I write this from the very epicentre of excess, in a city that is a strange love-child borne of both Mormons and Mafia, built in the middle of the desert as a celebration of indulgence. A city that is a fusion of the sublime and the ridiculous, an adult playground for the silly rich and the permanently poor, bound together by a common love of consumption that is not just conspicuous, but utterly theatrical. It can only be Las Vegas.
Here at the Encore, one of the newest and most luxurious of the casino hotels, the columns bulge in Disneyesque proportions on marble floors inlaid with grotesque butterfly motifs the size of pterodactyls. The soft furnishings in giant stripes and spots adorn every available surface like an Alice in Wonderland nightmare. Every wall is clad with a montage of quilted fabric and bevel edged mirrors in gilt frames. Cool this is not.
But if you can relax your middle class, reasonably well-educated, tightly-knotted stomach for a moment you can actually just enjoy it for what it is: a fifteen year old’s vision of opulence.
The fifteen year old in question was Steve Wynn himself who actually said “Vegas is sort of like how God would do it if he had money”
For many of us, Vegas represents all that is wrong with consumerism. The endless avenues of Pradas, Guccis and Louis Vuittons are a twenty four hour grinning reminder that this is what we want, what we must have if we are to be considered wealthy or successful. It is greed unleashed. Surely the most brand hungry young things must become a little jaded after a few days here. The sparkling Rolex or Gucci handbag that looked so desirable when you first arrived very quickly irritates with its desperate attempt to allure, just like the sycophantic greetings you’re forced to acknowledge when you enter every store. ‘Hi there! How are you today?’ Tell them you have terminal cancer and this is your farewell holiday and they’ll just grin and say ‘Wow, that’s cool!’
But in spite of its shamelessness Las Vegas actually has an innocence about it. It did not cause the crash, that’s for sure, but its sub-prime bruises are plain to see if you wander from the strip. The city is still littered with stalled developments where dormant cranes loom overhead, poised with characteristic Vegas optimism, to swing into action at a moment’s notice.
Where new investment has arrived several blocks of ‘luxury apartments’ have already been converted into budget hotels, awaiting their first guests. Many of the older resorts, The Flamingo, Harrah’s, Tropicana, Paris and more, are clearly struggling to stay afloat with rooms going for as little as $30 a night, or as my taxi driver succinctly put it, ‘less than the price of a pizza’.
The iconic Sahara, that back in the day regularly played host to Frank Sinatra, clearly followed in his famous footsteps over the years with numerous facelifts and the inevitable demise.
It reopened in 2014 as SLS Las Vegas after a $400 million refurb but has had major issues since then including the abrupt closing of its restaurant, several tranches of staff cut backs and the CEO walking out.
But this is only part of the picture. The Wynn resort, which includes the Encore, is clearly thriving. Dozens of gardeners, tend to the topiary that lines the entire perimeter, like busy little honey bees that never sleep. Doormen, security staff and bellboys are on hand at every few paces, waitresses are persistently attentive, cleaners endlessly polishing glass tables and sweeping the mighty marble floors twenty four hours a day. This resort looks like a bustling city centre because that’s what it is. And it’s the busy-ness that keeps it feeling alive and thriving, a place we want to be. We are innately attracted to busy-ness: we seek out restaurants, bars and cafes that are full of life and ringing with the clatter of cutlery. We may talk about our hatred of crowds and our dream of a remote retreat but we are lying to ourselves. Fly a thousand feet above any town or city and you can clearly see that we are all huddled together, trying to get into busy restaurants, shops, theatres and museums and complaining about how busy they are.
Success breeds success of course, but so too does failure breed failure. It cannot be easy to run a mini-city, but it’s clear that cutting back on staff bleeds a place of its busy-ness and makes it feel as if it’s dying, probably because it is.
Las Vegas then, is a caricature. The over-branded augmented beauties, the status cravers desperately seeking shiny reassurance, are us, amplified into a form that we can sneer at. This city crystallizes things so that we can read them more clearly, that’s all. So don’t despise Las Vegas, learn to love what it tells us about ourselves.
I recommend a trip here not to indulge in the all the excess, but to reboot our minds into a better balance. Spend a fortnight at a rural retreat and you’ll be desperate to get back to the high street to see what’s new. Spend it here and you go home with a wonderfully refreshed perspective on what you really want from retail.