A vast nothingness awaits you on the horizon. Rolling hills, scattered brush and a field of idle windmills. A car speeds up on your right, then screams across into your lane. You flinch, not knowing if the driver is an unhinged marauder or just late for his hotel check-in. You’re running low on fuel and haven’t had a drop to drink in hours. If you don’t find some shelter and sustenance soon, you might be destroyed by this barren wasteland. So you look for a place to pull over. In the distance, you see exactly what you were praying for. The signs practically sparkle in the harsh desert sun: Gucci, Armani, Saint Laurent, Loewe and, for some unknown reason, Forever 21. You’ve made it to safety. You’ve made it to Cabazon.
The Desert Hills Premium Outlet, better known colloquially as the Cabazon Outlets, is the last gasp of luxury before the dusty Desert Cities of Southern California. Once the Morongo Casino tower appears in your window, you know that a majestic temple of deals awaits you in mere minutes. As many fortunes are lost at the casino each day, a comparable number are lost at Cabazon. It’s an intoxicating mix of high and low — modestly dressed tourists gawking at Prada bags and lining up for the discounts at Tory Burch. Here, “cost” means nothing. True junk sits comfortably next to priceless grails. If everything is “on sale,” is anything truly “on sale”? Cabazon is like walking through an episode of the old BBC sci-fi show “The Prisoner.” Constant surveillance, smiling neighbors, mind control experiments to test your self-control. If the apocalypse comes, no one will be spared its effects. We’ll all be mingling together, rummaging through boxes. Just like at the outlet mall.
For the “jawnz” addict, Cabazon is a must, dystopian vibes be damned. I could spend an entire day bopping from store to store, praying for a life-altering find. Those first few seconds after you get out of your air-conditioned car and step into the stiff, dry desert heat — or intense gusts of cool dust this time of year — are filled with promise. Today, you might just score the “Ultimate Deal,” a piece of clothing so fire, so cheap and so rare that the world will anoint you God’s Flyest Child and you’ll live forever. My girlfriend found a $750 gold Prada headband (God knows how much it costs before the discount) that made her eyes go wide like a character in an old Looney Tunes cartoon. Did we walk out with it? I am gutted to report that we did not, but at Cabazon, no one judges you if you don’t buy something. They know the hunt is more complex than just cop or drop.
Even if there’s no judgment at Cabazon, a nagging feeling can persist when you don’t make a purchase. What have you missed out on? What version of yourself could you have become if you had just bought that deep-discounted garment you coveted? You can’t help but think that that poor shirt or jacket or pair of shoes is going to get destroyed, burned in a massive bonfire like when Burberry torched 37 million dollars’ worth of unsold merchandise. Like a sickly dog in a rescue kennel, those clothes deserve a home, but you were too cheap to provide one. The worst is the drive back from Palm Springs. You have one last crack at it. One final shot to consume. Sometimes, the guilt and FOMO is too much, and you pray that piece is still on the rack. And when it is, dear reader, it’s bliss.
When you do come up on some heat at Cabazon, there’s a specific kind of pride you feel. L.A. people will announce with only the slightest provocation that they “got it at Cabazon.” In more pretentious environments, copping at bargain basement prices might be frowned upon. East Coast media have started to sour on sample sale culture, with their hours-long waits, appointment systems and second-rate selection. But here, sale culture isn’t a once-a-year dalliance with affordability. It’s a way of life. There’s a joy of discovery that you can’t get buying something at regular retail prices.
If the apocalypse comes, no one will be spared its effects. We’ll all be mingling together, rummaging through boxes. Just like at the outlet mall.
Some days, Cabazon is swarmed, like Coachella weekends, but when I went recently, it was the most casual shopping stroll imaginable. Lines pop up here and there at stores like Balmain or Marni because of capacity restrictions, but I never felt rushed or pressured. The vast majority of luxury outlets at Cabazon look like mini versions of the flagship boutiques of the major brands. The Prada store, in particular, has a sheen and polish that seems out of place in the rough-and-tumble desert. Gucci and Balenciaga’s stores are very much in line with the brand identity of each company. This is not the outlet culture I grew up with, though. Outlets haven’t always been chic, and their wares haven’t always been desirable. To get a taste of what the outlet experience used to be like, I had to drop into Armani, my favorite brand and a store in which I was sure I would find something to buy.
The Armani outlet has an air of Mos Eisley spaceport from Star Wars. Staff members follow your every move, asking innocuous questions about the clothes you’re looking at. They feign friendliness, but it’s clear they’re just there to make sure you don’t pilfer any of the wares. Clothes at Armani are haphazardly arranged — some of the styles seem years old — and the cashier expresses shock when you actually buy something. I tried on some jackets, but nothing fit right or was quite cheap enough.
The thing is, at Cabazon, you’re usually stopping on the way to your vacation in Palm Springs or Indio or Desert Hot Springs. You can’t ball out completely, because you have days of balling left to do. So I picked up what I thought was a box of Emporio Armani underwear. The cashier blinked at me and muttered how these were undershirts. Like I could tell the difference as I perused the unmarked displays. This is the true outlet experience. Comfort, convenience and a hot mess pile of clothes to rummage through.
Some outlets feel like the real thing. Others feel like an elevated Nordstrom Rack. Personally, I prefer the middle ground. I’m not trying to get into some Tommy Hilfiger jeans from three years ago or buy a busted suitcase, but I also want an experience that’s different from Beverly Hills or even Century City. I want to get my hands dirty. I want to feel like there’s danger and possibility hanging from every display. I want to see some outrageous pair of pants that I can’t believe a reputable brand actually manufactured. In a real apocalypse, fashion won’t matter much. We’ll be too busy eating horse meat and suffering from radiation poisoning. That’s not fashion (well, maybe Demna has some ideas for Balenciaga on that front) but in our glorious pre- or current apocalypse era, we can revel in a desert outpost that has everything you’ll ever need…and a Sbarro.