PALM BEACH, Fla. - You never forget your first Chanel, even if it was secondhand.
My first Coco moment was a long string of glass pearls and interlocking Cs from a vintage jewelry store in West Palm Beach. I looped the 88-inch chain around my neck like an infinity scarf, channeling the spirit of its previous owner, a Parisian woman of exquisite taste.
"A lot of women just feel complete with Chanel," said Brett Benson, founder and owner of D. Brett Benson, who bought the accessory last winter from the chic foreigner.
Palm Beach County, in southeastern Florida, seems to have a robust population of complete women, based on the number of Chanel pieces per square mile. In Palm Beach, the island home of the 0.001 percent, and West Palm Beach, its more modest sister, more than a dozen stores sell clothes and accessories by Chanel as well as other haute designer labels. But, surprise, fashionistas: The items are used.
"It's trendy and a bit of a treasure hunt to find something that isn't in the stores anymore," Leslie Diver, who runs Island Living Tours (www.islandlivingpb.com) and organizes shopping trips, said of vintage goods. "Palm Beach is pretty cutthroat."
The stores' inventories are abundant and replenished often. The wardrobes come from myriad sources. Among them: doyennes who are socially forbidden from wearing the same fancy gown twice to a winter ball, and seasonal residents who empty their closets before fluttering off to, say, the Hamptons or Portofino for the summer.
High-society women are also just like us: They gain weight, downsize their homes, and divorce. And, as any spurned woman knows, selling an ex's gifts is a much more lucrative form of revenge than lighting a bonfire. Finally, personal belongings arrive after being "released from their materialistic clutches," said one local dealer, employing a polite euphemism for "they die." (Another common phrase: "Purchased at an estate sale.")
"If you have a shopping problem, Palm Beach is not the place for you," Diver said. "There is a lot of temptation."
Vintage and consignment shops wink at passersby along Antique Row, the art and design district in West Palm Beach, and in the commercial center of Palm Beach. Local charities, such as the Animal Rescue League and the Church of Bethesda-by-the Sea's Church Mouse, run thrift stores with Barneys-quality merchandise and civic-minded splurges.
"Palm Beach has the highest end of Goodwill," said Diver, who has spotted Chanel and Gucci on its racks.
For my spring outing, Diver acted as my scout and inspiration. The former stockbroker showed up in stylish white pants and a black Bottega Veneta tote she had bought at Dina C's Fab & Funky Consignment Boutique in West Palm Beach. Over lunch at Belle & Maxwell's, she regaled (or taunted?) me with stories of her discoveries: a Bottega Veneta cotton blouse for $29, a 60-year-old Louis Vuitton messenger bag for $650, and a pair of "to-die-for" Gucci shoes that were $79.
I asked Diver how the shopping experience differs between the two towns. She said the quality was similar but the prices rise in the east - cross the bridge and multiply by two. She also explained the seasonal variations in the supply. The stores are often plump with goods in early spring, the period between the fund-raising events and the summer exodus. During the hot months, shelves are sparser, and some stores close for several weeks.
At D. Brett Benson (3616 S. Dixie Highway, Suite No. 120, www.dbrettbensoninc.com), I squinted at the supernova-bright light emanating from the glass cases and counters. Benson and Kevin Quidley, the store manager, specialize in jewelry from the turn of the 20th century to the 1980s, though they will accept more modern pieces that match their aesthetic. They scoop up costume designs at estate sales and antiques shows and from fashionable women looking to unload their treasures. For example, they bought more than a dozen Chanel pieces (1980s-2012) from a pair of French vintage-jewelry dealers.
I gravitated toward the Chanel necklaces, earrings, and bracelets, but quizzed the experts on which designers they coveted. They led me to a display of beaded necklaces by Coppola E. Toppo that cascade down the neck like a waterfall, delicate flower-shape brooches by Trifari, and transcendent art deco pieces by Theodor Fahrner. In the Bakelite section, Brett pulled out a bright-red fruit pin that, back in the day, was a scarlet letter of sorts. According to his grandmother, only loose girls wore a cherry on their sweaters.
Down the street, at Dina C's (1609 S. Dixie Highway, No. 2, fabandfunkyvintage.com), the owner views her role as a sartorial Red Cross worker.
"I look at myself as rescuing the good old days," said Dina Capehart, whose five-year-old boutique focuses on retro clothes from the 1940s to '90s. "I find a new home for your things."
She excitedly showed me a 1960s Balmain feathered cap that resembled a coconut cake, a jaunty 1980s Yves Saint Laurent top and wrap skirt perfect for Carmen Miranda, and an Elsa Schiaparelli blue leather coat with mink trim that predated PETA. In the back of the one-room store, I noticed wool pencil skirts from the 1950s on the sale rack. Dina said they were a tough sell in steamy Florida, even for $50.
While Diver tried on a Chanel suit that she had placed on layaway, I buttoned myself into a 1960s leather Gucci bomber jacket and A-line skirt plastered in the lettered logo. I gazed in the mirror and saw a Desperate Housewife of Palm Beach staring back.
Across the Intracoastal Waterway, the staff at Classic Collections (116-118 N. County Rd., www.classiccollectionsofpalmbeach.com) acted like giddy children playing dress-up in their wealthy parents' closet. Father and Mother were going to be out for a while, so I joined in.
"This fits you perfectly," an employee cooed as she snapped an $8,500 gold alligator-shape bracelet onto my wrist. "Not everyone can wear this." Guess I have good carpal bone structure.
The store is flush with clothes, bags, shoes, and jewelry from the top luxury lines (owner Sally Kimball refers to Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Hermes as the "Triple Crown") as well as unusual creations. Kimball pointed out a Studio 54-era Chanel dress made of PVC nicknamed the "Lawn Chair Dress."
"People love the thrill of the hunt," Kimball said. "We hear people shrieking out here."
About 40 percent to 50 percent of the items have never been worn, and many arrive with price tags still attached. Kimball provided some juicy tales of origin that breathed life into the inanimate objects. For example, a woman once called Kimball over to her Bentley and opened the trunk to reveal 10 boxes containing Ferragamo handbags - holiday gifts from her husband that were purchased by his secretary. (Memo to assistant: Keep a spreadsheet to avoid repeat presents.)
In another instance, a wife dropped off a Louis Vuitton Speedy bag with handles that she had received from her spouse. But, oh, dear, she wears only shoulder-style.
"We are in a very special part of the world," said Kimball, "where we have a very high concentration of wealth."
Eventually, pretend-time ended. I removed the reptile's grip and returned to my own bracket.
City Girl Consignment (2900 S. Dixie Highway, www.citygirlconsignment.com) in West Palm Beach works with 2,500 consignors who have more populist tastes. I took a deep breath and dove in. When I came up for air, I held in my arms a navy-blue Lilly Pulitzer shirtdress and a pink skirt covered in bees, a J. Crew caftan, and a pair of Cole Haan platform sandals cheaper than a martini. Total cost for the pile: about $120.