The Girls' Day Out is, according to its brochure, a "major institution", aiming to provide totally untempered shopping. It was "invented" 12 years ago by Vaughn Thomas and Steve Forrester, Staffordshire real estate partners, for colleagues, wives, and friends. Colleagues, wives and friends pay £1,000 each for the privilege of swanning around London a la Michael Jackson.
"Oh yes," smiles Steve over black pudding and poached eggs at the Savoy. "We transform shopping! We change Christmas into something really glamorous! We make dreams come true!" We are breakfasting after the rendezvous and the excitement around the table is palpable.
"One gets more and more extravagant as the day goes on," says Vaughn's wife Joanne, a 29-year-old "shopaholic" who has left their four-month-old son, Matthew, in Stoke for an event she considers "bigger than Christmas Day". "What more could you wish for?A whole day's shopping with unlimited funds!"
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," agrees Kate Edwards, who has come with her husband, Nick. "Except we do it every year!"
Kate, 31, a Birmingham-based management consultant, is wearing a lime-green suit, too much jewellery and impractically high heels, considering the shopping miles that lie ahead. Yet Kate is a GDO aficionado, having come on the trip every year.
"Last year I won the Girls' Dosh Award, because I spent the most dosh!" she says brightly. "I spent about £2,000. Most of it was on a cashmere coat for Nick, Wasn't it, Nick?"
Nick beams at me. "Women are natural shoppers," he explains. "That's why this is called the Girls' Day Out. Because shopping is a girly thing. I think it all stems from the Stone Age, when women picked berries off trees. It's the gathering instinct."
"Come along, come along," yells Vaughn, slurping buck's fizz. It is time to start shopping. "Merry GDO to you all," he shouts at startled Savoy staff.
We barge off to the limo, which is festooned with tinsel and white ribbon. On the back seat is a "goodie bag", a vast sack holding six bottles of champagne and about eight boxes of white chocolates. These are to help us with the day ahead. "And so the Girls' Day Out begins!" shouts Vaughn.
Everyone is given white scarves and special credit cards. They must be used for all purchases, otherwise the participants won't qualify for the Dosh Award. The spending limit for each is £2,000, after which everyone uses their own plastic.
However, this is not Monopoly money; everyone has to pay the cards off in the New Year. The £1,000 up-front payment simply covers the limo, "night-time entertainment", accommodation and "surprises".
"But the day isn't really about money," says Steve. "It's about fun, and friendship." He opens another bottle of champagne as we bowl into Knightsbridge and sit in a traffic jam.
"This is fun," says Jo.
"People are staring in, thinking we are famous!"
"Last year," giggles Kate, "we had so many presents, and then Steve bought a life-size stuffed Dulux dog; we had to hire a second limo to fit them all in." Steve shrugs. "It was a really nice purchase," he says. "How much? Oh, only about £300 from Hamleys. Really nice, with dyed hair."
We arrive at Harrods, hopefully attracting the attention of passers-by. A lone man walks past with his dog and looks at us with unconcealed boredom.
Vaughn leads us into the Food Hall, shouting "Hello, Harrods! Let's open the Presents In Need line." He produces a mobile phone. The idea is that when you see a luxury present "in need" of a home, you must immediately ring your mother/ brother/aunt, to inform them you are purchasing said item.
Kate tries to call her mother, Flo. "Open the line, open the line," urges Vaughn. "She's not in," says Kate. "Well, at least the line's open," says Vaughn.
I venture to ask if any of the "luxury items" bought are given to charity. "No, no, no, that's not the idea," says Vaughn. "But we do buy for other people. This is Christmas shopping, don't forget, not shopping for ourselves. We're helping the economy! It's materialistic, but then life is materialistic, isn't it? And we always give a percentage of what we spend to Children In Need." For stealing their title, presumably.
"It's simply not about being rich," protests Nick, who earns more than £80,000 a year. "It's just the way you spend money. We don't worry about spending money on the Girls' Day Out. We're too busy being extravagant!"
We stand in the luggage department. "This is about shopping," says Vaughn, as if we hadn't yet got the message. He claps his hands ecstatically. "A dream made real for Christmas."
He gazes at his wife, who is looking rather cross. She marches off to menswear. "Ah. She's off," says Vaughn fondly, picking up a small leather-bound booklet of Post-it notes. "What's this? A Bible?"
Steve looks dissatisfied. "It's finding new things each year that's the problem. I've seen this TV, but I don't know if I like it." We troop up to the electrical department. The television is a monster, costing £1,099. "Then there's my parents," continu e s Steve. "I'd like to give them a fridge-freezer, but white goods are boring for Christmas."
He turns to me for advice. I explain I tend to give my parents simpler gifts. "You just give them a big hug, do you?" says Steve faintly. "Well, it's amazing what different Christmases people have, isn't it?"
Outside Harrods, Graham the chauffeur stuffs the limo with parcels while the party poses for an "official" photograph, complete with "surprise bouquets" of roses. A man selling the Big Issue moves conveniently out of shot. "Tee hee! I love causing a problem with all my presents," shouts Jo, as Graham struggles with a croquet set (£699) that she has bought for Vaughn.
Much later, the GDO assembles at Quaglino's for "mountains" of food, before going to see Oliver! Everyone agrees it has been a brilliant day so far.
"We drove down Regent Street and threw truffles out of the window to the paupers,'' says Vaughn. "Yes, truffs! People loved it! And we ran out of champagne so Graham had to rush out and get some more!"
Was anyone worried about the amount of money they'd spent? (nearly £1,000 each, so far). "I bet Steve's won the award for spending the most," says Kate enviously. "We'll pay it off in January. If we couldn't afford it, we wouldn't have come on the trip. We'd have spent the money anyway. What's the difference?"
Steve leans over. "Hopefully, the fact this is in the paper will make other people want to do it. Apart from the religious side of Christmas, this is what it's all about. We hope the Girls' Day Out will really catch on. Like Prince Albert introducing theChristmas tree to Britain."
Vaughn taps his watch: "The GDO continues!" There's a theatre, a hotel and a trip to Lapland waiting. The gang get up to leave their half-eaten meal. The waste seems to bother Jo. She stops by to tell me: "You have our puddings, if you want."Reuse content