Shoppers in Buenos Aires should be prepared to embrace the unexpected. The surprising souvenirs available include capybara leather wallets, vinyl records morphed into side dishes and silicon mate gourds spurning the traditional hairy cow hoof – and the city’s stores may offer up a wealth of historical surprises.
In any given neighbourhood, stunning French-style mansions and century-old homes have bravely undergone facelifts to operate as glamorous bars serving basil daiquiris (Milión), classic sportswear stores (Nike) or even as pizza joints (Romario). But where these remodelled architectural delights come into their own is as boutiques so unique you wish you could flat pack the lot, restored house and all, into a suitcase on the next flight home.
At Pehache, a price is tagged to everything, even on the stairs’ coiled rope banisters following a request from one eager client. Sisters Mariana and Carolina Medina have overhauled the typical Palermo Soho two-storey house, making it luminous and airy and filling it with hand-painted furniture, stylish women’s wear and nick knacks to replicate a private home, Spanish villa style. Although wandering through each carefully planned room feels slightly intrusive, fondling eye-catching goodies is blatantly encouraged – meanwhile, the back patio is a to-be-discovered oasis converted into a tempting café. Each product has been sourced from one of 80 Argentine designers, including kitchen wares such as hand-painted penguin wine jugs or chunky wool rugs for living spaces, while a ramble upstairs means unearthing tempting one-off jewellery pieces in the boudoir.
A few blocks from Pehache (see photos), walk up the passageway to El Salvador 4638, ring the bell and if you’re lucky, Nadine Zlotogora herself may open the door. The Buenos Aires Fashion Week stalwart set up shop in the heart of Palermo Soho in a 1930s, French-style house in 2002, which retains original elements such as a Dista fireplace and black-and-white tiled floor entrance.
While Zlotogora’s romantic vintage-style hand-dyed women’s and men’s wear vie for attention with enormous stitched cacti, the building’s peaceful personality still shines through, radiating an essence of shabby chic that usually only the French know how to pull off successfully, and is worth browsing for a look at her unique style and a peek at this rustic delight.
Renowned for its old-school glamour, in the very heart of Recoleta neighbourhood is Tramando’s bright young thing of a flagship store which combines ready-to-wear with art installations. Casa Matríz Tramando not only houses Argentine designer Martin Churba’s much-celebrated women’s wear, which can be tracked down in Tokyo, New York and Hong Kong, but also ArteBA collections in the secret garden when Latin America’s most celebrated art fair hits town.
Here, an interior glossy white is more than all right, and space-age metallic evening wear incorporating abstract rubbery prints nestle comfortably alongside equally innovative installations. One such work revered by cool hunters is ‘Love Me Tender’ for which architect Martin Huberman used 10,000 paint-dipped clothes pegs to create a colourful, clouded skyline – or a hyperbolic parabolic to the more expert eye.
Meanwhile, one classic brand stands head and shoulders above others and not just for its prime location on Buenos Aires’ smartest, most luxurious street, Alvear Avenue. Polo Ralph Lauren’s breath-taking art-nouveau mansion built at the turn of the 20th century officially is a National Historic Monument and every effort has been taken to preserve the glory formerly belonging to the Lloubet family. Camera in hand, glide up the marble stairs to pass through enormous doors then immediately look up: the stunning violet-and-green stained-glass ceiling comprising blooming daisies smacks of excellent breeding as it was shipped over from Tiffany & Co’s on the same boat as the Colón Theatre’s. Taken over by the US designer in 2003, every light fitting, every balustrade, each perfectly conserved wooden panel and doorframe of this phenomenal mansion is so splendid, Polo Ralph Lauren has unofficially become a sightseeing stop-off for walking tours.
Another unique boutique to display its wares in a bedroom-living-room-kitchen set-up is Cualquier Verdura, which is keenly injecting some kitsch into San Telmo’s antique shows set up on the road. Also run by siblings, Violeta and Esteban Brenman updated this 19th century ‘casa chorizo’ house with some artist friends and made it their mission to lovingly give a home to “special objects in need of rescue,“ according to Violeta. From jewellery such as mirrored bird-in-hoop earrings from Pebeta Teta to Perspex stools designed by Philippe Starck for Kartell and Think Animal pussy cat- and piglet-shape place mats, the store named ‘any vegetable’ also stocks sought-after vinyl records, second-hand rolling cheese graters as well as a bust replicating ‘The Martyr’, a knife-and-bleeding-heart portrait of a local restaurateur-turned-muse for Argentine pop photographer Marcos López.
Published in SHOP Buenos Aires August 2011.