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Postcard to Peter: the Wares from Buenos Aires

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Suzy Gershman mediumWorld traveler and fashionista Suzy Gershman has been dropping notes to Peter from around the globe for years … this is her latest.

Dear Peter,

Joan Didion went Slouching Toward Bethlehem, but I am writing from Buenos Aires.

I am, after all, an Aires, well, an Aries … which is a fire sign.

As all great scientists know, fire needs aires to flare.

And boy oh boy, is the Paris of South America hot, hot, hot.

BA is Bs.As

While most travelistas refer to this city simply as BA, it is most often written Bs.As. in local newspaper ads. I think of it as “Buenos Aires means Big Business As Is.”

Polo guysI had no understanding of how many inroads the French had made into the economy here—sure, I know that BA is called the Paris of South America, but I did not know that the major grocery store chain is Carrefour, a French brand, most of the cars on the road and the taxis are either Peugeot or Citroen (made in the same factories) or that French brands distributed throughout South America also have factories nearby, so that I can happily give you the address of the Yves Saint Laurent outlet store!

And this is no Asian style knock-off wonder, but the real deal, South American style.

Aside from the business aspects, there’s much to the cultural side of the French influence. The ritzy part of town is called Recoleta; it actually looks like Paris in terms of architectural styles that mimic the Paris-16e.

And then there’s the beret which on a Frenchman is almost comical. It sat atop a gaucho on horseback, ooh la la! Too bad you can’t buy a gaucho to bring home as a souvenir. Hmmm, maybe you can!

COWS & HANDBAGS

polo saddleWith all those steak houses and the penchant for carne asado (grilled meat), you know there’s a lot of leather goods for sale. There are two wholesale leather goods districts, but frankly, I didn’t find them great. In fact, in one of them I fell in love with a carry-on and tried to bargain on the price, without luck. I was even told that it was on promotion and if I didn’t buy it immediately, the offer would be gone tomorrow. Reluctantly, I walked.

The next day, in the fanciest part of Recoleta, at a store called Traditions Argentines (Ayacucho 1958; tel. 4804-5667) I found the exact same bag, same tags, same price and was then told that as a foreigner I was entitled to a 20 percent cash discount on the spot.

Although I brought from home my favorite shoes and war-torn wallets, I never found anyone I trusted to recreate them. But there were plenty of handbags. More importantly, the average price for a fancy handbag is $300 instead of $3,000 as in Paris or New York.

There are unusual hides available and reputable stores will tell you when their croc-wannabe is actually stamped calf. My favorite turned out to be carpincho, a small, rodent-like animal with a dotted hide something like ostrich—only not endangered. You’ll find everything from handbags to gloves to jackets made from it … at reasonable prices.

Chichi handbags are not made of carpincho—see real croc as well as baby lamb and calf—and can be found at the iconic Charles Calfun (www.charlescalfun.com) which has the most luxe hides in town. Styles tend to be very traditional (Posadas 1199).

For the best bags in the world, stroll a few blocks down Calle Posadas to Perez Sanz (#1317) which offers true artistry in home style and bags with handcrafted clasps and museum quality creativity for the one of a kind bag of your dreams … for about $500-$1,000 USD. (www.perenzsanz.com).

I ended up buying my handbag at a handcrafts store called Filia (Rodriquez Pena 2011, right off Calle Posadas) which sells work from the northwestern ethnic people of Argentina. My bag was less cowboy-ish than many in town and fit into suburban U.S. lifestyle more easily—it’s made from weavings set into dark red leather with a solid set of shoulder handles, $200. (www.filia-argentina.com)

NOT YOUR BASIC RALPH LAUREN

While my old friend Ralph has a gorgeous store (also on Calle Posadas), the real polo to shop is La Martina, with several stores dotted around the city. The stores differ enormously, so visit as many as you can. The interior trade-dress is similar to Ralph’s, but the polo shirts are more authentic and funky.

La Martina logo Those stitched with Argentine flags make the best souvenirs. I got a sleeveless fleece warm-up for $100.

La Martina sells only clothes (men, women and children) and leather goods (boots, shoes, handbags, and totes) but other polo stores also sell the Estancia look including amazing steak knives of horn and sterling silver. Expect to pay $4,000 for a sterling silver set for 12 and $400 for a less flashy leather and silver plate set. My favorite source for steak knives is Ariete (Avenida Alvear 1761; 4811-2639) which is between the famed Alvear Hotel and the Park Hyatt Hotel.

WHERE TO STAY

We stayed at three different luxury hotels and also checked out the Four Seasons in order to understand the possibilities. Prices are basically half of what you’d pay in Europe for the same kind of swank. The Alvear Palace is the most traditional, resembling the Plaza Hotel (without Eloise and Skipper) circa 1968.

dulce de leche jarsIt serves high tea and a truly remarkable buffet breakfast in the hotel’s winter garden. You can easily “swipe” several jars of dulce de leche, the national foodstuff—a thick caramel goop that can’t be missed. Its location in Recoleta is also sensational—in the heart of the shopping district and a block from the Saturday arts and crafts market. The hotel even has its own shopping gallery.

The Park Hyatt is also a palace; built in two parts with the old palace and the modern tower and a garden in between. This hotel is slightly less expensive than the Alvear and much younger. The customer service was so sublime that aside from the usual amenities done in a beyond gracious fashion, we were offered a complimentary tango lesson! The part to swoon for are the public rooms in the old palace, where the tie-backs are made of crystals and the chandeliers represent everything Paloma Picasso tried to express at Tiffany & Co. This is the best in town.

Our final palace is named La Mansion; it is part of the Four Seasons Buenos Aires, which is also down the street from these two other greats. The Mansion portion only has seven rooms, the rest of the hotel is new and slick and very Four Seasons, which isn’t bad at all. Be sure to eat a meal at the hotel and finish off with the brownies made of chocolate and dulce de leche.

To get away from all this charm, we went to the InterContinental Buenos Aires in an oddball location not far from downtown that turned out to be convenient enough and much less expensive. It is also the only hotel we tested that has the metro (subte) on the corner so you could use public transportation to get around.

I’m bringing next year’s Born to Shop & Spa tour group here and then on to Rio (see my Web site for details, www.suzygershman.com).

Sending you kisses sweetened with dulce de leche,
SuzyKG

Don’t miss Suzy’s other missives…

Postcard to Peter: Suzy’s Bay Area Baubles

Postcard to Peter: Santa Barbara Shopping

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