SÃO PAULO, Brazil, July 15 - One Brazilian magazine hailed it as the "biggest store for high-end consumption in Latin America." Local newspapers call it the "temple of luxury," "Disneyland for the rich" and the "shopping bunker."
The object of excess is Daslu, a luxury department store that has long been a São Paulo rendezvous for the rich and famous. This is where the Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo and supermodels like Naomi Campbell and Gisele Bündchen shop when they visit this metropolitan area of 17 million people, where skyscrapers overlook shantytowns.
But Daslu (pronounced daz-LOO) is more than just an indulgence for the wealthy. Since it moved last month to a new, heavily guarded $50 million building between a highway and a shantytown, it has become a symbol of extravagant consumption in a country with one of the world's most skewed income structures.
Only days before Daslu moved, a government study said the gap between rich and poor in Brazil was second only to that in Sierra Leone. The minimum wage is $125 a month, and nearly a third of Brazilians live on less than $2 a day.
Daslu's new store has become a flashpoint for debate on social inequities. At the store's opening in June, guests went through 2,680 bottles of free Veuve Clicquot Champagne, spawning dozens of articles on Daslu in the local press - some praising it, others reviling it as a metaphor for social injustices.
"A store like that is an absolute affront in an unjust society like ours," said Maria Luiza Marcílio, a history professor at the University of São Paulo. "It's revolting to see the superrich spending like that, with people living next door in poverty."
Two weeks after the opening, about 250 college students protested Daslu by marching from the shantytown to the boutique's gates, begging for money as customers entered.
On Wednesday, in the latest of a string of high-profile crackdowns on white-collar crime in Brazil, more than a hundred police officers armed with machine guns raided Daslu and briefly detained its owner, Eliana Tranchesi, on suspicion of tax evasion. Authorities contend that the closely held boutique evaded at least $10 million in taxes over the last 10 months by using fake companies abroad to underreport the value of its imports; Daslu's lawyers deny the accusations.
Ms. Tranchesi, who was released the same day and has not been formally charged, could not be reached to comment on the allegations.
But in an interview two days before the police raid, she defended Daslu, which was founded in 1958 by her mother, Lucia Piva de Albuquerque, the wife of a well-to-do lawyer who sold clothes to her friends and donated part of the proceeds to charity. Daslu now employs close to 1,000 people, 85 percent of them women.
"I'm well aware of the social problems of this country, but we're doing our part by providing jobs to Brazilians and paying taxes," Ms. Tranchesi said, noting that the store provides free day care and basic schooling for the children of all of its employees.
"I'm simply selling what people want to buy," said Ms. Tranchesi, a divorced 49-year-old mother of three.
Though most Brazilians struggle to make ends meet, the moneyed classes are among the world's most lavish spenders. Brazil's upper crust, sometimes followed by paparazzi, may fly to New York or Paris for a weekend of shopping.
Brazil has a thriving $2.3-billion-a-year luxury goods market - the largest in Latin America - that is growing at about 35 percent a year, according to MCF Fashion, a São Paulo consulting firm. São Paulo, Brazil's largest city and its financial capital, accounts for more than 75 percent of that market.
Nowhere is the Brazilian elite's penchant for the good life more apparent than at Daslu. At the new store, a 183,000-square-foot, four-story neo-Classical palazzo that houses 120 designer boutiques, shoppers can buy everything from Dolce & Gabbana jeans for $1,755 to a Maserati convertible for $306,250 - all while sipping free drinks. The store has a helipad on the roof allowing its clientele to bypass traffic jams and street crime.
Inside, shoppers are pampered like royalty by armies of tanned salesgirls called Dasluzetes, who pepper their conversations with phrases in English, and silent servants in black maid's outfits with white lace collars and cuffs. Bellhops haul shopping bags back to a customer's vehicle or helicopter. Espresso bars and lounges with sofas are scattered throughout the store.
"What's so interesting about Daslu is that it's not just a luxury store, it's a cultural phenomenon," said Carlos Ferreirinha, owner of MCF Fashion, the consulting firm. "It's almost like an elite club where a certain group of people gather to share the same experience."
Daslu's obsession with impeccable service appears to be paying off. The store's clientele is remarkably faithful. On average, customers come once a week, compared with once every 21 days at other upscale shopping malls here, according to one recent survey. Though Daslu does not divulge financial data, analysts estimate that it had more than $220 million in sales last year, when it was a much smaller store in the exclusive Vila Nova Conceição, a residential neighborhood near Iberapuera Park.
The store's private label, which accounts for 60 percent of sales, is also catching on overseas. Eager to capitalize on the growing popularity of Brazilian fashion in Europe and the United States, Daslu set its sights on the export market three years ago. Today, it exports to 60 stores in 35 countries, including Bergdorf Goodman and Scoop in New York.
Ms. Tranchesi is thrilled with Daslu's budding success abroad. But she is even prouder of what the store has accomplished at home, where she was among the first to import designer brands like Chanel and Gucci when Brazil opened its economy to foreign products in the early 1990's.
"At a young age, I realized that my vocation was fashion and luxury retail, and that's what I pursued," she said. "I shouldn't have to feel guilty about that. I'm not stealing milk from children."