In a town that's not all that fashion-forward, up-and-coming British-born designer Vanessa Riley is a true find. Known for her extravagant, corseted couture gowns and sweeping, floor-length coats, Riley has dressed the beautiful people for events like the Grammys, the Academy Awards and Houston's society balls. But her designs are not inaccessible to the rest of us -- especially if you know how to rationalize. Her glamorous must-have pieces are more than worth the reasonable investment when you consider: 1) the quality craftsmanship, complete with satin linings and hand-sewn buttonholes; 2) the luxurious personal service -- Riley will custom-fit one of her designs in the fabric of your choice for a nominal fee; and 3) the fact that you'll never run into someone else wearing the same thing at a party. When you can't afford to rationalize, stop by the Vanessa Riley London studio for one of her terrific sales -- sometimes you can find last season's gorgeous creations for under $50.

She's exotically beautiful, she speaks four languages, and she designs killer jewelry. Mexican-born Mari Carmen Ibarra's trademark is unusual clasps -- one popular version resembles a ribbon of 18-karat gold. Her contemporary designs, appropriately sold under the name Contemporary Stones, also feature long strands of freshwater pearls and other semiprecious stones. No wonder the ultracool design store Kuhl-Linscomb decided to carry her earrings, necklaces and bracelets. Check out Kuhl-Linscomb's selection, or go straight to the source at the Contemporary Stones Midtown studio.

Why do those men in shorts and black dress socks comb the Galveston beaches with metal detectors? Because they know maybe, just maybe, they'll find a silver Rolex amid the shells and jellyfish. Tony Box sees it all the time. The burly, gregarious owner of Box & Box Jewelers restores and performs mechanical surgery on many a Rolex in his sprawling Rice Village storefront. The refurbished high-end timepieces are then sold at a fraction of the cost (Box recently saved a customer $14,000 on a gold Patek Philippe). You can stop in for a bargain-basement-priced used Rolex (starting at $1,800 with warranty) or to have him tinker with your Service Swiss mechanical or vintage watch. Box is not just a connoisseur but an equal-opportunity repairman, meaning he'll touch up a Timex with the same care afforded the timepiece of actress Goldie Hawn or an NBA athlete.

Van Pham's Swans Cleaners is one of the few places in town where it's hotter inside than out. That's because there's no separation between the counter and work area. Steam rises constantly from the presses, and some 30 fans tilt quixotically against the heat. Pham's loyal following doesn't mind, though. Besides really good cleaning, they get a laundry bag with their name on it and a dose of Pham's sense of humor. He posts the store temperature on a chalkboard (is it really 108 degrees inside or does he exaggerate a bit?) along with the joke of the day. Some are good, and some are, well, not so good. Lying about the bad ones will get you that coveted laundry bag.
Nothin' brown at David Brown. This chichi Rice Village florist shop is filled with greenery and riots of colorful flowers. In addition to the fabulous flower fashions, there are garden sculptures and gifts for the green- and not-so-green-thumbed. But your best bets are the special arrangements -- you're just a phone call away from making someone smile or swoon. Specialties include gorgeous and creative Texas-style treats with handfuls of yellow roses and curly willows.
Southland Hardware
While The Home Depot and Lowe's continue to assert themselves as the Starbucks of hardware stores, putting the fear of God into more modest chains like Ace, this humble Montrose shop -- one of the oldest hardware stores in Houston -- is staying alive. Its smaller size makes it much more navigable than those monstrous hardware hangars, and the staffers are infinitely more knowledgeable. They'll help you find exactly what you need, and if it's not in stock, they'll order it or send you to a competitor. The proud employees exude confidence that customers will stay faithful, even if none of them ever wins an Olympic speed skating medal.

The cheesy Alamo facade is a dead giveaway: The Goode Co. Barbeque Hall of Flame is all about Texas. Here you'll find Texas food from the Goode Co. Barbeque smokehouse across the street, the Lone Star State's best and biggest grills, Texas cuisine cookbooks, Western wear, Texas-style jewelry, toys for Texas tots and shot glasses hand-painted with bluebonnets. Send Texans living out of state an edible gift set of hot sauces or seasonings. They'll love you for it.
Carter's Country doesn't sell hunting supplies. It sells huntin' supplies. That's how you know you're getting the real deal when it comes to buying gear you use to kill stuff. It stocks more than 800 makes and models of firearms, from purty li'l things for the ladyfolk to handheld cannons for the Dirty Harrys out there. Carter's, which has been around for more than 40 years, also offers concealed-weapons courses and a firing range. You can get lost in the endless rows of rifles and handguns, not to mention the dozens of stuffed animals that make you feel like you're in your own special hunting lodge. The place wins extra points for the irony of being located in the same complex as an emergency animal shelter.

Looking for a big-ass belt buckle with a buckin' bronco? Or perhaps a pair of tasteful boot-shaped earrings? Well, look no further. Ed Kane's has been selling this kind of stuff for more than 30 years. With more Stetsons than you can shake a latigo flogger at, a boatload of boots, jeans of every color imaginable, and stuff for your horse too, Ed Kane's is a one-stop shop for the true Texas family. It even sells Western-style suits -- perfect for that bar mitzvah on the dude ranch.
In this era of über-chic salons and bewilderingly varied hair products, a visit to a traditional barbershop is a rare treat. And the Avalon Barber Shop is a classic, complete with revolving red-and-white-striped barber pole. Ask for Paul, who'll sit you down in one of the vintage chairs and deftly snip away at your mop as you survey the walls, filled with pictures of faithful customers and a stuffed alligator head. Close your eyes and drift off as he wraps your face in warm, steaming towels. Your pores appropriately massaged, Paul will swab on hot lather and glide a straight razor along your skin with the skill of a surgeon. A fresh "sage rub" aftershave will put some color back in your cheeks. Suddenly, you're as sharp as the well-heeled regulars who've frequented the shop since the 1940s. This is the grooming of kings.

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