Ladurée is an interesting exception,” says pastry chef, author, and American expat in Paris David Lebovitz. “On the one hand French people love it, and will always love it, but they hate when anything becomes a chain. They call it ‘très industrial,’ or too industrial.”
But thanks to fortunate timing and shrewd marketing, Ladurée hasn’t been slapped with that slur. The international brand — currently part of a conglomerate with estimated annual revenue of more than $1 billion — started its legacy as a bread bakery in 1862 on Rue Royale in the center of Paris. In 1871, its founder, Louis Ernest Ladurée, turned the bakery into a pastry shop, or patisserie, where the menu featured sweet cakes rather than loaves of bread. About a dozen years later, Jeanne Souchard, Ladurée’s wife, transformed the shop into a hybrid tea salon and patisserie — the first of its kind in Paris.
Today, Ladurée’s fame is nearly on par with that of the Eiffel Tower, with locations in major cities across the globe. Americans in particular have eaten it up. What Ladurée sells, more than its rainbow of photogenic macarons, is the often-cliched and idealized French lifestyle, peppered with Old World charm, measured leisure, and small luxuries. Ladurée, in other words, has taught Americans how to “patisserie.”
Since well before Jackie Kennedy invited a French chef to cook in the White House, Americans have idolized French pastry. But aside from desserts at fine dining restaurants and pastry programs at luxurious hotels, the French had not successfully convinced wide swaths of Americans to enjoy French pastry the way the French enjoy it: over a coffee or tea in a salon; in small portions; with a fork, knife, and spoon.
The European (or European-inspired) bakery chains Americans became familiar with in the past two decades — including Maison Kayser (founded by French baker Éric Kayser) and Le Pain Quotidien (created by Belgian chef and restaurateur Alain Coumont) — are concepts the French call boulangeries, or bread bakeries, not patisseries, or pastry shops. The two names differentiate between basic, daily nourishment (bread) and a special treat (pastry).
Americans never had much trouble understanding boulangeries, where sandwiches and salads are almost always on offer next to loaves of bread. In fact, Ladurée’s parent company also owns Paul, a boulangerie chain with a large presence in Europe, though there are fewer than a dozen locations of Paul in the Eastern U.S.
But patisseries, with their dainty offerings, never seemed to fit into America’s fast-paced culture or its penchant for tall layer cakes, casual and affordable brownies, and the ubiquitous chocolate chip cookie. America’s idea of a pastry shop as a place to go and “be seen” evolved, in large part, thanks to popular culture: After Sarah Jessica Parker ate a frosted pink cupcake on Sex and the City, the extremely well-documented cupcake craze took U.S. cities by storm.
During Sex and the City’s run — and as tourists lined up outside NYC’s Magnolia Bakery for a to-go cupcake they’d eat, and likely photograph, in the street — Ladurée started to pop up in fashion magazines like Vogue and Elle. According to the Atlantic, the company’s goal was to align its brand with luxury fashion rather than food, expanding notions of what a sweet pastry should cost, and how and where it should be consumed. In the late ’90s, the New York Times reported, Ladurée began “timing new macaron flavors to coincide with creations from fashion designers,” aligning its popular treats with the seasonally impermanent, aspirational trendiness that fuels high fashion. And like with fashion, countless knockoffs, including NYC-based patisserie Financier, would soon flood the market.
By 2002, Laduree was already popular with the American fashion set; by 2004, lifestyle bloggers, including Lebovitz, were buzzing about the place. Americans who visited Paris started to add a stop at Ladurée to their touristy itinerary, allowing themselves the luxury of a sightseeing break while lingering over a pastry. And in 2006, when Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette hit theaters — with the rich girl anthem “I Want Candy” soundtracking a scene featuring Ladurée pastries alongside priceless jewels and satin gowns — Paris’s hottest pastry shop started making plans to open in the U.S.
Diners began to tire of Magnolia Bakery and its ilk just as Ladurée’s elegant eclairs and towering cream puff desserts began to appear in New York and Los Angeles. Marie Antoinette was “a turning point,” says Ladurée representative Céline Kaplan, and the brand saw it as an opening: The colorful, photo-ready Parisian macaron was poised to steal the cupcake’s crown.
Macarons have a history likely dating back to the 13th century, but the French macaron, wherein two meringue- and almond-based cookies are sandwiched together with a dab of jam, ganache, or buttercream, was likely invented in the 1950s. Ladurée claims that Pierre Desfontaines, a cousin of the bakery’s founder, came up with the idea to sandwich two macaron cookies together with a filling. (Others say it was invented by a French pastry chef named Claude Gerbet.) In the decades that followed, countless copies — in hundreds of flavors and colors — would emerge from pastry shops across France, and the round cookie would become an icon.
Ladurée capitalized on that fervor. In the early ’90s, the Holder Group, which has been in the bakery business since 1889, purchased the pastry brand from the Ladurée family. David Holder, a fourth-generation baker who was behind the development and expansion of the bakery chain Paul, has taken Ladurée global; he currently runs the company with his sister, Elisabeth Holder Raberin. Today, the Holder Group is a force in the French business world. Unlike other international restaurant companies, its executives have backgrounds in luxury services and merchandising — not menu development or franchising.
Holder Raberin was an executive at Hermès before she joined her family’s company as co-CEO in 2004, and her luxury-fashion background has informed many of the brand’s choices. After launching locations in Japan and London, the Holder Group opened its first Ladurée U.S. location on Madison Avenue in 2011, just days before New York City Fashion Week kicked off. Lines out the door — not to mention breathless coverage in Vogue and WWD, alongside the usual food-focused publications — spurred a second location, this time in fashionable Soho, next door to a French shoe boutique and down the street from Ralph Lauren and Missoni. Even today, with pastry chef Dominique Ansel’s Cronut just blocks away, Ladurée’s Soho location attracts a dedicated mix of neighborhood locals, tourists, models, French ex-pats, and celebrities.
Ladurée wasn’t the first food company to bring a luxury good to the U.S. and sell it in a boutique: Maison du Chocolat did this with bon bons and truffles in 1990, selling an item often purchased as a gift (for oneself or a loved one), not a daily necessity. But unlike Maison du Chocolat, whose shops exist primarily as retail stores, Ladurée took the macaron’s success and translated it into a lifestyle: The luxury for the diner doesn’t just lie in eating the final product, but also in allowing oneself to sit and unwind in a comfortable, ornately decorated boutique — at least for a fleeting moment or two.
That ephemerality was part of the appeal, to the point where guests’ attempts to document their experiences were once discouraged by Ladurée employees. “They never used to allow photographs in their shops,” Leibovitz says. “Like, they would curtly tell tourists who were from Japan or the U.S. to put their cameras away. It’s not a French thing to take a photograph of your food.”
Darcy Miller, an author, artist, designer, and editor at large at Martha Stewart Weddings magazine, is one American who embraced the Ladurée lifestyle early on. “I just think it’s the best city,” Miller, who lives in Manhattan, says of Paris. “It’s where I find so much of my inspiration.” Today, she keeps a closet full of Ladurée boxes in her Upper East Side home: They’re in seemingly every shade, from pastels to primary colors, and they all smell like sugar. And when she misses Paris, she says, she visits the shop on Madison Avenue. “It reminds me most of France, and of when my kids were very little and I’d take them to Paris to eat at Ladurée.”
Miller’s fandom — “I’m obsessed with the brand,” she says — has infused her life. Her wedding was Ladurée-themed, from invitations emblazoned with a seal that looked like the French pastry shop’s to a cake that looked like stacked pastry boxes. One of her first dates with her now-husband was at Ladurée. Interestingly, as Holder Raberin notes, “Ladurée was in fact one of the first tea salons in Paris, and tea salons in the late 1800s and early 1900s were the only places a lady could meet a suitor that wasn’t a saloon or bar.”
For fans like Miller, who use Ladurée’s pastry case as the madeleine for their own Parisian memories, the brand most often represents effortless style, one that American consumers wished to see replicated, unchanged. “When we opened our first shop in New York it was funny,” says Holder Raberin, who was responsible for the company’s American expansion. “We thought to honor the U.S. we would introduce a cinnamon-flavored macaron. Well, it turned out people in New York hated it! They told us, ‘No, do what you do in Paris, but do it here.’”
After the old guard let its hair down, finally allowing for photography inside the shops, social media has helped blast the brand into superstardom: Images of its jewel-box boutiques predictably took off. In shades of bright fuchsia, deep lavender, golden yellow, and pastel green, Ladurée’s macarons popped on Facebook and Instagram, becoming the original rainbow food.
And much of that social-media interest was inspired by fashion and art. In 2009, noted fashion and art photographer Gray Malin snapped a now-famous image of a woman outside the shop, which inspired Holder Raberin to later reach out for a more official collaboration. The brand retains its strong ties to the fashion industry: Ladurée has partnered with a number of fashion houses, including Lanvin, Reed Krakoff, and Emilio Pucci, on box and pastry designs. Earlier this week, a collaboration with NYC design studio Kreëmart resulted in macarons co-created with performance artist Marina Abramović.
Ladurée’s future looks sweet, but there is some uncertainty. In Paris, the chain recently started offering delivery — a convenience that hasn’t caught on in Europe the same way it’s blown up in the U.S. — which has surprised some of its oldest fans. This past summer in New York, Ladurée launched a line of boxed lunches called Ladurée Picnic, its way of branding take-out for the fast-paced (but style-conscious) city consumer. Ladurée Picnic will expand to other locations this fall. And one of its newest shops, in Los Angeles, eschewed the classic, Versailles-inspired design for a more modern look by noted Iranian-American architect India Mahdavi.
Perhaps most concerning, to fans, is Ladurée’s expansion plans. After opening in LA this year, and unveiling a new outpost in Toronto, Holder Raberin throws around opportunities like candy: Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Texas… “are a possibility,” she says, smiling widely. “I also really want to do Mexico City. I’m obsessed with it.” Mexico City’s ritzy Polanco neighborhood already sports a Magnolia Bakery, so perhaps the city’s upper crust would like a taste of Paris, as well.
But cupcake bakeries like Magnolia slowed their rapid rollout a few years ago when diners’ appetites didn’t keep up with supply. Could opening too many Ladurées dilute the singularity of the brand?
“When they opened in New York, I didn’t think they’d last,” Lebovitz says. “But then they adapted.” That flexibility might be the key to the patisserie’s success. Holder Raberin and the Holder Group just might be savvy enough to know how to have their gateau and eat it, too.
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