longer the same store.
"It was very dark and very simple," said Jacqueline, a Parisian rediscovering the majestic architecture.
The focus is firmly on fashion and food -- think caviar and champagne, or the 22,000-euro Louis Vuitton bicycle, built by the bespoke Parisian framemaker Tamboite.
And the famed Art Deco wing overlooking the Seine is being transformed into a luxury Cheval Blanc hotel, where rooms will start at 1,150 euros a night.
"Before it was great, you could find absolutely everything: hardware, linens, buttons and thread," recalled Jocelyne Gaillot, a 71-year-old Parisian who came early to visit with her sister.
"And all around there were tea rooms, with people from here who went," she said. "I think now it will be for the wealthy, but we're the ones who made these stores what they are."
"But we're happy -- we won't buy anything, but we wanted to see it again."
"You would come for anything, they had it all, just like their ads said," said Alain Mourgue as he waited to get a peek.
"All that is finished, now it's just luxury."