GILDING THE CITY

Welcome to Portland! Please recycle. And keep the bling to a minimum.

 

money mirror
Image: Jack Black

EMBLAZONED with the interlocking C’s that are Chanel’s famous logo, the $3,300 black leather purse is positively voluminous. There’s enough space inside for a bowling ball—perhaps even two. You’ll find the bag for sale on a well-lit shelf at the new Chanel boutique at Nordstrom, Pioneer Courthouse Square, where it shares real estate with a $400 gold belt and a $4,200 clutch that is accented with delicate chains. Although Chanel only opened in August, one well-coifed saleswoman reports that business is going swimmingly. “We make sales every day,” she says. “It’s been extremely well received.”

In making the decision to open its fourth Chanel boutique in the country, Nordstrom execs undoubtedly took note of Portland’s increasingly monied demographics (the median household income was $57,826 in 2007, compared to $47,505 in 2005) and marked the fact that local high-end malls such as Bridgeport Village have been profitable. But mostly, notes Nordstrom’s spokesperson Kendall Bingham, the company listened to Portlanders themselves. “What we’re seeing is an increased desire for luxury goods,” she says, adding that the same holds for markets across the country. A Gucci boutique will open across from Chanel this spring.

Minimum starting salary for a server at El Gaucho who works five days a week: $60,000

The availability of such high-end brands on the local retail scene is but the latest evidence that Portland is slowly sloughing off its reputation as the only major West Coast hub where denizens don’t flaunt their wealth with designer plumage and bling. “Historically, Portlanders came from Germany, Scandanavia and [other] European cultures that aren’t exactly known for their ostentation,” notes Portland State University historian Carl Abbott. Even among the upper crust, he says, our city has traditionally been a “quiet, old-money kind of place.”

Some might argue that Portland was not just quiet, but that it actively disdained an excess of verve and flash. Consider the experience of Californian Ben Holiday back in the 1870s. Although the transportation tycoon built the railroad that linked the two states and opened up a market for goods, Portland’s downtown elite ostracized him and generally made his life miserable. His fatal flaw? He was “a bit too flamboyant, a little too sleazy and too suspect—too Californian,” as Abbott puts it. Once the railroad was up and running, Holiday went back to where he came from. (A tiny park near the Lloyd Center commemorates his temporary residency.) No doubt he was happier there, living among his own kind.

In present-day Portland, the Pearl District is, of course, the ultimate exemplar of our newfound peacocky ways. But the neighborhood hardly launched the trend. Long before Gerding Edlen transformed Henry Weinhard’s beer works into a locus for fine living, subtler signs that Portland was on the verge of a conspicuous-consumption bender were cropping up all over town. Consider, if you will, steak.

“I was like, $70 steak? Who eats a $70 steak?” notes one third-generation Portlander of Danish descent who grew up in Irvington, remembering the opening of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in 1995. Apparently, though, plenty of Portlanders were ready to raise their knives and tuck into fine cuts of meat. Morton’s the Steakhouse, where a double-cut filet runs $42, opened in 1998, and El Gaucho, which charges $84 for a 24-ounce New York strip and reliably attracts a starch-collared, after-work clientêle, opened in 2000.

The shift in Portlanders’ attitudes about wealth cannot, however, be measured by the arrival of luxury goods and services alone (though those little blinis topped with glistening beads of caviar that Saks Fifth Avenue served to 1,200 during its 1990 opening preview were, for months afterwards, the talk of the town). There was also the arrival of certain people, including social connectors John and Lucy Buchanan. In 1998, the arts-development power couple from Memphis succeeded in raising a whopping $30 million to build the Portland Art Museum’s new wing by brazenly employing tactics heretofore unheard-of in the quaint world of Portland fundraising, including aggressive mass-marketing and over-the-top galas. Sure, there were plenty of tsk-tsks behind the Buchanans’ backs—but donors were, for once, all too willling to dispense with modesty to support the cause. Besides, the parties were absolutely fabulous.

The Buchanans have since departed for San Francisco, but they helped usher in a new era of charity. “Oregon always had a more populist tradition of giving,” says Greg Chaille, president of the Oregon Community Foundation, a statewide nonprofit that administers charitable funds. In other words, Oregon’s philanthropists subscribed to the idea that organizations should be built with the combined efforts and contributions of many people—not funded outright by a few mammoth hunks of cash. “Getting too far out in front with the big gift was seen not just as bad taste, but also as discouraging others from doing their part.”