When I glance through a copy of Vogue, I enjoy perusing the ads. For me, it’s a spectator sport: “I wonder how much that costs? Who buys this stuff? Who wears this stuff?” Clearly the target is not me. I shop at Goodwill and thrift stores now.
Sometimes I can’t even tell what the ad is selling. But for a long time, I’ve had a voyeuristic urge to see the shops whose wares are displayed. I finally found it, all in one spot in Honolulu. It’s the Ala Moana Center, the largest outdoor shopping center in the US.
The names on the shops are familiar, Fendi, Jimmy Choo, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Hermes, Diane von Furstenberg, Salvatore Ferragamo, Bvlgari (how do you pronounce the v?). One after another, the shops line the central square on the second level. Like the ads in the magazines, it was sometimes difficult to tell what a store was selling. The tower of steamer luggage in the window of Louis Vuitton – is that a display or can I buy one? What fun it would be to travel with a steamer trunk, if I could afford the help to hoist it around! Or I could use it as an end table. But are they for sale?
Before I could go in and ask that question, I suggested to the girls that we eat. They are Shoppers, so it was best to get dinner out of the way early.
We could have eaten at the food court. Now everyone knows what a food court is – half a dozen or more food franchises ringing a central group of tables. It’s convenient when you are hanging out with someone who has different food tastes than you. But this place had a food court that took up a good portion of the complex’s street level. It was huge – 31 different vendors. Some were well-known and familiar places, others were new to me, like Bangga Bangga (seafood), Donburiya Dondon (Japanese noodle and donburi – rice bowl shop), Jollibee (a fast food chain in the Philippines who is expanding overseas – that would be Hawai’i), Yummy Korean BBQ (headquartered in Honolulu), and Zagu Original Crystal and Pearl Shakes. I had to look this one up on Yelp: what the heck are Crystals and Pearl Shakes? But I kept finding reviews I didn’t understand. Finally this one by Wanugee N. from Pleasantville, CA, 2009, explained it all:
“Zagu is actually a Philippines based franchise . . . Original Crystal means Shaved Ice and Pearl Shakes means Boba Smoothies.
I ordered my favorite, Mango Smoothie with Boba (Pearls, Tapioca balls, Bubbles). Actually, bubbles refer to milk teas popular in Taiwan, due to the froth. Pearls refer to the Tapioca balls. Boba are Pearls . . . The Pearls were warmed and stayed soft in my iced smoothie, which is good.”
They even had a Poi place called the Ala Moana Poi Bowl. Despite the enticing opportunities to try something new, the crowd was large, it was near impossible to get a table, and the noise level in the food court was beyond bearable. Not only was the human cacophony loud, the fans/air conditioning throbbed even louder. So we opted for a restaurant on one of the levels above. It was very quiet, just what we needed after our long day of sightseeing.
After dinner, and headed for the center of the complex. The girls went their own way, promising to stick together. I continued my musings about the shops in this mall (the word hardly fits), pretty much where I left off: “I wonder how much that costs? Who buys this stuff? Who wears this stuff?”
It certainly wasn’t the clientele of the shopping center, who looked as ordinary as a crowd in any mall. Yes, there were lots of foreign tourists from around the Pacific Rim, mostly well dressed. But there were also groups of teens (almost all single sex groups), young couples, young families with babies or toddlers in strollers, and moms with tweens. This crowd wore flip-flops, sneakers, sandals, cowboy boots, ballet slippers, and platform heels, with a few high heeled boots thrown in for good measure. It was a crowd of shorts and blue jeans; no one was dressed up like the manikins in the shops. And few people carried shopping bags. But I can see the attraction of this shopping center. It was the place to be seen – just not in the exclusive shops. Most were quite empty.
It was also the place to see. Ala Moana Center was clearly on the cutting edge of display. The “7 For All Mankind” store showed off manikins with raised veins on their hands – first time I’d seen that. But does it help sell pants? Actually, I had to look this name up to learn that it is a premium denim brand founded by a group of famous guys I don’t know. It’s a brand (referred to as Seven, Seven Jeans or 7FAM), not a store. So why do they have a presence here with a store?
Other stores had very minimalist looking space. I couldn’t tell if that was to make them look exclusive or if the Great Recession caused a shift in the amount of inventory they could carry. Dior is a great example: they displayed one purse for every three feet of shelf space. This resulted in nine bags on one whole wall and thirteen on another. How can they continue in business with that? Their display window was just as stark: one jacket and one pair of shoes in the whole window.
Jimmy Choo was empty except for the two men in suits who were there to help ladies remove their shoes and lighten their wallets. They wore normal black shoes. Perhaps Jimmy employed men because customers would expect store personnel to wear the Choo shoes if they were women – and what salesperson could afford that?
Chanel had two stores, one with fine jewelry and perfume, and the other, across the courtyard, with bags (the celebrated Chanel Bag, of course) and women’s wear. Most of the salespeople were males in well-fitting suits. The store and window contained the iconic Chanel suit made famous by Coco Chanel: a wool jersey cardigan paired with a pleated skirt and a pullover top. When I was working, I would have liked to own and wear one, but chose not afford it – I was saving my money for retirement. Life is all about making choices.
As I wandered around looking mostly at the stuff in the windows, I noticed a theme: Dior – mostly bags, Prada, mostly bags, Coach – bags and matching shoes, Bottega Veneta – bags, Louis Vuitton – bags, Cartier – bags, Michael Kors – bags, Burberry – bags, Salvatore Ferragamo – sunglasses and bags, Fendi – bags and some clothes, Hermes – scarves, ties and bags, Bally – bags and some men’s suits at the back, A/X Armani Exchange – clothes up front and bags in the back, Tumi – briefcases and bags. I finally went into one of the stores, Tumi, and scoped out a bright purple bag – $395, and it wasn’t even leather!
Yes, some of these shops only sell bags. But that’s part of my point. How can an entire shopping center subsist on bags, bags, and more bags? And the funny thing is, leather doesn’t hold up well in Hawai’i – it mildews quickly. The salesperson in the Tumi shop told me they had to condition all the stock monthly to prevent mold from growing on it.
The bigger anchor stores had clothes – Macy’s, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus. I knew my daughter was looking for capris and wondered if she was having any luck. When I called her, she was looking at Sears. Yup, that’s my bargain-conscious girl.
As it turns out, the busiest store was not any of the famous Vogue ad players, but the Apple store. It contained row after row of plain wooden tables with customers pouring over products on them. Who could have predicted that five years ago?
And me? Where did I shop? I went to Bath and Body Works to get a little something for a friend. That was enough shopping for me.
For more essays on Honolulu and things to see there, see:
Highbrow Honolulu – Blaisdell Symphony Hall
Art History 101; Sad History 201 – Honolulu Museum of Art/ Iolani Palace
She could have been Queen – Bishop Museum
It could have been my Dad – Pearl Harbor
Not what we expected – Diamond Head and Waikiki
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