Britons abandon dignity for bargains

January 06, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

LONDON -- Britons abandoned decorum, dignity and their customary reserve yesterday in a fierce scramble for bargains at the traditional January sale at Harrods, the world-famous department store.

Richard Gere, "Hollywood heart-throb" in the throbbing prose of Harrods press agents, arrived in a 1931 Rolls Royce to open the sale at 9 a.m -- precisely, because every minute counts enormously.

"We have to open on the minute," said Michael Cole, Harrods elegant spokesman. "We make more than 16,000 pounds [$24,000] a minute, a million pounds [$1.5 million] an hour. If we start a minute late, we lose 16,000 pounds, and we can never make it up."

Mr. Gere, with two Tibetan monks in saffron and raspberry robes in tow, briefly toured the store with an entourage of photographers, reporters and admirers twittering along behind.

He wore an open-neck, black polo shirt, a long black coat, gray trousers, black shoes and an amiable air.

"Hmmm, he's rather yummy," remarked Louise Keller, 25, a manager in the women's sportswear department.

Mr. Cole allowed as how two Buddhist monks had never arrived at Harrods in a Rolls Royce before. The monks named Chemi Dorgi, a lady, and Wanchen Dargay, a gentleman, neither of whom spoke English, looked placid and bemused.

Mr. Gere, the star of "An Officer and a Gentleman," "Pretty Woman" and "Sommersby" and the husband of Cindy Crawford, is said to be a Buddhist.

He donated his 50,000 pound ($75,000) celebrity appearance fee to Survival International, a worldwide movement to support oppressed tribal peoples. Mohamed al-Fayed, the Egyptian multimillionaire who owns Harrods, coughed up another 25,000 pounds for Mr. Gere's Foundation for the Aid to the Tibetan People.

"Having just returned from Tibet," Mr. Gere said, in a prepared statement, "I am saddened to report that the Chinese policies of systematic genocide against the Tibetan people are continuing unabated. The human suffering is unabated.

"I call upon all our friends around the world to speak out against this brutal Chinese occupation of Tibet."

After a brief and unsuccessful attempt at an impromptu news conference drowned out in the noisy nattering of photographers, he retired for breakfast with Mr. Fayed in the executive dining room.

"I'm sure he'll have a few lentils and things," said a photographer. Mr. Gere is also said to be a vegetarian.

But shoppers did not seem concerned about the plight of Tibetans.

They were surging through the store, snapping up Junior Gaultier sweats reduced from about $65 to $38, Levis 501s at $44 (40 per cent off), Harrods' Furfelt Trilby Hats chopped from $73 to $44.

Harrods, a huge Edwardian edifice brilliantly outlined with 11,000 light bulbs all year round, is one of the world's largest department stores, with about 25 acres of selling space on seven floors.

Now 144 years old, it's as much tourist destination as upscale shoppers' paradise. It ranks with Buckingham Palace, Madame Tussaud's Waxworks and the Tower of London.

Mr. Coles said 300,000 people would turn up by the end of the day; 35,000 shop on a "normal" day.

"In July," he said, "we made 9 million pounds [$13.68 million] in 11 hours. I think that's a world record. No store in the world can match that."

He thought Harrods might beat that on Saturday, which will be the biggest day of the January sale.

Everything was alleged to be a bargain. But not everything, or even very much, was cheap. Dunhill ties at three for 93 pounds ($141) weren't inexpensive; neither were Bruno Magli pumps at 95 pounds ($145).

But the David Morgan diamond necklace at 49,000 pounds (about $75,000), reduced from 98,000 pounds, was called the best deal in the store.

Harrods no longer sells exotic animals, Mr. Cole said. But Harrods, he said, once did supply Ronald Reagan with a baby elephant for a party when he was governor of California.

As Mr. Cole reconstructs the event, Mr. Reagan made the phone call himself:

"Is this Harrods?"

"Yes."

"The store that sells everything?"

"Yes."

"Do you have an elephant?"

"African or Indian?"

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