In recent months, I have developed a taste (if not a full-blown addiction) for the French luxury brand Hermès. I also love getting a good deal on designer clothes – finding a chic item at a fraction of its retail price makes my heart beat faster.
Alas, in normal circumstances, the words “discount” and “Hermès” do not go together. Most merchandise in Hermès boutiques is very expensive and never goes on sale, period. You can shave a bit off the price by buying duty free, but for most new Hermès items, the only way to get a really deep discount is at one of their periodic sample sales, held twice a year in Paris and occasionally in other cities, like New York.
Reports from the most recent Hermès sample sale in New York City were troubling, and included stories of fights breaking out amongst shoppers; people waiting for eight hours in a line that stretched six city blocks only to be turned away; and disappointed Hermès fans leaving the scene in tears. For fashionistas, this must be one of Dante’s circles of Hell: a sample sale where you wait in line all day but never actually get to see any merchandise.
Thankfully the Hermès sample sale in Paris is more predictable and much better run than the recent New York fiasco. The Paris sale typically lasts a few days and takes place twice a year: in January and June, during the state-regulated soldes periods. In recent years the sale has been held not at one of the design house’s exclusive boutiques, but offsite at the Palais des congrès, a convention centre and shopping mall in the 17th arrondissement of Paris.
When I heard of a means to feed my Hermès habit at a discount, I eagerly booked a day off work and caught the train to Paris from London the night before the first day of the sale. I was frankly spooked by stories of people waiting in line all day in New York and not getting in, so when I arrived in Paris I went to my hotel and straight to bed so I could get in line at stupid o’clock (5 AM in my case). Security guards met me at the front door of the mall and escorted me upstairs to the waiting area, where I estimate about 50 hardy souls were already in line. I came prepared, with a camping stool and an iPad loaded with videos, so the waiting time passed quickly. The queue was also a decent place to people watch.
Approximately three-fourths of my fellow shoppers were from China (in the main they appeared to be ridiculously well-heeled university students on a semester abroad). The rest were a mix of nationalities, including several sale regulars who greeted each other with air kisses and darted back and forth to their places in the queue. A security guard sternly warned the crowd that there was to be no saving of spots for people who showed up later. The waiting area filled up quickly, and by 8 AM hundreds of eager shoppers were in line.
At about 8.30 the line began to move, and I made my way to the mandatory coat and bag check. From there it was on to a further holding area until the starting gun was fired at 9 AM. On the way in, each shopper was given a form on which to declare any items of Hermès that they were already wearing (to safeguard against any disputes at the till).
The queuing was not yet over, as there were three further lines: one for silk scarves measuring 90 cm square, one for other sizes of ladies’ silk scarves and a third queue for jewellery. Waiting wasn’t necessary for the other merchandise which included neckties, men’s scarves, home decor, gloves, shoes and RTW for both men and women. Note that there were no bags nor belts of any kind.
I headed first for the 90 cm scarf counter where the selection was good but customers were only allowed to linger for up to 20 minutes. I had a long list of requests from work colleagues and family members, and in short order I selected nine scarves at €195 each, down from €345 retail. My duty to the ladies’ done, I moved on to my own priority: neckties. My Hermès habit being rather recent, I was keen to check out some of the ties from past seasons and I wasn’t disappointed. The selection was huge and ties were €91, down from €160 retail. Staff periodically put out new designs, and after a few thorough pass throughs of the stock I had selected eight new ties for my collection. I then spent a long time selecting my favourite trophy from the sale, a 140 cm cashmere and silk men’s scarf for €530, down from €920 retail.
The selection at the jewellery counter looked pretty good, with enamel and leather pieces and even a few Clic Clac bracelets. However, other than a few pairs of cufflinks there was no men’s jewellery so I gave that lengthy queue a miss. The selections in various other departments was good, and aside from the approximate 40-45% discount on scarves and ties, all merchandise appeared to have a simple 50% discount off the retail price. All shoppers seemed well-behaved and the Hermès staff was friendly and helpful.
Was it necessary to line up at 5 AM on the first day? In retrospect that was overkill but only slightly. Stock is replenished periodically, but regulars at the sale confirmed that the widest selection is on the first day (though there are shorter queues later on). One shopper told me that she got in line at 7.45 AM and got into the sale at 10 AM, so a later start still would have meant some waiting. And unlike at many sample sales, Hermès doesn’t do deeper discounts as end of the sale approaches. My shopping completed and credit card abused, I left at 11.30 AM and saw that the waiting area to enter the sale remained at capacity, with hundreds of more recent arrivals in line. My early morning start seemed well worth it as I headed out (haul proudly in hand) for a long lunch in a nearby bistro before catching the train back to London.
Now, for a reality check. Even at 40-50% off, Hermès is still far from cheap. Regardless of whether you decide to join the early morning queuing brigade, chances are that you are going to have to do a lot of standing in line, especially if you go on the first day when the selection is greatest. Unless you live there already, you are going to spend even more time and money getting to Paris. It’s difficult to predict what merchandise they will have at any given sale, though one thing that is certain is that you will never, ever find an elusive Birkin or Kelly bag here. But trophy purses aside, if Hermès is your bag then this sample sale is great, and I actually had a lot of fun. After returning home, a friend asked me if I would go again. Is she kidding? To someone with addictions to both Hermès and shopping at a discount, the Paris sample sale is like crack cocaine—I’m already making plans to go again in June.
David Fincher is a London banking lawyer.