Paris—Just inside the front door of the sprawling mother ship of the Hermès empire on the Rue Saint-Honoré stands a young Chinese woman prepared to welcome the wealthy shoppers from Beijing and Shanghai who share her mother tongue. Just beyond her, one recent Fall morning, were several of her countrymen who’d filled the largest bright orange Hermès shopping bags with cartons of €6,000 ($7500) handbags, €650 ($800) sneakers, and a few €2,700 ($3350) wristwatches thrown in for good measure. This was all they could reasonably manage, staggering out of the store to their limousines waiting outside.

But down the street, in the less brandname boutiques that represent the true height of French fashion, at least to the real cognoscenti, two or three sales persons stared gamely at each other, hoping someone would walk through the door. In Madrid, on the fashionable...

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