Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas shopping in Beverly Hills

Santa flies over Wilshire Boulevard at Beverly Blvd.
I've lived in Los Angeles for almost fifteen years now, and although I explore many parts of the city, the one place I seldom go is Beverly Hills.

But, today, [The Man I Love] had a business lunch meeting at Spago in Beverly Hills. I was feeling adventurous, so I invited myself to come along. While he was at his meeting, I would shop.

The shopping I do now is the window variety - I'm saving up my shopping money for London. But I get a lot of enjoyment from window shopping and taking in the ambiance and impressions of a place.

Strolling shoppers on Canon Drive
Spago is on Canon Drive just north of Wilshire Boulevard. We pulled up at the valet stand, and had one of those peculiar convivial encounters one frequently finds at the valet stand in LA. An older couple waiting for their car was curious about our Honda Fit. The man pressed his nose to the back window. "Does it have seats back there?" he asked. We assured him it did. [The Man I Love] testified to the Fit's ability to transport cargo like large dogs and upright string bass fiddles. Then their Mercedes was brought around, and we parted ways.

Store on Canon Drive
On foot, I headed north on Canon, then zig-zagged over to Rodeo Drive, the nexus of luxury shopping.

Rodeo Drive north of Wilshire is a broad thoroughfare, wide enough for fleets of luxury SUVs and sedans to glide slowly from block to block, or valet stand to valet stand. A median planted with palm trees runs down the center of it.  The three or four blocks north of Wilshire became the famed shopping attraction during the 1970s, and now it's home to the best known names of fashion couture and jewelry.

 Prada, Chanel, Armani; Cartier, Bulgari and Tiffany all have stores here. During Christmas season, it's fun to walk down the wide sidewalks and look at the holiday displays - even more sparkly and luxe than usual.

Miu Miu bags
 Speakers mounted on the light poles play Christmas music for the passers-by - a mixture of accustomed locals, foreign tourists, and visitors from other parts of town, looking for holiday bling.

The Valentino store
I stepped into the Ferragamo flagship store, remembering my mother's fondness for their shoes, and was greeted immediately by a blonde sylph who smiled and, through perfect teeth, said, "Love your scarf! Come check out our sale."

The sale shoes were displayed like rare sculptures on a glassy shelf that lined one long wall of the store. I lifted up an exquisite pointy-toed loafer in caramel-colored calfskin with a kitten heel. The sale price was $575.00.

Tree at Two Rodeo
 I visited the Hermes store, which was crowded with Asian tourists. The famous scarves were on colorful display in a glass-topped case. I stroked a cashmere throw in the housewares section, and discreetly peeked at its tag. $3750.00.

I lost my nerve in front of the Chanel store, which is staffed by a uniformed doorman.

In addition to fashion and jewelry, the beauty industry is well-represented here. Glossy salons and day spas abound, as well as discreetly marked offices of cosmetic surgeons and skin-care specialists. Denizens of these establishments teeter up and down the sidewalks, their peeled faces, nipped noses, and planed limbs strikingly obvious.

In a place like Los Angeles, even the enclaves of the 1% can't shut out the rest of the world. A group of protesters furled banners in front of several luxury brands, and even here a few panhandlers rattled change cups at the elegant shoppers. Right in front of Yves St. Laurent a CD hustler tried to attract the tourists.

In front of Hermes
 The thing that struck me the most about these stores was how very large they were, and how very spacious. Each major brand occupied a huge edifice, each uniquely designed to reflect the brand's aesthetic. The architecture is striking, showy, and often simply awful, exhibiting an egotistical hubris honed by competition.

Display at Bulgari
Within each space the gleaming floor stretched away, punctuated here and there by plinths holding precious objects - a handbag here; a mannequin there. Low-slung sofas and banquettes create parlor-like rooms that no one sits in.  Sleek silver racks hold three or four garments, surrounded by an expanse of tile or stone.

The Prada store
I looked up the rental cost of retail space on Rodeo Drive. Rents here are priced between $450 and $500 per square foot - the highest retail cost in Los Angeles County. What better way to show your affluence than to rent a huge store on the most expensive street, and then keep so much of it empty? The biggest luxury here is not the goods for sale - it's the waste of space.

Versace Store at Two Rodeo
In the first block north of Wilshire, a small enclave of shops occupy a space crafted as a European street, with a winding cobblestone lane and stage-set-like facades. As common with such imitations, something seems a little off - the peculiar proportions and pretentious columns of the Versace store overreach. But that's what it's all about here. In order to achieve this height of vulgarity, you have to spend a lot of money.

There is no better a symbol of the pretentiousness of Rodeo Drive than the Robert Graham sculpture holding a place of pride in the median at the intersection of Rodeo and Dayton Way. Titled "Torso," it's the perfect representation of Beverly Hills as a female image: headless and armless, gleaming silver with featureless genitals, its contours shaped by liposuction and Pilates, but cut off at the knees.

I don't know, maybe a little heavy in the thighs
Its orientation to pedestrians in the crosswalk capitalizes on its vulgarity. Nonetheless, the work is praised as a symbol of the district, and is featured on the home page of the official site of Rodeo Drive.

If the relentless consumerism of Rodeo Drive begins to pall on you, the shops one block over on Beverly are more accessible, lively, and attractive. Exclusive without the pretentiousness of Rodeo Drive's monsters, here you'll find little boutiques and older Beverly Hills traditions sprinkled among the second-tier luxury chain retailers.

 Here the shop staff were more welcoming, offering samples of luxury chocolates at Vosges, a beautiful jewel-box of a store decked in purple accents and Alhambra-inspired decor. Beverly Drive is home to specialty stores, including a Taschen bookstore, good for browsing the lovely and pricey photography books.

I had forgotten about one specialty store here until I walked past an opened door and my nose was hit by the unmistakable funkitude of strong cheese. The Beverly Hills Cheese Store has been here since 1967, and is a destination in its own right. On this Saturday, it was full of holiday shoppers. I stepped inside to take in a few breaths of moldy redolence, but it was too crowded to browse.

I decided to take a break from window shopping, and although there are plenty of sidewalk cafes featuring typical Beverly Hills menus of chopped salads and egg-white omelettes, I chose instead to lunch at Nate 'n Al's Delicatessen.

Nate 'n Al's has been in Beverly Hills since 1945, serving Kosher-style comfort food to Hollywood's biggest stars and power executives from an old-fashioned, homey interior. No matter how famous you are, you still have to wait in line to be seated at the brown leatherette booths. A brisk, apron-clad waitress plunked down a plate of pickles before she took my order, and when I told her I just wanted a bowl of sweet-and-sour cabbage soup, she offered me a couple of slices of bread to go along with it.

The soup was a little too sweet for my taste, but still good and filling. The double-baked rye has a crust with a crispy bite, with an inner softness. Soup, bread and butter, and a half-sour pickle, it was the perfect lunch for a tired shopper, and at six dollars and change, it was the best bargain in Beverly Hills.

As I wandered back toward Spago to meet [The Man I Love], I passed a little jewelry store on Beverly. The glittering stones displayed in the tiny window caught my eye, and I stepped over to look, but an elderly couple, though bent and halting, managed to beat me there. I waited a moment, but they lingered with real interest, pointing at the glass and murmuring. The old gentleman caught my eye, and I smiled at him. "I hope you're planning to buy her something for Christmas," I said, and he smiled back at me. Then he escorted his wife into the tiny shop.

Merry Christmas from Beverly Hills.


Jen on the Edge said...

What an interesting study of Rodeo Drive. I've never been there and really haven't had any interest to see it, but now you're really solidified my feelings.

I would, however, love to pop into the Vosges store, as that is one of my favorite chocolate brands.

Gilly said...

Window shopping is always fun! How warm is it out there? I was intrigued to see one of the women in your photo was wearing a very warm-looking puffa jacket - which I would wear on a cold day in the UK. (Not those skin tight pants, though. My shape is better kept unrevealed!)

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

I loved your comment about not going into the Channel store. The last time we were in NY I lagged behind our group completely transfixed by the beautiful men working at Channel. I was too afraid of them to go in since I KNOW that they take at least 3 times longer to get ready every morning than I do. Hate to shop but love to walk around. That's me.

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

Oh, but I do ALWAYS go to Murray's cheese shop in NY. Seems like we are alike in our shopping priorities.

Glennis said...

Claudia, you are right. Murray's Cheese Shop is the best. I first went there there in 1975, and though I don't live in NY anymore, I will always think of it as the best cheese shop in America (it's only because I'm in London and Neal's Yard is here that I equivocate).