Downstairs at Gucci the tourists were fingering the leather, but upstairs, Nancy Reagan was trying on inaugural clothes and eating chocolate-covered strawberries. "I can't tell you what she bought," said Carlo Celoni, the store manager who wears a gold pince-nez, "but it was all red."
A few doors down Rodeo Drive, at Giorgio's, Patti Davis Reagan had been inaugural shopping, too. Her purchases: a red Dior gown, and a Stephen Burrows multi-colored jacket with sequins and velvet. "Gorgeous," said Fred Hayman, the Giorgio's owner who was sitting on a store pool table covered by silk scarves. Two feet away, a French bartender with limpid blue eyes served drinks.
"For Meeeeechelle," he said, handing refreshment to a fatigued shopper. His eyebrows danced like the light off the rhinestones in his frog-shaped tie tack.
Up and down Rodeo Drive, the Beverly Hills shopper's street where there are enough Rolls Royces to cause traffic jams, the chatter has turned to Washington. Or specifically, who among Nancy Reagan, her daughters and her friends are buying what to wear to which of the inaugural balls.
"They're all so excited," said Dorothy Tubor, Nancy Reagan's longtime saleslady from the dress shop called Amelia Gray. "Some have bought, some are looking. They all want to be dressd, you know, like the top banana."
Rodeo Drive is not exactly White Flint. In fact, nothing in Washington is comparable. For one thing, Indian laurel fig trees line the immaculate curbs, neatly interspersed between parking meters where a dime buys half an hour. Only 2 1/2 blocks long, the street is bordered on the south by the red-and-green striped awnings of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and on the north, by a view of the Hollywood hills that turn rosy at sunset.
In between you can find Cartier, Ted Lapidus, Georgette Klinger, Hermes and Bijan, the mens' clothing store with a gold plaque in the window that says "by appointment only." There are about 65 shops, and local merchants estimate $500 million is spent in them each year.
The street itself is bigger than Palm Beach's Worth Avenue and cutesier than New York's Fifth. A cocktail dress costing $750 is considered a fine bargain, as is $14,000 for a mink cape a friend of Nancy Reagan's bought for one of the balls. Paying $1,565 for an evening bag smaller than a grapefruit might be thought a bit extravagant, but then, it's a rhinestone box that looks like a fat, squatting bird.
The clientele is composed of established Beverly Hills, immensely rich foreigners and merely affluent meandering tourists. Because everyone gets his or her hair done and dresses up like it's Saturday at New York's Bloomingdale's, in many cases it's hard to tell one group from another.
But everyone knows Nancy Reagan and "the girls," as they're called -- the close cluster that includes Betsy Bloomingdale, wife of Diner's Club founder Alfred Bloomingdale; Betty Wilson, the heriess-wife of ranch developer William Wilson and Marion Jorgensen, wife of steel magnate Earle Jorgensen.They'll eat lunch at the Bistro Garden, have dinner at Chasen's, and in betwen, shop on Rodeo.
It's pronounced ro-DAY-o. Getting it wrong is as bad as not pronouncing the T at the end of Sotheby Parke Bernet.
"All the girls are always coming in," said Tubor of Amelia Gray. "Even if they're not coming in to buy anything, they'll stop by and say hello. Or I'll call them if I have something special."
Next door to Amelia Gray is Edwards-Lowell, the furriers who say they've sold more than 15 pieces for Tuesday's inaugural. They won't say to whom or for how much, but for the campaign, Nancy Reagan did buy a fur-lined raincoat. It cost slightly less than $1,000.
"She bought it for rugged weather," said Duffy Edwards earnestly. He's the store's co-owner who loved to watch his coat appear on the 6 o'clock news.
Added Merrill Lowell, the other co-owner: "She's not a great fur customer. Really. She's very conservative."
That's the same thing that Carlo (one doesn't use his las name) at Guicci said. "She's not a spendthrift," he exlained, although he wouldn't say how much she does spend on what. Whenever Nancy Reagan stops by Gucci, which has been at least three lengthy times since the election, she is taken immediately upstairs to a quite fitting area that has walls lined with velvet.
Refreshments often awaits her. In November, it was lunch. Just her and Carlo in front of the fitting room mirror, sharing chicken piccata and spinach souffle over a white Gucci tablecloth and delicate white roses. "The meal was very light," he explained, "because she was going to be fitted with clothes."
Carlo, whose brown three-piece suit and fluffy red hair go nicely with the fitting room, also had Nancy Reagan in for coffee and pastries a short time later. After they ate, several assistants brought in clothes for her to try. She's bought from Carlo for years, so he acts on-the-spot fashion adviser.
"She's always welcomed someone telling her whether it's good or not good," he said. "I've helped her coordinate shoes and bags."
On the more recent shopping expediton when Nancy Reagan consumed chocolate-covered strawberries, the event turned into something of a mob scene. That's because the first floor was crowded, and when she came down from the upstairs fitting room, the hordes surrounded her.
"I took her by the arm," said Carlo, "and I said, 'You're not going to be able to shop.' But she said, 'I've got to get Ronnie a new tie for his tuxedo. He needs something narrower."
"So we got that for him," continued Carlo, "and then I walked her to the car and we kissed. She waved goodbye to me through the window."