Since the coronavirus pandemic hit France, a succession of well-known clothing retailers have shut down or collapsed into bankruptcy. But none of these closures has hit home as hard as the demise of Tati, a discount emporium that has stood at the heart of the gritty neighbourhood of Barbès in northern Paris since 1948.
A giant blue and pink sign on the outside of the sprawling store announces the promise of its founder Jules Ouaki, a Jewish transplant from Tunisia, to always offer the lowest prices — “Tati, les plus bas prix”. As Ouaki’s ambitions expanded, he negotiated with Corsican mafiosi who controlled the area’s prostitution and drug trade, buying up neighbouring buildings and converting them to a more respectable use.
His efforts to clean up the area were rewarded by the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest honour, in 1976. But Barbès today remains largely resistant to change. This is frustrating for those who have long hoped to profit from its gentrification, but reassuring to others who cherish its association with generations of immigrants from France’s former colonies.
Tati, too, failed to change with the times, overtaken first by fast-fashion brands such as Zara and then by the rise of Amazon. Ouaki used to attract crowds with bins placed on the pavement outside piled high with a constantly changing line-up of bargains — cut-price umbrellas on rainy days and cheap sunglasses when the sun emerged. Customers went home with pink and white gingham Tati bags, which became a fashion symbol in their own right.
Ouaki died in 1982 and the family eventually lost control of the chain in 2004. Several subsequent owners failed to restore its former glory. GPG Group, the most recent one, threw in the towel on Tuesday, blaming Covid-19 for a collapse in footfall. It announced it would close the Barbès flagship with its 34 employees, sell the remaining Tati stores and keep open just two small Tati sub-brands.
“Tati was fashionable, but now it’s over,” said Chantal, a 60-year-old who works nearby selling crepes outside a railway station. As she browsed the 40 per cent off summer clothing sale, she recalled happy memories of her first visit to Tati 30 years ago, but said she was not sad to see it go. “To be honest, it’s hard to find something I want to wear.”
Tati’s employees, many of whom are women who have worked there for decades, fear for their futures. Several declined to speak about their experiences, saying management had forbidden it. One veteran sales clerk wearing a blue J’aime Tati T-shirt on a cigarette break said: “We were all shocked. They’ve told us very little other than the store here will close by the end of the year.”
Anthropologist Emmanuelle Lallement, who wrote a book on the Barbès neighbourhood, said the closing would mark the end of an era. “You associate Tati with Barbès and Barbès with Tati,” said the professor at Université Paris 8 in Saint-Denis. “There will be a hole in the urban landscape, and an emptiness created in the neighbourhood.”
No one knows what will happen to the site, which is only a short walk from Sacré-Coeur and the tourist haunts of Montmartre.
GPG Group and the family jointly own the land and the buildings, said the founder’s son Fabien Ouaki in an interview. But since the family owned only a minority stake, he said, it is the GPG boss, billionaire Philippe Ginestet, who really holds the area’s future in his hands. “We have to follow,” Mr Ouaki said.
Mr Ouaki, who led Tati during an ill-fated push abroad and expansion upmarket in the 1990s, said that the family would be watching. He professed not to feel sadness about the closure but regretted the fate of the employees. “When I was a child, I would play with the toys in the store and the saleswomen were my friends,” he recalled. “Years later when I was running the place, they were still there.”
The merchants in nearby grocery, mobile phone and clothes shops cannot afford such nostalgia and are eager for change. “This area has got worse and worse over the years, it has deteriorated,” said one longtime shopkeeper who did not want to be named.
For now the two faces of Barbès coexist uneasily. The white-fronted hipster Brasserie Barbès sells €90 bottles of champagne, while young Arab men hawk contraband cigarettes outside and elderly Africans tout their services as clairvoyants.
Emmanuel Papillon, director of the Louxor cinema, across the metro tracks from Tati, said the fate of the store would be pivotal for the neighbourhood’s future. He has spoken to city authorities about residents’ concerns that, if the right project is not found, then Tati — once the pride of Barbès — could become a blight instead. “The fear is that it stays empty, that it could degenerate, that it could be taken over by squatters,” he added.
The Louxor itself is an example of successful regeneration. The Art Deco “palace of cinema”, which is decorated with gold and blue Egyptian mosaics and ornate stone busts, fell into disrepair and closed in the 1980s. The Ouaki family bought the cinema, but it remained closed as various interests wrangled over its future. Eventually it was bought by the city, refurbished and reopened in 2013 to become a favourite watering hole of the younger, wealthier crowd that had begun to move into the area.
“It would be terrible if Tati turned out to be another mobile phone shop or a McDonald’s,” said Mr Papillon. “A cultural centre or something creative would be better.”