The black market for dollars effectively devalues the peso, which now trades informally at 6.2 or more to the dollar — a steep discount from the official rate, but still better than watching inflation of 25 percent or more a year destroy savings.
In response to the dollar frenzy, the government created still more controls, requiring companies and individuals to get tax agency approval before buying the foreign currencies needed to move money out of Argentina.
Many businesses have managed to find ways of surviving in this climate: Christian Lacroix and Izod Lacoste have opened Argentine factories to finish goods using imported fabrics, and Research in Motion set up a plant where Blackberry smartphones are assembled. Other companies found Argentine goods to export that have nothing to do with their core businesses, but satisfied the demand to foment domestic production.
Designer brands, though, are stuck because they have to import all their products: Escada's fashions are supposed to flow from its headquarters in Luxembourg, after all, and who would buy Louis Vuitton knowing it's stitched in provincial Argentina, rather than some glamorous corner of France?
"Companies that directly import finished products will continue to face difficulties getting those goods to market," Castineira warned. Argentina should be able to maintain a positive trade balance of $10 billion next year given high soy prices, but the government isn't expected to relax its control over the goods flowing in and money flowing out of the country.
The rich will survive, Sierra said: The diminishing number of Argentines with the means to spend their money on high-end fashion can afford to do what the president did: travel to New York or Paris to buy the latest designs.
But a sense of gloom has descended on Buenos Aires' Recoleta neighborhood, where high fashion and luxury hotels have long given Alvear and Callao avenues a European feel.
The situation is so grim that even historic, made-in-Argentina institutions are calling it quits.
"I've got to get out. We've reached the point where commercially this business has nothing more to give," said Alberto Vannucci. In December, he plans to close the shop on Callao where his family has sold hand-stitched leather goods to the world's top polo players for 127 years.
"The economic situation of this country is done for. The good tourism is gone — tourists who come now come to eat lunch and dinner, nothing more. And even this tourism is pulling out, because they're discovering that everything's incredibly expensive," Vannucci said.
Gustavo Munoz and Roger Dwarika contributed to this story.