I’ve just stepped off the plane in muggy Buenos Aires. I’m jet-lagged and looking distinctly dishelleved. However, my guide Sophie Lloyd swears that she has the instant pick me up – a shopping tour of the city.
Lloyd, a charming English expat with plenty of pizzazz and a font of fashion knowledge, has been customising shopping tours of Buenos Aires’s boutiques since 2011 – many of them in hard-to-find locations. In recent years, local designers have ditched shops for appointment-only showrooms in unmarked spaces, preferring the tailored one-to-one approach. “It started off as a way for up-and-coming designers to keep overheads low”, says Lloyd. “With the rising inflation here, it’s difficult for them. But more recently, it’s developed into a trend. Now lots of designers willingly choose showrooms over shops. It’s a much more personal experience, for both client and customer.”
I´m confused. It can’t be good for business, if people can’t find you? “In-the-know porteños [Buenos Aires locals] are aware of the showroom scene so they’re happy to seek the designers out on Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms,” Lloyd explains. “They like the idea of an ‘insiders’ shopping scene”. Of course, it’s more of a challenge for international visitors like me, but that’s precisely where Lloyd comes in.
We start the tour in Palermo, the city’s fashionable quarter. Here it’s all al fresco bars, boutiques and beautiful people.
“Our first stop isn’t far”, she says. “In fact it’s just across the road.” Surely not… all I can see is an unassuming garage door. But inside, Tamara Lisenberg’s studio is a treasure trove of contemporary Argentine jewellery.
The young designer’s collections are spread across a gnarled wooden carpenter’s table. Sterling silver bracelets adorned with fluffy black feathers are displayed on the walls, like works of art. Lisenberg’s eyes sparkle as she talks passionately about a necklace I pick up, demonstrating its trademark versatility by twisting it into different shapes before draping it around my neck. Even the long silver clasps are part of the design – you can wear them at the front. Much of Lisenberg’s work is made from sustainable or recycled materials, such as a bird-shaped wooden pendant created from the discarded shavings of a guitar. Others have an unmistakeably Argentine identity (her SUR collection features the swirly radal wood, native to Patagonia; some pieces are fashioned out of Argentine volcanic rock). “Each collection has its story, and they’re all made with a lot of love,” she says with a smile.
It’s a 10-minute walk to our next stop, in the up-and-coming barrio of Villa Crespo. Appropriately, the designer brand we’re here to see is housed in a former textile factory, in a beautiful high-ceilinged space. Manto Abrigos combines traditional methods with contemporary design, and the result is an inspirational collection of luxury coats, throws, and home accessories, all handmade in Argentina.
Clara de la Torre, the founder, tells us the story of the Northern Argentine collective she works so closely with, and whose black-and-white pictures decorate the walls of her office on the mezzanine level. The community spin, dye and weave the wool on wooden looms from their hometown in the arid Salta region. Once the hand-spun textiles arrive in Buenos Aires, the design, production, marketing and selling takes place right here in this very showroom. “Above all, it’s a cultural exchange based on mutual respect,” says Clara, as we sip tea on the sofa, surrounded by displays of resplendent garments. “When I founded the company 20 years ago, I hadn’t even heard of the term ‘Fairtrade’, but I knew exactly how I wanted to work.”
We arrive in the elegant Recoleta neighbourhood, down the road from the famous cemetery where Eva Perón is buried. Lloyd ushers me down a pretty passageway and up a staircase into handbag heaven. Owner Alejandra Crippa is there to greet us with a kiss on the cheek. She met Gabriela Alemann, the other half of Kenall bags, on the catwalk in the ‘90s. Former models, good friends, and now business partners, the designer duo set up the Kenall brand to “show the world what Argentina had to offer in terms of high end craftsmanship.”
Each bag and clutch is made to last with high-quality Argentine hide, accessorized with buckles and details made from horn, alpaca, bamboo and onyx – all from Argentina. Like Manto Abrigos, Kenall work with artisans in Northern provinces and the quality of their handiwork shines through. Lloyd lines up a series of bags for me to try on: I fall for a smooth black-and-silver leather clutch. An electric blue suede bag is butter-soft to the touch. (Clearly Michelle Obama is as impressed as I am – she took home a Kenall bag on her state visit to Argentina earlier this year). These are irresistibly unique designs, but the equivalent in New York, London or Paris would be three times the price.
New to the Buenos Aires showroom scene is Espacio NOD, run by two sassy fashion graduates whose distinctive style is taking the industry by storm. Set in an apartment block in Almagro, just steps away from the magnificent Facultad de Medicina landmark building, their showroom is as minimalist as their collection. María Monsalvo and Catalina Arévalo challenge the singular functionality of clothes, designing pieces that can be deconstructed and put back together again, like a jigsaw puzzle. They’re experimental and playful, yet also very wearable. And similar to Lisenberg´s pieces, theirs too can be worn in different ways. I spot shirt cuffs as ankle accessories – well, why not?
Outside, a dramatic clap of thunder warns of an impending storm. We take our cue and leave, hailing down a black-and-yellow taxi just before the heavens open. Back in Palermo, Lloyd asks our driver to pull up by a hip little bar on a cobblestoned street that I’d never have found myself (her insider knowledge extends far beyond the city’s shopping scene). By now, I’m half expecting to see a display of clothes at the back – after all, a showroom can be in the most unexpected of places. Turns out the only labels here are wine labels. We conclude the tour with a few glasses of velvety Malbec. Perhaps my third glass has something to do with it, but I can´t stop enthusing about the creative genius of the designers we met behind those closed doors. Had I seen their stunning pieces in shops rather than showrooms, I’d have fallen in love with them all the same. But I would never have known their stories.