01.13.09

Bargain Hunting in Beverly Hills

How hard is the recession hitting the glamorous stores of Rodeo Drive? Let’s put it this way: José Eber now shops at Kmart, darling.

Remember the classic 1986 comedy, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, which dealt with the foibles and excesses of the supremely well-to-do? It now seems eerily prophetic: The fabled enclave is in a meltdown. Recession has come to one of most exclusive and expensive shopping spots in the world, and even the high net worth crowd is feeling the crunch.

All this came into focus for me when I went to have my hair blown dry at José Eber’s stylish emporium on ritzy Rodeo Drive. José—a flamboyant, gregarious Frenchman with below-the-shoulder hair and variety of made-to-order cowboy hats—caused a sensation when he styled Farrah Fawcett’s sexy, windblown look and created the wash-and-wear hair revolution in the in the mid-’70s. Over the years he has coiffed the who’s who of Tinseltown and still tends to the timeless divas: Cher, Elizabeth Taylor, Raquel Welch, and Ann-Margret. Other salon devotees include Heather Locklear, Catherine Zeta Jones, Julia Ormond, Clint Black, and Tom Selleck. He is regularly defined as “Hollywood Hairdresser” by The New York Times crossword puzzle.

“Darling,” Eber said in his inimitable French accent, “In the ’80s and ’90s everything was possible, over the top. I never for a second thought things would change.”

I had not seen him since I wrote a magazine story on him many years ago, so when we started talking I was truly startled by his frank admission that things were so bleak throughout the 'hood.

“Darling,” he said in his inimitable French accent, “In the ’80s and ’90s everything was possible, over the top. I never for a second thought things would change. Not in Beverly Hills. But oh my god, in September we started to ask where are our clients? We started calling them saying, ‘We miss you. What is going on?’”

He discovered everyone, even the wealthiest, were retrenching, stretching out their cuts and applying their own hair color and makeup. There was what he calls a “domino effect” on the whole of Rodeo Drive. Behind their gilded doors, Valentino, Dior, Dolce and Gabbana all started to ask the same question: What happened to the shopaholics? Tiffany, Louis Vuitton, and Cartier are way down, according to Jose, the latter offering $1,000 off any purchase over $5,000. “It used to be cool to say, ‘no problem.’ Not anymore. We’re all in this together. We have a crisis,” he confided.

I was especially surprised because over the holidays Rodeo Drive seemed deceptively festive. It was decorated with massive Baccarat crystal chandeliers suspended from Royal palms encircled with tiny lights; and loud speakers blared Dean Martin crooning, “let it snow, let it snow.”

There were plenty of sightseers, many sporting UGG boots, clowning and taking pictures of each other in front of legendary stores—but that was it. Despite the 50 to 70 percent bargains, retailers reported sales were sluggish and I saw few shopping bags on the streets. Restaurants and hotels were not booked.

(To emphasize the point, The Ivy, probably LA’s trendiest watering hole, was still accepting reservations for New Year’s Eve on December 30. A year ago it would have taken months, plus a major boldface name, to land a table at the restaurant for the 31st. On the same night Tracey Ross, a force in the LA fashion world, closed her boutique, a mecca for movie stars, because so many of her high-profile clients were getting freebies straight from designers. She could no longer compete with department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, which had begun slashing prices by 75 percent as early as last October. More signs of the times: The only places I saw lines were at Crumbs, a popular cupcake shop, and Nate & Al’s, the venerable deli.)

To cope with this sinking economy, José told me he has abandoned his hedonistic lifestyle and forsaken all the luxury brands he once craved. Instead of Hermès, he has discovered Kmart, where his close friend and client, Jaclyn Smith, a former Charlie’s Angel, has a moderately priced line of clothing, and he has unearthed a variety of great deals, including Tshirts—he is wearing one which cost $9, and inexpensive underwear. “Who needs $40 underpants?” he queries.

In the salon, to help attract patrons, he has devised a clever mix of relatively inexpensive “quick fixes.” Hair-color revival, ten minutes, $40. Cocktail makeover, 20 minutes, $50. Hair extensions with sparkling crystals, ten minutes, $25.

As for his own $500 haircuts, he maintains they are worth the price because they last for 10 weeks. “That’s only 200 bucks a month.” A year ago, one of his house calls was worth $5,000 for half a day. Now, like most other personal services around town, it is negotiable, depending on the time involved. “If it’s on a regular basis I give them a deal,” he says.

With unusual candor he told me about a Christmas gift from a celebrity, who usually gave him expensive watches or upscale gift certificates. This time there was no glitz involved. She presented him with a Whole Foods gift card. “A year ago I would have said is she crazy? Do I need this? Now I’m absolutely thrilled!”

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist, who specializes in profiles and contemporary culture. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Currently she writes for The Washington Post, Time and Forbes.