Lifestyle

For Las Vegas' Elaine Wynn, a test of her taste

There aren't many women who can walk into a jewelry store on a Sunday morning and walk out five minutes later with a $24,000 pair of cognac diamond earrings to match their outfit.

But there aren't many women like Elaine Wynn.

"I need something daytime, sporty, fun," she says, trying on the dangling "sliced" diamond earrings. "When is Hanukkah?"

The wife of billionaire casino mogul Steve Wynn truly has the Eloise life, living in a villa on the grounds of the Wynn hotel with a staff to cater to her every whim, dining, working and, in this case, shopping on the premises and charging it all to a house account. Times may be tough, even in Las Vegas, but high-rolling fantasy is still the town's stock in trade. And you could think of Elaine Wynn's existence here as one part privilege, two parts "lifestyle suggestion."

It's her taste level as much as her husband's that informs the experience at their hotels. She has been director of Wynn Resorts since 2000, overseeing such details as staff uniforms (desk attendants wear "Chanel-like jackets" and dealers look "Varvatos-like," she offers), spa amenities and shopping.

Last week, her retail opportunities got even wider with the opening of Encore, a $2.3-billion hotel-casino-spa-shopping complex the Wynns are unveiling amid a historic recession, a real test for the fantasy that's worked so well in the past.

The project, billed as the Wynn hotel's "sexy little sister," includes several boutiques -- Hermès; the new Chanel Ultra-Luxe boutique (the first in the U.S.); the edgy multibrand Ensemble with new styles by Ossie Clark, Thomas Wylde and Philipp Plein and vintage finds such as a 1966 Paco Rabanne Lucite and metal chain-link dress ($10,780); In Step, a temple to over-the-top shoes such as Nicholas Kirkwood's platinum crocodile spaceship-like stilettos ($7,995); and Wynn and Company Jewelry, home to those sliced diamonds.

It's more excess in a time of less. And Vegas is already hurting. Barneys New York, Chloé, Christian Louboutin and the rest of the new Shoppes at the Palazzo that opened earlier this year were deserted last weekend. So were the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace (except for a "Girls Next Door" book signing), where clerks said it had been a very tough few months.

On the other hand, this may be the only place left on the planet where excess is still socially acceptable, where it's OK to order the Perrier-Jouët, book a chauffeured Rolls-Royce for a night out or walk out of a boutique with a jumbo Louis Vuitton shopping bag.

The real trouble came when we all started behaving like high rollers all the time.

Elaine Wynn put a good face on the timing of Encore when we met to tour the shops before they opened to the public last Monday. The Wynns had originally planned a black-tie gala opening, but they scaled back to a businesslike affair more in keeping with the times. "We don't know where this is going, or how long it will last," she says. "Our basic financial model is solid -- we don't build buildings that aren't paid for already . . . We have to continue to do what we do better than before."

Chances are, that won't be easy.

Impeccable wardrobe

Wynn, or Mrs. Wynn, as her staff calls her, is a young-looking 66, with wavy blond hair that's tended to by a hairdresser she shares on occasion with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. She has a spectacular wardrobe that's more old money than new -- heavy on Oscar de la Renta gowns, Valentino and Armani suits, Lamberston Truex and Chanel totes by day, VBH purses by night, Manolo Blahnik 70 mm heels and boots -- with the odd funky Alexander McQueen belt and Tuleh blouse thrown in. And she buys most of it herself. (It was she, after all, who persuaded De la Renta and Blahnik to open stores at the Wynn Esplanade, their only retail spaces in Las Vegas.)

"She is one of the pillars of well-dressed women in Las Vegas," says De la Renta. "Elaine always looks unbelievably put together in an effortless way."

She has quite a jewelry collection too, including the 231-carat Wynn Diamond that her husband bought her in August. It's the largest stone ever set by Cartier. Not that she'd ever wear it. One senses she's even a little embarrassed by it.

"Nobody would pay any attention to the person wearing that stone," she says. "It's almost like a blinking light. It's meant to be a thing of nature." (It was on display Monday at the opening of Encore.)

Walking through the shops in the complex, the "first lady of Vegas," as she is sometimes called, proves to be extremely knowledgeable about fashion, but comfortable in her own style.

It's rare to see her flashing a logo. "I like some anonymity to what I wear," she says before pausing in front of a heart-shaped Chanel purse in a store window. "But I would make an exception for this. I'm a sucker for black and white."

At Ensemble, she can appreciate a studded black tote bag emblazoned with the word "Wild," but would never, ever carry it.

The inventory, she notes, was ordered before the bottom fell out. Many things are timeless and elegant, but others are "aspirational" and "consistent with our theme that everything is a gallery," Wynn says. "If people can't afford to indulge themselves, they can still appreciate the artistry."

Las Vegas may not be the sort of place where shoppers ask for their merchandise in discreet bags to avoid the new stigma of spending too conspicuously. Still, there's no ignoring economic realities, and even Wynn admits to being more restrained.

"I think twice about whether I need this fourth pair of black shoes. We are all caught in this crossfire. We don't need to be extravagant, but then we start to realize if we don't spend, who is? That total stoppage is counterproductive. We do have to continue to consume, but just be more thoughtful."

'Quiet, still force'

Wynn doesn't want her interest in clothes to define her.

She was so impressed with Michelle Obama after they met earlier this year that she broke with her John McCain-supporting husband to campaign for Barack Obama.

"I'm a serious-minded person," she says, launching into an explanation of her true passion, philanthropic work, which includes chairing the national board of the stay-in-school organization Communities in Schools. (The Wynns have two adult daughters.)

"She's this quiet, still force," says the singer Phyllis McGuire of the McGuire Sisters, who has known the Wynns since they arrived in Vegas in the late 1960s. McGuire remembers seeing Wynn at a Nevada Ballet Theatre fundraiser in January in a feather-flocked De la Renta fishtail skirt and Bill Blass blouse. "She looked like a princess. But she was so unaware."

Indeed, Wynn would have you believe her Cinderella moments are few and far between. Every morning, she walks the golf course for exercise, arriving in the executive offices in sweat pants, a baseball cap and no makeup if it's not, as she put it, "a show-off day." But more often, her uniform is a tailored, understated suit and flats.

"Believe it or not, the women who live here are very fashionable," she says, winding her way through the casino floor. "They have wonderful taste, more experimental and colorful than in New York. But they shouldn't be confused with visitors who come here and feel they have permission to wear god-awful things."

Yes, even Wynn gets Vegas fatigue. "Our Sun Valley home is a contrast, natural and beautiful. That has always been my salvation."

And that Idaho retreat is where she's headed until New Year's Eve, when the Wynns traditionally host a party for 1,200 of their nearest and dearest. This year, it's tartan-themed. "If there is any night people have an excuse to go back to being frivolous, silly and extravagant, it's New Year's Eve," she says.

She's thinking of wearing last year's plaid McQueen dress trimmed in black lace, with a full-length Chanel coat bought this fall.

But not those cognac diamond earrings.

"They're inventory," she says.

By the next morning, they had been returned to the store.

booth.moore@latimes.com

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