A stone's throw from poverty, Brazil's Daslu glimmers

São Paulo's opulent department store moved into new $50 million digs last month with marble floors, golf carts, and a heliport.

On the ground floor, there are Dolce & Gabbana T-shirts for $620. On the first, Cartier watches go for $40,000. On the second, Ferretti advertises yachts at a cool $5.4 million. There is a heliport on the roof and golf carts to drive shoppers across the elegant marble floors.

Spend an hour at the new location of Daslu, a posh São Paulo department store, and see the rich side of this nation's wealth gap, one of the world's largest. While as many as 58 million Brazilians live on a dollar a day - many just a stone's throw from Daslu's heavily guarded gates - there are plenty of wealthy Brazilians who can afford to live in surroundings as opulent as any Manhattan socialite or Arab sheikh.

"The people who manage international luxury brands will tell you that their Brazil stores are among the most profitable in the world," says Fernando Neves, director of Escopo, a consultancy group, and author of a recent study on Brazil's luxury market. "Brazil is a poor country, but it is one where the rich people are very rich."

Nowhere is that more evident than at Daslu. It began in humble surroundings in 1958 when two rich Paulistas decided to start a fashion business from their garage. The women sold clothes, and by their own admission, gossiped a lot - first with friends, and then with friends of friends, and then, after moving to a proper shop, to moneyed customers who came from all over Brazil.

The exemplary service given to clients helped Daslu build up a large and loyal customer base, and the store grew quickly, particularly after Brazil opened its economy to foreign goods in the early 1990s. Daslu signed a series of deals that helped establish it as the Brazilian representative of internationally known labels like Chanel, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton.

At their previous location, they bought adjacent properties and knocked down the walls of 23 houses to construct the one-of-a-kind shop floor. But it still wasn't enough. So last month Daslu moved to a $50 million, purpose-built premises in the high-class business district of Vila Olimpia.

"I spent five years praying that we wouldn't have to move," says owner Eliana Tranchesi. "Then one day I realized there was no other solution. The problem is that I don't know how to think small."

Small is not a word used either for Daslu or São Paulo. Brazil's largest city is a vast metropolis of about 20 million people that is home to the country's industrial, cultural, fashion, and entertainment elite. It has more skyscrapers than New York and more private helicopters than Tokyo. But a 2001 World Bank report rated Brazil as the third-most unequal nation in the world behind the sub-Saharan nations of Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic.

Daslu's owners calculate that more than 90 percent of Brazil's luxury purchases are made in São Paulo, and Ms. Tranchesi's vision of the new store was developed with those super-rich consumers in mind. Fashioned like an Italian palazzo, it has marble floors, carpeted staircases, and soundproofed doors and windows. There is a champagne bar designed by the same architect used by Madonna, an atrium with a helicopter hanging from the ceiling, and beautiful young women fluent in such languages as English, German, and Arabic glide around the store pointing clients towards Giorgio Armani and Yves Saint Laurent.

"About $1.5 billion a year was spent on luxury goods last year in Brazil, which is a huge amount for a country like ours," says Paulo Carramenha, CEO of consultancy firm Research International. "Daslu has exploited that market by creating a myth, an aura, around brands, and they have done it very well."

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