Lifestyle Journalist

M. Astella Saw writes about travel, food, retail, design and trends in the lifestyle sectors. Contact me at m.astella.saw (at)

Ready, Jet Set, Go! – Barcelona

Zara and Mango may be the obvious choices in this spirited city, but in recent years Barcelona’s been breaking all the rules and remaking them for herself – you’d expect no less, after all, from the city that’s hosted the international Bread and Butter indie designers’ fair since 2005. The Catalan capital is the perfect example of good things coming in small packages. Sure – the big labels are all represented here, but some of the best treats are found in the smaller boutiques, where you’ll encounter surprising and innovative designs you won’t see anywhere else.

Many of Spain’s biggest names fly their fashion flags along the Passeig de Gràcia, a grand boulevard in the Eixample district lined with richly decorated Modernisme buildings. Mango (No. 65) and Zara (No. 16) have stores on this street, of course, and the dreaded “samey-ness” of the Singaporean branches disappears under the wide and generous ranges on display. Along this avenue, too, are the urbane, thoughtful mix of prints and solids at Adolfo Dominguez (No. 32) and the soft crêpe blouses and napa leather bags at Loewe (No. 35), quietly luxurious and unmissable in its spectacular period building. Further along, swoon in the fluid cadence of cashmere maxi cardigans and ethereal muslin camisoles at Purificación García (No. 21) and indulge in the gorgeous detailing and lush fabrics at cult label Hoss Intropia (No. 44). For quirky homewares and household gifts, the three-storey design store Vinçon (No. 96) is a must – you’ll recognise it instantly from the massive red neon sign on its wrought-iron balcony.

Take time to explore the side streets, too. Off the main drag, find confident lines and razor-edge style at Spanish classic Antonio Miro (Carrer del Consell de Cent 349), and an array of fabulous, whimsical dresses to fill the closet of any urban doll at Josep Font’s raw, mosaic-floored space (Carrer de Provença 304).

Away from the formal grid of the planned Eixample district, you’ll find the small, chic boutiques in the cool of El Born. This neighbourhood’s the fashion equivalent of a tapas bar, with plenty of choices to pick from – and with the fun, fresh designs of Spain’s young taste-makers, it won’t be too long before your plate is full!

You’ll wish you were best friends with the storegirls at Coquette (Carrer del Rec 65) – you’d skip down these charming streets to borrow a striking, textured piece by Brazilian designer Isabela Capeto, and, never a shy one, you’d hold a pair of Raquel Moreno’s gold cascade earrings in your palm and promise to return them in the morning. A few blocks away, take your eyes off the sweet vintage-style tiled floor at Como Agua de Mayo (Carrer de l’Argenteria 43) – you won’t want to miss the lovely silk blouses or smart signature-print skirts by local label Ailanto. Around the corner, onLand (Carrer de la Princesa 25) is another treasure trove of contemporary international labels: discover the avant’s inventive, detailed pieces for everyday classics with a twist, and German designer Conni Kaminski’s old-time tailoring put to modern means for effortless style.

El Born’s beautiful gothic Catalan architecture is the perfect setting for the artful designs in these shops. The silver and vibrantly coloured porcelain jewellery at Helena Rohner (Carrer de l’Espaseria 13) is the stuff impulse buys are made of, while the asymmetrical cuts and printed silks at Mertxe (Carrer del Rec 32) are just right for a stand-out wardrobe. Nearby, Boba (Carrer del Rec 42) is a riot of colour, where daring cuts in hot pinks and cool aquas hang on the racks next to quirky rodeo or new-wave prints.

As night falls, stop in at any one of the neighbourhood’s many stylish hotspots for a cold glass of cava – the well-polished wooden bar at Gimlet (Carrer del Rec 24) is particularly inviting. And with a late Spanish dinner not on the menu till 10 or so, you’ll have time for a costume change yet.

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01 August 2008