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PARIS — On a recent trip to the City of Light, I ventured into the Hermès flagship on Faubourg Saint-Honoré to have the battery replaced on my “H-our” watch and have a look around.
At first glance, there were scores of women preying on the scarf counter on the first floor, leafing through the printed silk squares and inquiring about additional colors. The fine jewelry section was upstairs, next to women’s apparel, and the environment was much more sedate. I was helped immediately by a male sales associate who was dressed impeccably in a suit and tie. He whisked my ragged timepiece away and 15 minutes later, returned it with a new battery and a bill for roughly $25 at current exchange rates. It was quick, courteous, efficient and relatively well priced. So far, so good.
After paying up, a perusal of the women’s clothing section was in order. There were many classic, luxe offerings, like wool Audrey Hepburn coats with wide sleeves to the elbow, the signature printed silk blouses, fur jackets, tweed skirts and wool trousers. I tucked a charcoal gray shirtdress and a bell-sleeved tweed coat under my arm and looked for help. A young saleswoman with a quick smile and unassuming manner materialized and led me to the dressing area apologizing for her English — which was actually flawless. Into the taupe dressing area we went. She ushered my husband to a couch and me into a stand-alone room shrouded by a heavy, beige curtain.
As I was trying on the Martin Margiela-designed apparel, she chatted away with my spouse — always a plus when you’re accompanied by a bored husband. Unfortunately, both the coat and the dress looked completely shapeless. The sales girl peered in, grimaced and agreed — although she did bring a sumptuous pair of long gray cashmere gloves to accent the coat, hoping it might change my mind.
After another whirl around the floor left me still empty-handed, I headed to the first floor, which housed accessories like handbags, scarves, jewelry and men’s ties and apparel.
Overwhelmed by the growing crowd at the scarf counter, I moved onto a small corner spot with some jewelry and additional scarves. At last, after fingering numerous items, a simple cashmere muffler for about $260 seemed like just the right buy. After deliberating for some time over the black or cream version, I opted for the black and asked a dismissive saleswoman for help. She eyed me warily, snatched the muffler from what I imagine she construed as my undeserving clutches, asked if I wanted a box, and walked briskly away.
What had begun as such a promising shopping experience upstairs quickly became annoying downstairs. The saleswoman returned, asked me to sign my receipt and handed me the gloriously elegant orange Hermès bag. Inside, the muffler was folded in what appeared to be an oversized plastic ziploc with Hermès printed on it. I skulked out rather unhappily.
The next day, with renewed optimism, I ventured to the Louis Vuitton store on the bustling Champs-Elysées. It’s interesting to find the Vuitton store on this crowded street, which feels like Paris’ version of Times Square with such large retailers as a Virgin megastore, a Disney Store, Sephora, Gap and Zara.
The Vuitton shop was filled with young Asian shoppers pouring over the latest handbags and small leather goods on the first floor. Up on two was a large shoe salon, the fall women’s collection and additional handbags, luggage and men’s wear. While several women were seated and trying on the monogram shine slingbacks, Damier pumps, checked ballerina flats and Vuitton’s version of a sneaker in leather, the women’s ready-to-wear area to the right was empty. I wandered into the barren department and looked through a well-edited selection of pencil skirts, thick coats, bomber and zippered jackets, parkas, delicate silk blouses and tanks. I picked up a herringbone pencil skirt and a black zippered skirt.
I stood there a bit aimlessly, waiting for the pack of saleswomen, dressed identically in black Vuitton pantsuits and Vuitton-monogrammed fanny packs (I’m sure there is a more elegant name for them, but that’s what they looked liked), who were chattering away. At long last, after glancing up inquiringly, one of them very nicely took me to an elegant dressing room. The black skirt actually fit beautifully, but my husband wasn’t keen on its sampling of zippers, so for $650 it was, sadly, a pass.
Next, I wandered into the handbag area and while the new, much-sought-after Takashi Murakami-designed bags from spring 2003 weren’t in yet, on display were monogrammed bags in a variety of styles. I settled on a monogrammed accessories pouch for $165. Again, I had trouble engaging the tittering sales girls into helping me, but once one came around, she was gracious and provided impeccable service.
She came back with my little purchase wrapped in the signature Vuitton coffee-colored wrapping and placed it within a larger bag along with two thick and glossy merchandise catalogs.
I left Vuitton much happier than Hermès.