Michael and Mickey, two New Yorkers who think Las Vegas is not far from heaven, are beside themselves when I tell them where I'm headed. "Make sure you go to the buffet at the Paris—it's the best food!" Michael says. "Ride the roller coaster at New York-New York. It's sickening!" urges Mickey. But I'm not interested in all-you-can-eat extravaganzas or campy rides. I'm hitting Vegas for the shopping.
Truth be told, I have never been much of a high roller, unless you consider dropping four figures on an acid green Christian Dior coat a form of gambling (and it was marked down!). The way I see it, those gaming tables are mere impediments to slow my path from one hotel mall to the next. On the other hand, maybe shopping is the ultimate game of chance—laying down your money in hopes that a big purchase will change your life. Actually, it's surprising that Vegas didn't become a shopping Eden a long time ago: Wouldn't a town where money loses all meaning, where ordinary people spend hours at the tables—up a thousand, down a thousand—be the perfect place to turn those winnings into, say, a rhinestone-encrusted Judith Leiber reticule or a velvet YSL pantsuit?
Better late than never. Vegas is now in the grip of serious fashion fever: the Fashion Show mall, a city of glass and marble on the Strip, is, after three years, almost complete. And of course there's a lot more to buy than snow globes in the casinos themselves, where the miles of slot machines are flanked by shops so upscale—Cartier and Cavalli! Vuitton and Versace!—you might as well be on the Via Condotti or the Rue St.-Honoré, except for the persistent chirping of the slots and the occasional rush of coins into a plastic bucket.
Those sounds are humming in my ears as I check into the Venetian, drop my bags, and repair immediately to the hotel's lower depths, where I have every intention of reviewing its 100-plus Grand Canal Shoppes while gliding past them in a gondola. Rather than wait for a boat, I settle for a Campari at a café in the wildly fake Piazza San Marco (they forgot the pigeons) and take a look at my fellow Venetians strolling by: a pair of punks in love, with pink hair and matched piercings; a gaggle of J-Lo aspirants in Juicy Couture sweat suits; a very refined-looking lady with close-cropped silver hair wearing leather trousers; and her polar opposite, a petite woman in a T-shirt that reads if you think I'M A BITCH, YOU SHOULD MEET MY MOTHER. All of these people are clutching shopping bags: the punks have been to the Houdini Store, the J-Lo's like Ann Taylor, Ms. Silver Hair prefers Burberry, and the T-shirt wearer has picked up even more T-shirts at one of the Venetian souvenir shops.
I could easily join this retail horde—only a stupendously counterfeit sluice of three-foot-deep canal separates me from the Venetian's Jimmy Choo boutique—but I'm longing to begin at the Bellagio, where I know there is an outpost of Fred Leighton Rare Collectible Jewels. Fred Leighton! Jeweler to the stars! If my ideas about Vegas previously centered on two movies—Elvis's Viva Las Vegas (glitzy mid-century naughtiness) and Leaving Las Vegas (not a film that would make you want to come to town at all)—Fred Leighton represents the glamorous, haute-couture Vegas, as yet uncaptured on film.
The roiling mass of humanity I pass on the way to the Bellagio shopping arcade guides me into Fred Leighton, where the vitrines are full of diamond bracelets that spell out JACKPOT and Victorian snake necklaces and—be still my heart—a vintage 18-karat Tiffany cigarette case decorated with enamel-and-gemstone playing cards. I waste no time, asking the saleswoman what I've been dying to know since I got to town: Do people hit it big at the tables, then come in and blow it all on jewelry?"It happened once," she says. "Someone won a million dollars and bought a sixteen-carat yellow diamond ring. But mostly we cater to people celebrating something special—a big birthday, a twentieth anniversary. Our customer isn't really the gambler. Typically, it's someone who appreciates unique jewelry." She leans forward. "And anyway, we're not on the list."
List?What list?She looks a little fishy, then lowers her voice and says: "Some of these Bellagio stores are on the 'hotel list.' They comp the high rollers." I leave Fred Leighton, mulling over this list business, and drift down Bellagio's corridor of dreams, a strange landscape featuring a pale green Prada shop full of those rosebud-printed satchels, and a burnt-orange Hermès boutique, its old-money aura holding firm despite the clinking and beeping that's never far away.
The next morning I get up early to visit the Fashion Show mall. When it's finished (next spring), the mall will hold a staggering 1.9 million square feet of shops; it already features seven department stores, 11 restaurants and food shops, 39 women's clothing boutiques, and three art galleries. It's everything a mall should be, but, frankly, I didn't come to Vegas for tasteful shopping, even if it takes place at Neiman's, Bloomie's, and Saks Fifth Avenue. I decide instead to go to Caesars Palace.
I love Caesars, though it reeks of chlorine from the gushing plumes at the Atlantis Festival Fountain, a water world that incorporates a vast tropical fish tank. I'm ready to begin a leisurely perusal of all that Caesars offers—you know, little places with names like Armani, Bulgari, Fendi, Gucci—when the lights dim and the security guard murmurs, "Stick around." Two seconds later a gigantic animatronic Neptune and his two chatty children emerge from the water. And what is his daughter wearing?A saucy costume worthy of Christina Aguilera, and not at all dissimilar to those displayed at Shauna Stein a few yards away, where the racks hold beaded bustiers and a wealth of heavily embellished jeans.
With new, strange ideas invading my head (maybe it's the chlorine, but I seem to be contemplating embroidered denim), I traverse the 100 or so miles of casino that separate me from the exit and go back to the Venetian. After Caesars, the Venetian is the soul of subtlety, even if there are jugglers and guys in Harlequin suits playing mandolins and the occasional gondolier bellowing "O Sole Mio." I determine that the time is right for Jimmy Choo, a store that is to feet what Fred Leighton is to wrists and necks. I fall into conversation with the guy behind the counter, who isn't at all surprised that I'm smitten with a pair of lime-yellow wedgies. He really opens up when I ask him about the list. "We see the same people at least two or three times a year," he tells me. "The husband will gamble away a couple million; the hotel will give the wife a hundred thousand in vouchers to spend at the stores. They don't care if they win or lose—they're here to have fun."
But even people not on the list are frequently seized with the desire to spend their winnings on, say, a pair of strappy satin heels with a crystal fasten. "They'll see a pair of our thousand-dollar boots and tell me they're going to take a turn at the tables and they'll be back," he says.
Since I am not on any list, and it's unlikely I'll make a killing at the tables (so far I've lost a grand total of eight bucks on the slots), I decide to take a look at the souvenirs at the Paris hotel before I open my wallet. After all, for pure frivolity, nobody can beat the City of Light, where the entire Rue de Rivoli is given over to miniature Limoges Arc de Triomphes, Eiffel Tower egg timers, and other dubious tchotchkes that I'm ashamed to admit I love.
The first thing I notice at the Paris is an amazing faux-iron verdigris awning meant to resemble Hector Guimard's Art Nouveau Métro station entrances, only here they tower over the slots, and instead of saying METROPOLITAIN they read 25 CENTS. The whole place, with its pretend cobblestoned streets and make-believe azure sky, feels like a Hollywood back lot, but who cares if it's about as French as the set of An American in Paris?For a lot of Americans that movie was France.
So, though I'm disappointed that the newsstand doesn't even have French Vogue (I mean, they could try), at my next stop, a place called Les Mémoires, I'm delighted to find an Eiffel Tower filled with bath salts, a miniature velvet boudoir pillow embroidered with OOH LA LA, and even a tiny bride doll with a Breton headdress. Now if only they had supplied her with a tiny slot machine—that would make the perfect Vegas souvenir.
LET'S MAKE A DEAL: SHOPS OFF THE STRIP
Not all the conspicuous consumption in Vegas takes place in the shadows of the slot machines: when Meital Grantz opened Talulah G. in a louche downtown neighborhood six months ago, her shop was across from a strip club.
Nevertheless her boutique, specializing in avant-garde fashion labels like Martine Sitbon, was such a hit that she closed the original location and moved Talulah G (702/737-6000) to the Fashion Show mall. Asked what downtown Vegas spots she recommends, Grantz confides that the Attic (1018 S. Main St.; 702/388-4088), which sells stylish secondhand clothes and psychedelic housewares, is a favorite.
Over at Las Vegas Life magazine, managing editor Amy Schmidt says she can't get enough of Unicahome (7540 S. Industrial Rd., Suite 501; 702/616-9280), where the owners are experts on modern furniture and accessories: Alessi kitchen gadgets, Egon Eiermann chairs, bookends designed by Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara. In the funky Neonopolis shopping center (450 Fremont St.), Schmidt likes Zinc (Suite 117; 702/385-0096) for whimsical items—picture frames, lighting fixtures—you won't find anywhere else. Out in Summerlin, about 20 minutes from the Strip, the Village Square Shopping Center features Suite 160 (9350 W. Sahara Ave.; 702/562-6136), with limited-edition Nike and Adidas sneakers; and Musette (9420 W. Sahara Ave., Suite 102; 702/309-6873), which stocks its shelves with Seven Jeans and Juicy Couture.
If you're intent on Vegas-themed knickknacks, consider a visit to either Serge's Showgirl Wigs (953 E. Sahara Ave., Suite A-2; 702/732-1015) or the Gamblers Book Shop (630 S. 11th St.; 702/382-7555). At the former, it's possible to turn yourself—at least from the neck up—into Elvis or Cher; at the latter, you can buy the ultimate Vegas keepsake, a copy of Blackjack Confidential, for just $15.
Bellagio Las Vegas DOUBLES FROM $159. 3600 LAS VEGAS BLVD. S.; 888/987-3456 OR 702/693-7111; www.bellagiolasvegas.com
Caesars Palace Las Vegas DOUBLES FROM $89. 3570 LAS VEGAS BLVD. S.; 877/427-7243 OR 702/731-7110; www.caesars.com
Fashion Show 3200 LAS VEGAS BLVD. S.; 702/369-8382; www.fashionshowmall.com
Paris Las Vegas DOUBLES FROM $129. 3655 LAS VEGAS BLVD. S.; 877/796-2096 OR 702/946-7000; www.parislasvegas.com
Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino DOUBLES FROM $239. 3355 LAS VEGAS BLVD. S.; 877/857-1861 OR 702/414-1000; www.venetian.com