For most people, an afternoon of shopping usually involves a quick jaunt to the mall or perhaps an extended browsing session at the computer. But on a recent Thursday, for Giovanni Hager, it turned into a 13-hour flight, a three-hour drive and a half-hour wait at the store's front door.
In this age of online shopping, what could possibly have motivated the financial analyst to launch a global odyssey that would take him from his hometown of Dallas to the outskirts of Florence? Try a warehouse's worth of Prada -- for up to 60 percent off. The highlight of the massive outlet in Montevarchi was the 50 euro rack, says Hager: "My wife cleaned that out."
While few are willing to cross seven time zones to get their designer fix, today's savviest shoppers know that tracking down the best high-end goodies is a global pursuit. The luxury market, once defined by only a handful of superluxe players, has expanded into a worldwide juggernaut, with new companies entering the fray and an explosion of products sourced from -- and sold in -- the farthest-flung corners of the world. For would-be buyers, the shift is providing a bounty of choice but is also inspiring a growing pickiness. And judging from the latest research -- like a recent Unity Marketing poll that found 70 percent of luxury buyers care about where a product is manufactured -- shoppers are now turning to that old real estate maxim: location, location, location.
In other words, they're paying closer attention than ever to where those must-have handbags and watches were designed and made. But they aren't necessarily jumping on a plane to find them: A global shopping hunt can as easily take place on the Internet or at the local mall as on an international getaway. And across the marketplace, high-end products are blowing the rest of the retail industry away; last year, the worldwide luxury market was worth $230 billion, about 12 percent more than in 2009, according to consultants Bain & Co. Even the latest economic speed bumps have done little to slow the sector's growth, says Jim Taylor, vice chairman of research firm Harrison Group. The company's holiday survey of wealthy U.S. consumers, conducted with American Express Publishing, shows that the ultraluxe set is planning to increase holiday spending by 6 percent this year.
This luxury boom got us wondering: Where do the best products come from? The answer, not surprisingly, varies by what you're shopping for and whether you're fixated on the rarest model, best price or most cutting-edge design. (We know, you want all three.) To help, we scour the map and uncover a few treasures -- watches in Hong Kong, sample sales in Paris -- that we hope will make your holiday gift list the best in the world.
France -- home of Versailles, foie gras and the $10 Coke. Is it any surprise we never imagined it was one of the world's bargain capitals?
France: Many of today's better-known handbag makers started off focusing on more quotidian leather goods. Paris-based Celine (owned by French luxury powerhouse LVMH) began as a children's shoemaker. Celine Classic Medium Flap Bag, $3650
Switzerland: Hong Kong and China export more watches, but for high-end pieces, the Swiss have the longest history in the business: The nation's first watch-makers' guild clocked in back in 1601. Blacpain Velleret Ultra-slim, $18,300.
Of course, even at their best, prices on the world's finest leather goods tend to include a disconcerting number of zeros. But with more makers turning to outsourcing and assembly lines, accessories mavens say, it's worth paying a premium for the few hand-stitching holdouts, most of which are based in old-world stalwarts France and Italy.
Herm s, the French maker of the iconic Kelly and Birkin handbags, is the company experts most often point to as the gold standard, and shoppers seem to agree: In the first half of 2011, Herm s's sales spiked 22 percent, hitting approximately $1.8 billion. Luxury insiders say buying the company's products in France can offer a range of advantages -- not the least of which is price. Michael Tonello, former luxury reseller and author of Bringing Home the Birkin, says purchasing a high-end handbag at an Herm s store in France can save you at least 10 percent, assuming you cash in your value-added-tax refund. And for the lucky few in Paris in January, the company holds an annual, unadvertised off-site sale (there's one in New York City as well) that draws massive crowds and offers discounts of 30 to 60 percent. Would-be bargain hunters can look for leaked details about the sale in local media and fashion blogs.
Best in the World
It wasn't easy, but with help from several experts, we winnowed down our wish list.
Specialized Source 11 from the U.S., $2,750
Moncler Conrad from Italy, $1,450
Men's Dress Watch
Girard-Perregaux Rose Gold 1966 Full Calendar from Switzerland, $22,680
Chlo Madeleine Leather Tote from France, $2,295
Frette Chelonia Pizzo Queen Set from Italy, $2,745
Women's Cashmere Sweater
Brunello Cucinelli Scoop Neck from Italy, $1,200
Tumi Alpha Four-Wheeled Expandable International from the U.S., $545
Men's Ready-to-wear Suit
Brioni Two-Button Pinstripe from Italy, $4,600
Baccarat Harcourt from France, $195 per piece
That said, shoppers don't need to enter the temple of the Birkin, or even go to Europe, to find handcrafted French and Italian handbags and suitcases. Most of the big names (Chanel, Gucci, Fendi) are available in the U.S. and online. Still, experts say stores in the brands' home countries often have the best selection -- including models that never make it to the U.S. -- and can help shoppers sidestep the dreaded waiting list.
Gil Tal says there's one thing he's worn on every significant occasion of his adult life, from his wedding day to the morning his daughter was born: his Rolex.
For watch obsessives like Tal (the Staten Islander is a watch dealer by trade), there's no substitute for a Swiss timepiece. In fact, the country is so dominant that even luxury makers based in other nations -- like Bremont in the U.K. and Italy's Panerai -- use some Swiss parts. And though the market hasn't quite rebounded to prerecession levels, the number of watches exported from the nation climbed 20 percent last year.
But when it comes to buying, many say, watch fanatics should just stay home: Most models are easily tracked down in the U.S., and exchange rates have been brutal to Americans trying to buy in Swiss francs. There are a couple of other places adventurous shoppers might try, though. Deal seekers may want to visit the duty-free watch and jewelry outlets in the Virgin Islands and other Caribbean locales, which have been adding more high-end makers in recent years (though experts caution that much of the stock may be from the previous season). The growing Asian market is unlikely to offer bargains, says watch stylist Meehna Goldsmith, but shoppers in Hong Kong and China are likely to see a range of styles not available in other parts of the world.
Another way to track down a unique piece is to get in good with your favorite brand's local boutique. Panerai, for instance, recently offered a very limited number of Brooklyn Bridge editions at its New York City location, though dealers like Tal say such special editions are usually only available to VIP customers.
Many undertakings require international cooperation: humanitarian aid, trade negotiations, peace treaties -- and winter coats.
Owners of some of the best outerwear have a host of countries to thank for keeping them toasty when the snow flies. Take a basic down-filled coat: The design and manufacturing often happen in one nation, using fabric from another, feathers from a third and zippers from elsewhere still.
Nepal: Nepalese rugs may be known for their modern-looking designs and color schemes, but the process of making them is still old-school: Many are hand-knotted, using hand-spun wools. Tufenkian Invesrness Tamarind Rug, $8,175.
Italy: While famous for its steamy ads today, Gucci was founded in 1921 as a staid luggage and leather goods store -- a legacy that's still apparent in the luxe bags. Gucci Carry-on Duffel, $3,500.
Germany: The best down coats tend to come from places with easy access to the slopes. Bogner, for one, is based in Munich -- an easy drive from the Bavarian Alps. Bogner Down Jacket Polar, $1,700.
Not surprisingly, many of the most fashionable down-outerwear companies, like Moncler, Violanti and Duvetica, are based in Italy. (There are exceptions, of course; Germany's Bogner is perhaps the most notable.) Italian designers helped transform down jackets from Michelin Man style wearable sleeping bags into (relatively) sleek garments, says Frank Hall, president of Avalon and Mistral, a pair of Colorado luxury outerwear stores. The down that fills these jackets, though, typically comes from a bit further afield. White goose down from France is popular with the luxury brands -- Rick Weinstein, VP of sales and merchandising for New York retailer Searle, compares it to "the finest cashmere" -- though some of the sportier labels get their feathers from Hungary or from farms run by Hutterite religious communities in Canada.
Lately, many designers are accenting their down styles with fur trim, the best of which comes from Northern Europe (especially Finland), says Hall. Other jacket fabrics, meanwhile -- from basic nylon to fine wool to high-tech materials with waterproof coatings -- hail from around the globe. As do zippers and other fasteners, which tend to get heavier use on coats than they do on other garments, pros say.
Buying coats from these specialized, niche makers has become a bit easier for Americans recently, as some, like Moncler and Bogner, have started selling online. Others are still available only in boutiques, but insiders say it's worth hunting them down, rather than spending on a coat from a high-profile designer. These big names are such multitaskers, says New York stylist Alexandra Suzanne Greenawalt, "that the craftsmanship might not be there."
Luxury thrives on scarcity, and many high-end shoppers will happily tell you about the difficulties of tracking down their latest find. The trials of those hoping to score a limited-edition watch or wait-listed shoe, however, pale in comparison with the travails of rug collectors. Want a truly unobtainable prize? Try skirting an international embargo.
Fans of Iran's hand-knotted Persian rugs have struggled in the wake of the 2010 U.S. trade embargo against the country, which roughly quadrupled prices, says Steve Schlussel, owner of Vermont shop Rug Crazy. But Iran's not the only source for fancy floor coverings: Experts also put handmade rugs from Pakistan, Nepal and India -- which aren't subject to international embargoes -- at the top of the "pile" pile, pointing to the detailed craftsmanship and fine wools that go into making them.
Which country a buyer should focus on depends, in part, on the person's aesthetic. Iranian rugs are known for their very traditional designs, while carpets from Nepal often have a more modern look (Nepalese weavers often take custom orders from companies like Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart). In other countries, some makers are walking the line between new and old by freshening classically designed rugs with vivid dyes, says Arash Yaraghi, president of rugmaker and importer Safavieh.
There is one point of consensus: Shoppers looking for an investment-quality carpet should buy their internationally made rugs in the U.S. Experts say many of the best makers prefer to sell only in bulk and that even experienced buyers can get hustled when buying from an unfamiliar store or dealer. Then there's the final hitch: Good luck with that Iranian visa.
Footwear legends Jimmy Choo, Christian Louboutin and Manolo Blahnik are quite an international bunch, hailing from Malaysia, France and Spain, respectively. Their namesake shoes, though, are all born in the same place: Italy.
France: Chrian Louboutin, like most of its peers, manufactures its shoes in Italy. There is one thing that sets it apart, though: the signature lipstick-red soles, which Louboutin has sued over. Christian Louboutin Peep-Toe Suede Platform Pumps, $795.
England: Goodyear welting is a trademark of English footwear. In this construction technique, which proponents say makes for the most comfortable and long-lasting shoes, the shoemaker attaches the top of the shoe by sewing a leather strip along the outside edge of the insole. Crocket & Jones Handgrade Brunswick Wingtip, $775.
Italy is the Carrie Bradshaw of luxury goods -- it has great clothes and accessories, but the shoes steal the show. With women's shoes, designers are often based in other fashion capitals, like New York or Paris, but when it comes to actually making those sky-high heels or chic ballet flats, they turn to the Italians. The reason, says Vasilios Christofilakos, chairman of accessories design at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, is the country's signature mix of talented craftspeople, design sense and fine materials. "You get the best of everything there," says Christofilakos.
For men's footwear, though, the global picture broadens a bit. The British also have a long tradition of men's shoemaking, which shows in their classic, often conservative designs. (Italian styles are typically sleeker and more fashion-forward.) In England, the undisputed footwear capital is Northampton, a city located about an hour outside of London. Shoe pilgrims can visit more than 10 makers there, including big names like John Lobb and Crockett & Jones. And while many of the factory stores sell only discontinued or imperfect models, some, like Tricker's, do sell regular stock.
While Northampton doesn't exactly show up on most European-vacation itineraries, experts say that men with a taste for European shoes might consider stocking up abroad, since unlike women's styles, some men's models can be hard to track down online or in U.S. stores. Shopping internationally can also open the door to insider favorites like Vass, which, with its old-school Budapest workshop, proves that style knows no national boundaries.
Photograph by Maria Robledo for SmartMoney. Fashion styling by Ellen Silverstein; prop styling by Amy Wilson.