Crystals at CityCenter opens doors to Vegas’ big spenders

Within minutes of entering Crystals, the new super-luxe shopping complex at CityCenter, Bob and Elayne Kirkwood -- tourists from Chilliwack, Canada -- have already made a couple of telling observations.

“There’s no McDonald’s,” Bob says. “No Wal-Mart, either.”

Elayne’s analysis may be even more useful to the middle-class masses.

“It’s a good place to stand outside and look inside,” she notes, peering through the window of Swiss jeweler De Grisogono. Her impression is amplified when she discovers that the diamond-and-emerald necklace atop a revolving pedestal -- on the other side of the glass -- is priced at $777,000.

“Wow!” is all she can say before moving on to the next store -- or, more accurately, the next window.

A couple of weeks after its opening in early December, Crystals is attracting plenty of window shoppers like the Kirkwoods. But there is an obvious dearth of visitors carrying shopping bags bearing the names of such upscale retailers as Roberto Cavalli and Carolina Herrera. After all, this isn’t the Champs-Élysées, the Via Montenapoleone or Fifth Avenue. This is Las Vegas Boulevard, a street much better known for flashy casinos than opulent boutiques.

But now, in time to welcome the revelers who flock to Vegas for New Year’s, there’s a new option in town.

“There’s a lot of people -- like my friends, for instance -- that don’t like coming here because they think it’s all about themed gambling houses,” notes Michael Louve of Santa Cruz, who visits Vegas two or three times a year. “This offers something, I think, completely different.”

“Completely different” doesn’t even begin to explain Crystals, which its developers prefer to call a “shopping and entertainment district” instead of a “mall.”

Regardless, the development has indelibly changed the landscape of the Strip, both literally and figuratively.

“The architecture is just incredible,” Louve says. “The design is unbelievable.”

Indeed, the bold, multifaceted facade beckons; indoors, the visual delights continue. Guests are greeted just inside the front doors by ever-evolving shafts of ice that rise from the floor and are illuminated by colored lights. Farther along, visitors admire a floral carpet before pulling out their cellphones to snap pictures of playful waterspouts whirling inside tall glass columns.

At its core, though, Crystals isn’t about flowers or fountains. It’s about shopping -- serious shopping. The kind where the adage, “If you have to ask how much it costs . . . " quickly springs to mind.

The shopkeepers appear amused when someone does pose the question.

“It’s not expensive. It’s 36 or 38,” says Giovanni Mattera, De Grisogono’s vice president, as he displays a one-of-a-kind gold watch encrusted with diamonds.

No, the store manager corrects his boss, it’s not priced at 36 or 38. It’s 41. And that’s not 41 hundred -- that’s 41 thousand.

“For our collection, that’s not so bad,” Mattera says with a chuckle.

“Our clientele are people who are looking for something unique and precious. People who have this kind of income want something that they can’t find on anybody else.”

De Grisogono has just one other U.S. location, on Madison Avenue in New York. However, the jeweler is far from the only high-end retailer drawn to Las Vegas through Crystals.

Las Vegas “is a leisure place where people want to forget about normal life for the period they’re here,” says Yves Carcelle, chief executive of Louis Vuitton. “They want to live another life. They want to enjoy.”

With 14,000 square feet on three levels, Vuitton’s new location is more than three times the size of its store in the Forum Shops at Caesars. It’s the company’s largest store in North America and among the five biggest in the world.

“We needed one place which would represent completely the brand,” Carcelle says. In addition to its trademark bags, the store stocks ready-to-wear clothing for both men and women, accessories and jewelry. A “casino trunk” -- a replica of an old steamer trunk brimming with various gaming necessities -- rotates inside a glass enclosure on the mezzanine. One of only two made (the other is in the Macau store), the trunk retails for $107,000.

Carcelle and other executives at the high-end retailers said that while they aren’t immune to the recession, they continue to fare relatively well. Earlier this year, for instance, the aforementioned Forum was identified in a U.S. News and World Report study as being among the most profitable shopping centers in the country and it remains at 100% occupancy despite the recession.

Antonio De Matteis, the chief executive of Kiton, who has flown in from Italy to open his second store in America, believes that “price is not so important.”

“Much more important is the quality of the product,” he continues, obviously echoing the sentiment of his well-heeled customers who don’t balk at spending $3,000 for a pair of men’s brown leather slip-on shoes.

To the untrained eye, they look like a pair of penny loafers. But, as De Matteis explains, Kiton makes only about seven pairs of shoes a day -- fewer than 2,000 pairs a year -- and those are distributed among its shops throughout the world.

With their roots mainly in Europe, the fashions at Crystals bear a distinctly foreign flair.

“It is a little more eccentric and eclectic,” says Cliff Hunt, head of retail and merchandising for British clothier Paul Smith. “It’s more detailed and a little bolder in color.

“We find in America that there’s a great core customer that ‘gets’ what we do and appreciates what we do. But there’s [also] that customer that often says, ‘I couldn’t possibly wear that myself.’ ”

While a colorful pair of men’s striped socks costs just $30, trend-setting suits from Paul Smith’s runway collection are in the $3,000 range.

“Once you get [Americans] to try it on and buy one piece, then they get the confidence,” Hunt says. “Hopefully, people will say, ‘That looks fabulous. I love that on you.’ ”

While fashion may be at the heart of Crystals, the place also has a cultural soul.

Tucked between Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, the French publishing house Assouline invites browsers to its small shop, which sells both rare books and its own titles.

“All of our books are about style,” says Prosper Assouline, the owner. The bestseller so far at his Las Vegas location seems fitting: “Vintage Cocktails” features superb photographs of 65 mixed drinks, along with the traditional recipes.

Across a skywalk from the main mall, three acclaimed artists -- Dale Chihuly, Rodney Lough Jr. and Richard MacDonald -- have opened galleries. MacDonald hopes they will be the genesis of a “gallery row,” helping introduce visitors to the world of fine art.

“CityCenter has given Las Vegas an opportunity to include art as part of the culture,” he says with pride.

Twenty-six stores have opened this month. A nightclub owned by actress Eva Longoria Parker will welcome its first guests on New Year’s Eve. About a dozen more stores, plus several restaurants, plan to launch in 2010.

“I think any city would be proud to have this, and especially Las Vegas,” says Louve, the visitor from Santa Cruz. “It’s all very, very impressive.”

With 500,000 square feet of retail space, Crystals has plenty of room for further expansion.

McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, however, need not apply.

Crystals is open daily from 10 a.m. to midnight. The shops will close at 7 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.