"Stop me before I buy a big bag made out of a cow!” I furiously text a friend in New York as I sit on the patio of the lovely La Biela café in Recoleta, just down a gently sloping hill from the fancy crypt where Eva Perón is buried. Minutes before, I was close to forking over a hundred dollars for a giant, furry ersatz Birkin, but since I have spent the last few hours purchasing fistfuls of silver bracelets, a massive serving tray with deer-antler handles, a turquoise-studded leather evening pouch, a lamp made out of hide, and even a diminutive 1920’s satin sofa that opens into a jewelry box, I decide that maybe it’s time to catch my acquisitive breath.
With shopping in the great capitals of Europe these days a challenge at best, and at worst a financial nightmare, Buenos Aires presents an enticing alternative. The tango-besotted city pulsates with energy, and offers—despite the collapse of the peso six years ago—a thriving retail scene.
As I careen from one end of town to the other—fortunately taxis are incredibly reasonable, especially compared with New York or L.A.—I find myself speculating on the town’s storied, and often contradictory, history: Does the spirit of Eva Perón hover over swanky Recoleta?Does Argentina’s revolutionary son, Che Guevara, animate the rough streets of San Telmo?But my reveries last only a minute—these personalities may stare at you from every newsstand and souvenir shop, but it’s the city’s vibrant future that makes visiting it—and shopping here—such a compelling experience.
It’s not surprising that Eva Perón is interred in the very heart of this neighborhood. Evita will always be remembered for, among other things, her elegant wardrobe. Though these graceful avenues are home to Hermès and Louis Vuitton, you’ll also find plenty of equally upscale B.A.-specific boutiques.
On the upper level of accessories store Pérez Sanz, the collection of handbags includes a small clutch covered with interlocking silver disks for $495, and a triangular purse decorated with chrysoprase and silver ($900) so elegant it could double as a tabletop item. Downstairs, rows of drawers hold a vast array of imaginatively designed jewelry—Sanz is also a sculptor and architect—including woven gold and silver delicate enough to pass for passementerie. Up the street, Sanz has another shop, concentrating on small housewares that make exquisite souvenirs. Ring the bell, descend a huge staircase and you’ll find alpaca-silver boxes inlaid with dragonflies ($425) and silver bells topped with cows for $445. I was overcome with temptation by the matés, which are cups meant for sipping tea: squat and round, they are a quintessential Argentine product, for sale everywhere from the lowliest flea market to upscale spots like this.
The satisfying aroma of leather greets you as you enter Arandú, which is dedicated to handicrafts, and at least in my case, the fragrance worked as a magic elixir on my purse strings. I may not be in the market for a jumping saddle, but I manage to stock up on woven bracelets, suede hunting bags, needlepoint belts, and alpaca-silver picture frames. Burnished riding boots are remarkably underpriced at around $350.
Despite—or maybe because of—its chandeliers and dramatic glass ceiling, some visitors will find Patio Bullrich, considered the town’s most prestigious mall, just a tad too sterile; others will be amused to discover a McDonald’s and a Christian Lacroix under the same roof. Say what you will, Porteños (as residents of B.A. are called) are proud of the place, which features, among international brands like Cacharel and Max Mara, a branch of the local shoe chain Sibyl Vane (named for the ill-fated heroine in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray), where a pair of high-heeled silver sandals with zippers up the back are around $104.