Sao Paulo – I’m in a hatchback whizzing through Brazil’s biggest metropolis, having just met the effervescent Paulista who’s jetting me to one of the most exclusive stores in the world.
A friend of a friend of a friend – someone I met at a book launch in Toronto – told me that a special invite was required to get in and hooked me up with Maria. She runs a travel agency catering to the wealthy and winds up being the key to Daslu.
“Can you believe this used to be a favela?” she says, using the Brazilian word for slum. “They moved the poor people out.
“This area, it was nothing until five years ago, and now look at it – all high-tech companies.”
There are gleaming office towers everywhere. Suddenly, we make a right at a long driveway almost four lanes wide and stop at a guard post with a steel rail that lifts when my host swipes her black card.
We approach a creamy six-storey Italian villa. Maria pulls the hatchback in front and a valet takes over. We are greeted by a cordon of six men in suits and we enter.
Daslu was created in 1958 by two rich women who started selling clothes to their friends out of a garage. They moved into a shop and attracted more customers with their impeccable service.
The desire for bling ballooned during the 1990s, and the store grew exponentially. In 2005, Daslu moved into its new digs, more than 17,000 square metres of excess.
It’s all marble and glass inside. Young salesgirls languidly look us over. A sign declares a Chanel sale.
The sales clerks only come to you when requested. All around, women dressed in traditional black-and-white maid’s uniforms bustle about rearranging things.
“They’re not supposed to speak to you. They just put things away,” Maria whispers to me.
In a sunlit atrium, a helicopter hangs from the ceiling. The store has a helipad, allowing clients to avoid São Paulo’s legendary gridlock.
Rows upon rows of shoes, handbags and belts beckon. A warren of rooms holding designer clothing (Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vuitton) makes the store seem cosy. Every tag gives me sticker shock: $660 for a button-down shirt, $4,995 for a bag, $40,000 for a Cartier watch.
“This, it’s ridiculous, no?” Maria says rhetorically. She points to another handbag. “That’s your trip to Brazil!”
We continue our tour: the china section, a wine shop, three restaurants and, amazingly, on the fourth floor, four shiny black cars on display. We pass a Gap and Banana Republic – “for the teenagers,” says Maria – and stop briefly to buy a couple of $3 truffles at the chocolate shop.
At the entryway to some rooms, ceramic dogs with collars stand guard and a sign reads “Men Not Allowed.” This is new.
“When you go to these rooms for women only, you are allowed to undress and try on whatever you like right on the spot,” explains Maria.
I ask who comes here.
“A person must be extremely rich to be here on a Tuesday afternoon,” Maria notes. “Many politicians come here.”
The salesgirls look bored. They outnumber the buyers five to one. Don’t be fooled, though – this department store is a money-maker. Retail experts estimate Brazilians spend more than $2 billion a year on luxury items, a majority of that in São Paulo.
That’s astonishing in a country where the average wage is $125 a month and millions live on less than $2 a day.
After two hours, I’ve had enough. Seeing this excess makes me want to pile back into Maria’s hatchback and drive away.