Satan's Shoes

The title of the film "The Devil Wears Prada" raises a question that has long troubled philosophers and theologians: Does Prada exist? How evil is Prada that it should be the fashion-forward footwear of the Unspeakable One, the Old Trickster, the Serpent-tongued Malefactor?

I decided to visit to the Prada store in Beverly Hills to find out.

But first, I thought it would be only polite to call Satan's shoemaker to ask permission. I reached out to Melissa Skoog, the company's PR emissary in New York, who when informed of my urgent call promptly refused to call me back. Later she would ignore my e-mails with equal vigor. When I finally got through to her, she was inexpressibly not interested in helping me, refusing to even let me in the store. "I just wouldn't feel comfortable with you interviewing our customers," she said, speaking in what sounded like Aramaic. "Especially without me being there."

Ah yes, the fashion world. The gist of Lauren Weisberger's book--which I read while waiting at a red light last week--is that the world of high fashion is full of toxic egomaniacs and money-grubbing, drunk-with-power neurotics raving at their underlings with impossible demands, crushing their spirits and feeding like vampires on their idealistic ambition. No, wait, that's the newspaper business. Anyway, the book is based on Weisberger's adventures as the sniveling thrall to real-life Vogue editor Anna Wintour. The book is a roman a clef--that's French for "bitch fest"--in which Weisberger's alter ego is named Andy Sachs and the infamous "Nuclear" Wintour is renamed Miranda Priestly. In the interests of faithfulness to the book, in the film the Andy Sachs character is played by a disgracefully homely actress named Anne Hathaway.

But back to my shopping trip. I drove to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, found valet parking and asked directions to the Prada store from a deeply tanned old lady with collagen-swollen trout lips. "Is whight over therr," she said. Clearly, my rendezvous with the Dark Lord was nearing.

However, I wandered past the Prada store several times before I found it. The store, designed by avant-garde architect Rem Koolhaas, is unmarked, which appears to be a coded signal of the brand's exclusivity. In other words, if you have to ask where the Prada store is, they don't want you as a customer. In this respect, Prada is rather like the local Moose lodge.

While searching for the Prada store, I wandered into several other Rodeo Drive haberdasheries such as Ferragamo, Ermenegildo Zegna and Dolce & Gabbana, which is a specialty store catering to starving color-blind child millionaires.

I had a feeling that Skoog, the Fallen Angel's PR person, had tipped off the Prada store that I might be dropping by, so I played it cool, wandering here and there, casually trying on obsidian-black five-inch stiletto heels, as is my habit. I confess I didn't exactly know what I was looking at. These flimsy scraps of leather don't look like they are worth $700 a pair, but hey, I'm no fashionista. It felt like staring into a fishbowl and wondering what the gouramis think of tube skirts.

While I shopped, I observed the customers. First thought: Weisberger might just as well have called her book "Hoochie Mamas in Mad-Short Denim Skirts Wear Prada." My guess is the Rodeo Drive store gets a lot of tourist traffic that the company would, if it had its druthers, have beaten and removed.

Finally I caught up with a couple of women walking out of Prada carrying a tiny bag. Laura Duncan, 35, with a mural tattoo on her left shoulder, had just bought silver metallic thigh-high stockings, news that required me to take a moment to collect myself. "They are really hard to get," she said. The Prada sales clerk--named "Shiny"--had been chasing down a pair for a week, and finally got them in. "I think they have good service," said Duncan, who is a professional stylist. "You know, in L.A. fashion there's a lot of phonies, with the celebrities, the stylists, photographers and publicists," she said. "But once you get beyond all that, I think high fashion enriches your life. It's about being beautiful."

Well, that gave me a lot to think about, and I'm not just talking about the stockings. I guess the thing that gripes me about high fashion is the idea that owning it is an achievement in itself. As per the title of the movie, "wearing" Prada, Alexander McQueen or Manolo Blahnik is somehow performance art. I wear Hugo Boss = I cure cancer.

Much was on my mind when I wandered into the Gucci store to take the load off. A half hour later, I walked out with a pair of $400 Gucci loafers with chrome horse-bit buckles. So there you have it. The Devil can't be found at Prada. The Devil is a shoe salesman named Ash next door.

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