Vegas' grand designs


When it comes to shopping, Las Vegas is on its way to becoming the fashion capital of the West.

Even through the recession, luxury brands have continued to pour money into the $28.2-billion retail market, adding to what is already a smorgasbord of high-end offerings. Though the state's recovery will likely lag for months behind the rest of the country, Lanvin, Tom Ford, Donna Karan and Reed Krakoff all opened stores in Las Vegas in 2010, banking on exposure to the city's nearly 40 million annual visitors. Other brands such as Louis Vuitton and Prada built new, supersized boutiques, adding to the number of outlets they already have here.

These stores aren't targeting locals; they're targeting wealthy and foreign tourists. (Twelve percent of visitors to Las Vegas come from overseas.) The assortment of merchandise is sophisticated, even avant-garde at certain boutiques. And customer service can be over the top.

"Retailers look upon Las Vegas as one of the markets to be in," says Stephen P.A. Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. And he adds that the Caesars Palace Forum Shops still has the highest sales per square foot -- $1,400 -- of any shopping mall in the U.S. (In 2009, average sales per square foot at U.S. malls were $420, according to data from investment research firm Green Street Advisors that was reported in U.S. News and World Report.)

Opening a store here has also become a way to create brand awareness, Brown says, and having multiple locations in Las Vegas isn't so outrageous when you consider how difficult it is to move up and down the Strip. (Louis Vuitton has four stores in Las Vegas, Tiffany & Co., Dior and Chanel each have three, and Prada and Hermes have two.)

"You can't look at Las Vegas as one point in time. You have to look at it in terms of the long stretch," says Krakoff, the creative director of Coach who started his own namesake luxury brand in 2009. He opened his third boutique in the world at the Forum Shops in November, offering such items as a $1,790 beaver fur cardigan. "Las Vegas is great for a brand in its early phase. You have captive customers who are inclined to want to see something new."

If the experience of shopping in Las Vegas feels different, that's the point. You're likely to get an enthusiastic "Hello!" before you've stepped 5 feet into a luxury store, even if you happen to be toting a strawberry daiquiri.

"The training for salespeople is different," says Terri Monsour, a retail consultant who has worked with the Wynn Resorts and the Cosmopolitan. "First thing they teach you is not to judge a book by its cover. And always follow up a sale with a letter. ...This is a city where you can meet someone once and they will be your customer for life."

There seems to be nothing salespeople at luxury boutiques won't do. One evening, the manager of a designer boutique at the Forum Shops took a selection of pants to a guest's room so he could shop from his bubble bath, says Maureen Crampton, marketing director of the Caesars Palace mall. Efforts to personalize the shopping experience even extend to the window displays, which are often switched out depending on the headliner in town. There's "more flash when there's a headlining boxing match, for example," Crampton says.

"If there is a crazy special item, and only three were produced, most likely one of them is sitting in a Las Vegas boutique," says Jenna Doughton, a personal shopper whose clients include locals and tourists.

And a lot of business is done over the phone. "It's not uncommon for salespeople to get phone calls at 10 or 11 p.m. at night. A woman in New York can't sleep and she's obsessed with a dress. She's calling Las Vegas because it's the only place left in the world she can shop," Doughton says.

Although Vegas has always had numerous places to shop, it has only recently earned its place on the world fashion map. Kicking off the luxury boom in 1992, the kitschy, Roman-themed Forum Shops now has a high-low mix of tenants, including two Coach boutiques, the largest H&M; store in the world, Cartier, Versace and Ugg Australia, where you can buy $800 Vegas-themed, Swarovski crystal-encrusted sheepskin boots.

But the bellwether luxury retail development was Esplanade at Wynn Las Vegas. Opened in 2005, the Esplanade shops brought a new level of taste (and price tag) to Las Vegas, thanks to billionaire casino mogul Steve Wynn's then-wife, Elaine. At the time, she had to do a lot of arm-twisting to get brands such as Manolo Blahnik, Oscar de la Renta and Alexander McQueen to come here.

The Shoppes at the Palazzo followed in 2008, bringing Barneys New York, Christian Louboutin, Diane von Furstenberg, Catherine Malandrino and other big names to the market.

The newest entry is Crystals at CityCenter, which opened a little over a year ago and is as ostentatious-looking as the luxury stores and goods inside. With its dramatic, jutting ceiling planes and gleaming curved surfaces, Crystals aims to appeal to the shopper who is more interested in art and architecture than a Fall of Atlantis fountain show. And the directory of stores includes Balenciaga, Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Hermes.

"I call it Rodeo Drive under a roof," says Bob Chavez, chief executive of Hermes USA, who had "no reservations" about the project, and counts the boutique at Crystals among his top five performing stores in the U.S. (Hermes also has a location at Encore, and is planning to open a third store in Las Vegas this year.)

Crystals was certainly bustling on a recent Friday morning. At Hermes, a young woman was ordering an orange Birkin bag, and upstairs at Emilio Pucci, a mother tried on brightly printed tops while her husband and son sipped Champagne.

A Dior saleswoman was getting ready to make her second run of the day to the Dior store at Wynn, to fetch a pair of $770 platform satin heels for a fur coat-clad customer who needed them in a size 6 1/2. And in the mall's center court, which is full of design flourishes, tourists photographed themselves and their Louis Vuitton shopping bags in front of a carpet of red flowers.

The three-story, 14,000-square-foot Louis Vuitton store at Crystals is the French leather goods brand's largest in North America. From Las Vegas Boulevard, you can see panels embossed with LV logos that light up at night. Inside, visitors can ride the escalator up to the fine jewelry floor while gazing down at a 31-foot chandelier dangling "LV" logos, and a carved wood "handbag bar" featuring runway show pieces, including the $2,700 black sequin Fleur de Jais handbag. A custom-made roulette wheel encased in a Louis Vuitton trunk is available for special order.

The Fendi boutique comes equipped with a smaller version of Rome's Trevi fountain alongside furs and "Peek-a-boo" handbags. And the three-story Prada store has an entire floor dedicated to shoes, plus limited-edition Vegas-themed items for sale, including money pouches ($260) and key chains ($110 to $200) with dice and playing card motifs.

The hope is that the center will "shift the flagship shopping experience from the West Coast to Las Vegas," said Frank Visconti, president of MGM Resorts International Retail & Crystals at CityCenter. (CityCenter is a joint venture between MGM Resorts International and Infinity World Development Corp., a subsidiary of Dubai World.) "Southern Californians represent 40% of our visitors. We wanted to build something so that when a couple is sitting around thinking what they want to do for the weekend, he or she can say the stores are bigger here ... and it's more fun than trying to drive around L.A."

With the recently opened Stella McCartney and Harry Winston boutiques, the mall is at 81% occupancy. And now that the Cosmopolitan hotel and casino is open next door, Crystals is connected by pedestrian bridge to that property and the rest of the Strip.

Interestingly, the Cosmopolitan is the first luxury Las Vegas hotel and gaming property in recent years that has veered away from the luxury retail formula, instead bringing in eclectic (and comparatively affordable), first-to-Las Vegas retailers such as streetwear label All Saints Spitalfields, conceptual design mecca Droog and DJ Vice-owned sneaker store CRSVR.

It was a smart move, according to Pamela Joy Ring, founder of Las Vegas retail consulting firm Ring Retail Advisory. "There was a time when there was an aspirational shopper who had easy access to credit to trade up to luxury goods. But that's gone," she says. "And whether there are enough uber wealthy shoppers to support the rents and payrolls of all these luxury establishments remains to be seen."

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