Saturday, May 8, 2010

Acting the rich bitch

Even the poshest shops and most exclusive brands are quietly cutting their prices, says Susan Daly

In September last year, an extraordinary party hit the headlines. Around 300 employees of the London branch of Lehman Brothers gathered in a bar near their offices. The bank whose $600bn (€460bn) collapse triggered the global financial crisis then treated its remaining staff to an evening of expensive wine and pink champagne -- a toast of sorts on the anniversary of the crash.

Few of us non-bankers are willing to be seen swilling champagne in public but there are signs that the demand for luxury products is warming up. LVMH, the world's largest luxury goods firm, recorded a 13pc jump in sales for the first quarter of 2010. Asia is a big market now for the status symbols LVMH purveys -- Louis Vuitton handbags, Tag-Heuer watches, Moet et Chandon, Krug and Don Perignon champagne -- but the firm reported that their European sales are also on the up.

"While I wouldn't say we are out of the woods, there is a lot more confidence around," says Stephen Sealey, managing director of high-end store Brown Thomas. "The accessories business is quite strong."

Some consumer watchers say we are indulging a pent-up desire for nice things. We've paid down some of our personal debt and we're bored of deprivation.

Sealey says that his well-heeled customers have snapped up premium-price items like Victoria Beckham's clothing range without hesitation (and you won't get change from €1,000 for an entry-level dress in that collection), or to-die-for wrist candy like the Mulberry Alexa, named for celebrity clothes horse du jour, Alexa Chung.

But while Sealey says that Brown Thomas "will never go down the route of cut-price and lower-end lines", there is evidence that looking and living like a millionaire has never been more accessible for the average Joe and Josephine. Brands and service providers have been forced to find ways of drawing us back in after 18 months of starving for custom.

"I would say that 90pc of retailers are committed to special offers and extra value packages," says Alan Gilligan of, which has an online forum for consumers to tip each other off to bargain discoveries.

Brian Sargent, director of luxury holiday company Tropical Sky, says it is on track to double business this year over 2009 because punters are finding such value at the luxury end of the market. "We're talking a week in the Maldives at a four-star hotel, watersports, all-inclusives at €1,700 -- that kind of package would have been €2,800 last year," he says.

Fortune -- or saving one -- favours the bold, says Sargent.

"Many customers will now come in and say, 'What are you going to do for me for that price?' In the vast majority of cases now, you can negotiate another extra in there, maybe upgrade their hired car and so on. This year is a great one for travellers because the airlines have softened their prices and hotels are even more aggressively discounting."

Many areas of the luxury goods and services industry prefer the euphemism of "extra value" -- discounts are so crass, darling. So luxury hotels will offer extra nights of accommodation free, or include spa treatments in the overall price.

But there is no denying that in some cases, prices have simply been chopped.

Gilligan mentions one "very nice restaurant" in Dublin was recently offering a lunch deal that invited customers to toss a coin: heads, you pay; tails, lunch is free.

Golf clubs, too, the source of much snobbery and bragging rights in the Celtic Tiger years, are lobbing huge lumps off their prices. To take an extreme example, joining the exclusive Druids Glen club in Co Wicklow a few years ago would have involved finding a spare €50,000 for the joining fee. That fee has now been scrapped entirely and the annual membership costs €4,000.

An acquaintance tells me that he recently joined his local club for €5,000. His friend, who joined it in 2007, is raging because he paid €14,000 for his membership at the time. He feels like a Celtic cub who was sold a pup.

Were my acquaintance to toast his one-up-manship, he might plump for one of the many fine champagnes currently on special offer. Around Valentine's Day, a time when traditionally demand for bottles of bubbly kept prices at a premium, Bollinger was selling its Special Cuvee for a bargain €50 in O'Brien's off-licences. Bolly, one notes, is the only brand of bubbles that James Bond and Queen Victoria would allow tickle their tongue.

Pascal Rossignol, owner of Le Caveau speciality wine shop in Kilkenny city, says: "There have been some big discounts from the grands marques (the high-end champagne houses), fairly good discounts that we have been able to pass on to the customers."

We'll say cheers to that, but if you're going to look the Ab Fab part, you'll need to dress it too.

Kildare Village designer outlet opened in 2006, at the height of the spending frenzy here, but has managed to prove recession-resistant because contractually, everything has to be at least 33pc cheaper than recommended retail prices.

On a weekday morning, the newly opened Juicy Couture store there is packed with young, poker-haired women rifling through the plush velvet sportswear made famous on the pert backsides of stars like Eva Longoria, Paris Hilton, Jennifer Lopez and Madonna. This is not end-of-line, factory rejects stuff: Review kits itself out in a pair of on-trend, straight-leg DKNY dark denims for €69 and toys with a pair of classic Tom Ford aviators (one-third off the normal €300 asking price), as sported by the likes of Brad Pitt and Jessica Simpson.

The assistant in the sunglasses shop says that the Tom Ford line is proving particularly popular because they are understated and don't scream bling.

"People like their designer hit but they don't want to be seen flashing big logos any more. It looks fake," he confides.

And therein lies the key to tapping into the millionaire lifestyle: by all means look for the bargain but never, ever wear your labels on your sleeve.

LIVING THE DREAM: The fact that it’s a buyer’s market out there is nowhere more obvious true than in property. Belmayne, a housing development near Donaghmede in north Dublin, tried to sell itself as Millionaire’s Row in 2007 when it jetted in football star Jamie Redknapp and his wife Louise to promote their apartments and houses.
A new developer has since taken over the latest phase of Belmayne and representatives Hooke and MacDonald tell Review that “we’re not selling a dream – everything is on the ground and looks a million dollars”. Nonetheless, a two-bed apartment in Belmayne is now up for grabs for e175,000 (a one-bed cost e275,000 in 2007) and a three-bed house now costs e220,000 (it was e365,000 in 2007).
MICHELIN MUNCHING: Even Michelin-starred restaurants are having to tempt diners. Bon Appetit in Malahide is one such spot and is offering three courses and a bottle of wine for two people for e75.
If it’s the drama of fine dining that appeals, you could always head to Conrad Gallagher (he of Peacock Alley infamy) in his new Salon des Saveurs restaurant on Aungier Street where set menus start at e24.
CHEERS! Moet et Chandon’s most recent glossy campaign had movie star Scarlett Johannson balancing a champagne glass between her perfectly manicured toes. Try re-creating her pose with a bottle of the brand’s bubbly for e38 from “The same bottle of Moet was closer to e50 in mid-2008,” says wine importer Pascal Rossignol.
JEAN GENIES: A strange phenomenon of the Noughties was designers charging over e300 for the humble pair of jeans. Now, Rock & Republic denim, Victoria Beckham’s old favourite, has filed for bankruptcy. Paper Denim & Cloth brand, once worn by everyone from Cameron Diaz to the Olsen Twins, is relaunching as a reduced-rate line (around e80).
At the Kildare Village outlet of 7 For All Mankind, the ‘premium-denim’ brand favoured by Angelina Jolie, Reese Witherspoon and Ben Affleck, you can buy 3 pairs for the price of 2 (handy if you team up with two friends) and one e229 line is marked down to e69.
READY FOR YOUR CLOSE-UP? The modern equivalent of the oil painting over the mantlepiece is the photostudio session. If airbrushing is good enough for celebrity cover girls like Kate Winslet on GQ and Demi Moore on W magazine… The Photography Studio in Harold’s Cross, Dublin is offering a professional photo session for e220 (this service would have cost upwards of e400 three years ago according to
SLEEP ON IT: You might not be able to afford your own personal pillow-plumper, but Irish five-star hotel breaks are increasingly good value. The 5-star Hayfield Manor in Cork has in the past hosted the King of Jordan, the King of Malaysia, Mary Robinson and Mary McAlees, Pierce Brosnan, Diana Ross and Lionel Ritchie. Now they’ll put you up for two nights B&B, plus one 4-course dinner and a e50 voucher for spa treatments costs e228 per person. The same package was e350 in 2008.
ART ATTACK: When the financial crisis hit in late 2008, the market for expensive art sagged. While a Picasso might still be out of range for most of us, Dolan’s art auctions, the biggest provincial sales house, is now conducting their auctions without reserve prices. “I figure art should be accessible to a broader spectrum of the population,” says Dr Niall Dolan, “You should be able to come in with e300-e500 and come away with an interesting painting.” Dolan’s next auction is at the Marriott Hotel, Galway on Sunday, May 16.
GREENS WITH ENVY: Is there anything as civilized as a round with the boys, followed by steak and a fine Bordeaux in the club house? Golf club membership has dropped in price sharply at all levels. Luttrellstown Castle for example sported a mid-range annual fee of e7,000 in 2007, but is now asking for only e2,500 a year and is currently running a special rate of e1,500 for membership through the peak playing months of April to September.
AFRICAN QUEEN: Forget the Seychelles. Kenya, with its mix of beach and safari activities, is particularly popular with the likes of Bill Gates, Naomi Campbell and Bono. Lest we forget, it was in a villa in the south coast of Mombasa, Kenya, where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie first ignited their passion.
A combination of lower air fares and ‘added value’ accommodation deals have knocked down prices in the last year. “It’s not that it’s inexpensive exactly,” says Brian Sargent of “but Kenya and Zanzibar are coming in at e1,000 less per person, to about e3,000 all in.”
JOIN THE CLUB: There was whining from some members of Residence private members’ club on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin last year when it was suggested that the ailing business might be offering cut-price membership deals. It is the case that many of these private members’ clubs have cut fees in a bid to refresh member numbers in the past few years. The thing to ask yourself though before trying to haggle your way past the velvet ropes is: Would I join any club that would have half the Law Library as members?


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