The women who shop Torie Steele's Valentino boutique were ripping plastic garment bags to shreds. They trampled tissue to grab newly arrived $2,000 suits. But rather than officiate this chaos, store buyer Tom Bruno encouraged it.
"It's fun for them to see a mess once in a while," Bruno says. "I'm sure they've never seen a mess like that in their own homes."
Bruno knows that selling fashion to the very rich of L.A. requires skills bordering on a diplomat's. And if that means creating a strategic mess, it also can mean spreading a $10,000 bill among cash, check and credit card to conceal from a spouse the amount of a purchase. Or acting calm when an actress decides to flash open her blouse to quiet a buzz of male fans in the store.
Yet reaching L.A.'s wealthy is tricky, because there are so many kinds: old money, new yuppie, show business swank. Hence the varied positions of L.A.'s upper crust fashion retailers, ranging from the austere, concrete Maxfield boutique on Melrose Avenue to the classic French decor in parts of Bullocks Wilshire, where customers are called "patrons," always, and where ladies-who-lunch attend fashion shows in prim designer suits.
"Our flowers are fresh. Our music is appropriate. We're very civilized," boasts Rosemarie Troy, fashion merchandise director of Bullocks Wilshire, which draws on L.A.'s Old Guard and may provide the closest thing to a glimpse of home for those who've moved here from the East.
If retailers differ in style, they share two observations: The buying power of the very rich is greater than a decade ago, and this customer seems to be getting younger. Demand for the $1,000 dress or $10,000 gown is far from waning.
"I think it's the whole Hollywood-entertainment syndrome. No limits," says John Martins, general manager of Neiman-Marcus, Beverly Hills, where he says the median customer age is 37.
"Prices get higher and higher, and I ask: 'Where's it going to stop?' " says Tommy Perse, owner of Maxfield in West Hollywood. "But the clients who come in put the garments on their backs. They look in the mirror. And if it's fabulous, they buy it."
But selling high-priced fashion is more than bartering the "fabulous." It's an intangible mix that includes service, atmosphere and the touchy matter of snob appeal. A wet bar or the lure of cappuccino no longer is the exception. Many retailers bring in lunch, so the high-rolling client needn't miss a beat in the dressing room. They call clients at home to report new arrivals. They send clothes to the house for inspection.
Amen Wardy, the plush Newport Beach designer boutique, sends wares to clients in a "clothesmobile," the deluxe van owner Wardy bought this year to service far-flung customers in Santa Barbara or Palm Springs. He arrives at a home at 9 a.m. with clothing, shoes and accessories, he says, and, "She comes out in her driveway and does her shopping." Altered clothes are delivered a couple of days later.
Bijan on Rodeo Drive, which claims to cater to 'the wealthiest people in the world . . . not just your average millionaires," also makes house calls--by plane, Vice President Jeffrey Starr says.
Owner and designer Bijan Pakzad recently flew to Geneva in his private eight-seater, Starr says, because a client in that city had gained 10 pounds and no longer fit in his formal wear.
"Bijan went over there with his staff of head fitter and several assistants," Starr reports. "He rented a beautiful suite of rooms. Everything was made, fit and finished so the gentleman could have it all the next day."
For the chance to buy $35 socks, a $2,200 suit or a $2,400 denim jacket lined in leather, the customer doesn't stroll into Bijan's "showroom," as Starr calls it. He makes an appointment. Bijan may have four customers a day, he says. Or fewer.
"Nobody may come in the whole day, and then at 5:30 p.m. we'll get a phone call that an ambassador from a South American country that is close to the United States is coming with his entourage. He may be the only customer for the day, but he may spend $75,000."
All that may sound intimidating, but no one in the game of selling pricey fashion likes to admit that snobbery comes into play. At Saks Fifth Avenue--which General Manager Martin Fischer says caters to a wide spectrum of people, including the wealthy--management has no patience with uppity salespeople.
"If I ever have a complaint of that kind of service, that salesperson is going to change attitude or quickly be out," Fischer says. "There is only one job we have, and that is to stimulate the customer."
Torie Steele, who owns a row of designer boutiques on Rodeo Drive, including Valentino, Ferre, Versace and Krizia, also insists snobby is out, friendly is in.
"The clothes are intimidating enough--the prices," says Steele, adding: "It's very hard to get out of here without spending at least $1,000--lowest." Her top-priced item is a $200,000 Fendi fur. "I mean, our salespeople could be intimidated by the clothes."