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."