PARIS -- It is just before 11 in the morning and already shoppers are crowding into the legendary store known as Hermes. From around the world they have come -- these devotees of the Hermes mystique -- with only one thing on their minds: to leave this chic shop on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore with the perfect Paris status symbol -- a $275 silk Hermes scarf.
Forget for the moment the fabled leather handbags and sublimely crafted gloves, the enamel bangle bracelets and silk ties that are also a part of the Hermes oeuvre; right now the action is at the scarf counter. Hermes-seekers are lined three-deep in front of the long, glass counter, watching hundreds of silken dramas unfold before them.
The Japanese tourists have staked out the spot where the scarves in pastel shades and pale hues are displayed -- colors that compliment the delicate features and lustrous dark hair of Japanese women.
The Brits, many of them fathers in Savile Row suits trying to convince their bored adolescent daughters they need an Hermes scarf, usually wander about in front of the subdued hues, the blacks and dark blues.
The Americans, who seem to prefer bold colors but usually wind up buying whatever the person next to them buys, push their way up and down the counter.
The French? Well, the French act as if they own the place.
Nationality aside, however, all Hermes customers have in common one thing: They approach the task before them with a seriousness of purpose that is breathtaking. Choosing an Hermes scarf, it seems, is the equivalent of selecting a painting. Shall I buy the Degas? Or the Matisse?
The true Hermes fan, it turns out, is not a customer but a connoisseur. And as with any connoisseur, they want to compare one thing with another. In this case, one scarf after another after another after another.
The saleswomen at Hermes understand this. Their philosophy is: If seeing a thousand scarves is necessary, it must be done. Without complaint, they pull out from under the counter several scarves at a time, flipping open each folded square with a thrilling motion of the wrist, one that produces the snapping sound of thick silk being unfurled.
So consuming is this process that, on this particular Friday morning, most of the shoppers seem unaware of an unpleasant situation building at the far end of the counter.
There, two women, one French and one American, have expressed an interest in the same scarf: a striking black-and-gold number. The problem arises when a saleswoman, with great existential sadness, explains that on this particular day only one black-and-gold "Selles A Housse" -- all the scarves have names -- is available. It cannot be helped, she says, helpfully.
Still, both women leave satisfied, thanks to some masterful stroking by the saleswoman. "Madame may find this scarf more necessary," she tells the loser in this contretemps.
Watching the two women exit, their elegant orange-and-brown trademark Hermes shopping bags swinging at their sides, is not unlike witnessing the end of a play.
A French farce, perhaps.
Indeed, an afternoon spent at Hermes is not unlike an afternoon at the theater. In its own way, the elegantly appointed and staffed shop is a stage set where scenes are played out: material appetites indulged, fantasies fulfilled and, sometimes as today, difficult compromises made.
Even the salesclerks become actors in the drama. There is a stylized, theatrical quality in the presentation of Hermes
merchandise. This is especially true when one moves from the relative democracy of the scarf counter to the absolute monarchy of: the Handbag Venue.
At Hermes, handbags are displayed in much the same way the Musee d'Orsay showcases its Toulouse-Lautrec pastels and Degas sculptures: in sealed, air-tight glass cases.
Of course, as any Hermes collector knows, the most coveted bag in the shop, perhaps the most coveted handbag in the world, is the Kelly bag. Named after Her Serene Highness, Princess Grace, the bag is satchel-shaped and latched with a tiny, gold lock, its key encased in a leather holder. Despite its price range of $3,200 to $11,000, there is a waiting list for some colors.
The Kelly is carried by the likes of Tina Turner, Kate Moss, Princess Caroline, Elle Macpherson and the Not-So-Serene Princess Di who, it is reported, had to wait six months when she ordered one in powder-blue ostrich skin.
Purchasing such a bag is, naturally, a probability for the very few; shopping for one, however, is always a possibility.
Perhaps the best way to imagine such a possibility is to examine one woman's foray into Kelly-bag Land.
The woman in question, an American -- we shall call her Madame S. -- enters the posh environs of Hermes and announces to a saleswoman: "I would like to see a Kelly bag."
Immediately, the saleswoman calls over an elegant young man. "Madame would like to see a Kelly bag," she tells him.