Far before I boarded the plane to Paris, my mother asked me something in the solemn kind of voice you usually expect from someone who wants to borrow money or needs help burying a body in the desert. “You’ll go to the Hermès sale with me, won’t you?” she requested, eyes wide. I laughed a little, amused by the dramatics, but nodded.
For those who don’t know Hermès, it’s a Parisian luxury goods and fashion house that sells things I never thought would have a three-digit price tag, like beach towels. Scarves are one of its specialties and are what interest my mother, an avid collector. For years, she’d dreamed about attending the mythical biannual Hermès sale in Paris. This January was her first opportunity.
And so, good little anthropology student that I am, here is an account of the first day of the January 2010 Hermès sale, alternately titled, “Gird Your Loins, They’re Bringing Out the Plissés.” (Plissé is a kind of scarf. Trust me, before last week, I knew nothing about them either.)
3:45am. My mother wakes me up, brimming over with nervous energy. Blearily, I drink two sips of the coffee offered to me and get dressed. As I put on a scarf that cost me 6 euro at a Parisian marketplace, I dimly register that I’m not quite Hermès’ target audience.
4:41am. We arrive at Porte Maillot, near the outskirts of Paris. It is still very dark. My mother pays our taxi driver, with whom she has just maintained a chipper conversation for our half hour drive. God knows I don’t have that kind of energy. Maybe I’m adopted.
4:43am. There are four other people here, lined up in the cold outside the building doors. The way my mom was talking, I was expecting hordes. Is matricide still illegal?
5:12am. There’s a veritable line now, and I forgive my mother for the early wakeup time. Because of it, we’re right up front. A security guard, regarding us like escapees from a mental facility, offers to open up the front doors half an hour early at 5:30, and points to the escalators upstairs where we’ll need to go. Then he returns to his guard dog, a Rottweiler who looks much less intimidating when playing catch.
5:14am. Oh dear, people around me are trying to make conversation in French. Maybe I should have drank more of that coffee.
5:31am. The front doors are opened. Mass pandemonium ensues. People in the back of the line start running to try and cut, and soon it’s a veritable stampede, a charging of the bulls up the escalator and to the next waiting area. My mother’s in the front-lines, her spot assured by an adolescence on the track team, so I hang back to help the security guard pick up some of the wreckage.
5:35am. Find my mother upstairs at the front of the line again. The first three women in line camped out here overnight. I feel much warmer toward my mother for not making me sleep in a tent.
5:49am. Boy, I really should have brought a book.
6:01am. Well. Lots of cracks in the ceiling. Let’s count the tiles now…
6:24am. Hermès fans know not to wear their scarves to the sale, as they’ll have to check them in with security, sucking up time to get to the best stock. Some seem slightly lost without them, like birds that have just lost their plumage. “I’ve been to every sale,” one pushy French woman says almost aggressively behind me. I grasp the message. I should be further ahead in line than you are.
7:05am. Security moves us in packs of ten to a better waiting area, with barricades set up to prevent people from cutting. This must be how sheep feel during those sheep dog herding demonstrations.
8:30am. Half an hour to go till opening! Everyone’s very awake right now and chattering excitedly. I keep spying on newcomers through a crack in the barricade. They have to go the end of the very, very long line, but they’re all holding coffee cups. Boy do I want their coffee.
8:45am. The guards let us check our coats and proceed to the next (and final) waiting area. My mother has already given me her coat and dashes forward with the rest as soon as she’s given the opportunity; I edge my way over to the coat check through the throngs.
8:46am. I remember a scene in The Poisonwood Bible where one of the daughters stuck her elbows out while caught in a human stampede. Her elbows out, she was lifted by the movement of those around her and avoided being trampled. Maybe I should try it.
8:47am. Silly me! I forgot pointy elbows are the weapon of choice around here; all I’d accomplish would be pain in my funny bone. A man behind me tries to argue his way to the front of the coat check – “I have a bag!” he says in English, and “Yeah, so do I!” I reply, holding up my own – and then pretends he doesn’t understand English after all, shoving in front of me in an entirely different kind of language.
9:04am. I enter the Hermès sale room. Hello, brave new world. I stand to the side with the Hermès salespeople, who are decked out in an orange that screams 'retail warrior.'
9:05am. My mother, who was among the first to enter, is also one of the first three to be helped at the shawls. There's a scuffle further back in the line as one woman grabs the shoulder of another woman to take her place; the shovee starts bawling. Does she have a shoulder injury?
9:15am. The woman is still sobbing. I’m starting to get the idea it’s due less to pain and more because she lost her place in line.
10:01am. As crowds simmer, social niceties make a comeback.
11:34am. Phase I: Grab and Go – is complete. Now it’s time for Phase II: Does This Alarming Shade of Orange Make Me Look Like I Have Jaundice? My mother carefully inspects the scarves for defects and makes her choices. It’s rather incomprehensible why Hermès uses so much orange and yellow in their scarves. Do they think people want to look like traffic cones?
11:59am. Still – looking at my mother’s orange-free final choices, there’s an undeniable, gorgeous artistry even I can see. I understand why she loves them so much. She’s practically glowing, thrilled with her finds. Others are starting to line up by the registers with their spoils, and the mood is utterly civilized again. Darwin would be proud.
12:45pm. We emerge into daylight, blinking. Some of the people around us have just started their day.
We go back to our apartment and nap.