Lynn Yaeger discovers a place steeped in style, from the humblest fleas to the newest haute boutiques.

By Lynn Yaeger
August 19, 2015
Credit: Alexandra Farias

If you spend your first 48 hours in Mexico City barely eating, barely sleeping, in order to squeeze in five humongous markets and a slew of shops, is it any wonder that your head begins to spin and you lose the ability, at least temporarily, to discern one purple-and-puce handwoven basket from its equally attractive bronze-and-beige cousin?

It is my first time in this city, and like all compulsive shoppers, I have hit the ground running (albeit with the aid of a car and driver—this isn’t the easiest town to get around in). In no time, I have become enamored of the faded pastel façades, the wildly diverse neighborhoods, the stellar new boutiques, and most of all, the incredible fleas. And though the markets are ancient, the city’s energy is distinctly postmodern—Joey Arias, the male chanteuse, was at La Teatrería last week! Sam Shepard’s True West just closed at the Laboratorios de Teatro! It’s the new Berlin!

There are some towns where you can have fun alone, wandering aimlessly in blissful solitude. This is not one of them. The crazy energy demands you have your own people with you, and I have two: my friend Kym Canter, the creative director of the online marketplace Shop Latitude, who has been here many times before, and the indispensable Claudio Concato—an Italian-born fashion consultant, who moved to the city’s Colonia Juárez neighborhood two years ago, is nicknamed Angel Boy, and has agreed to act as guide. We make quite the triumvirate.

To Market, to Market | Day One

After an inauspicious arrival on Friday night—traffic jam, stunning smog, driving rain—Kym and I have a late dinner at the open-air restaurant (cunningly designed so that you don’t get wet) of our hotel, the unapologetically groovy Condesa DF, in a beautiful neighborhood of the same name. Well, at least it looks good from my hotel room window the next morning, but no time to explore—it’s Saturday and we have three weekend-only markets to hit. We head first to the upscale Plaza del Ángel. The antiques stores are open every day, but on Saturdays and Sundays they are joined by other dealers, which means tables and blankets displaying photographs of long-deceased Mexican flappers and peeling crèche figures. I buy a wooden cherub that the seller claims is 18th-century (well, I guess it could be) and whose price rapidly tumbles by two-thirds. (If you come here during the week, you can content yourself with a visit to Daniel Liebsohn, perhaps the best antiques gallery in the city, and Grafika La Estampa, which sells wonderful vintage books and prints.)

We follow this up with the Mercado de Cuauhtémoc, near Colonia Roma, a neighborhood that Claudio describes as the Mexican version of Williamsburg, Brooklyn—“French people are moving in and opening restaurants!” he exclaims. The goods are madly eclectic: amid tables choked with sad plastic Snoopys is the most beautiful piano shawl in the world, but unfortunately, the dealer thinks so, too—the price is around $800.

Then it’s back in the car for a 20-minute trip to El Bazaar Sábado in San Ángel. We drive along Altavista, past Tiffany and Max Mara, but the actual market—a vast complex up the hill from the glorious Museo del Carmen—is light-years away from a fancy mall. The offerings are so various as to give a whole new meaning to high-low. Maybe there is indeed something in the much-maligned local water, for Kym and I suddenly have an overwhelming desire to accoutre ourselves in the regalia of Frida Kahlo, the city’s patron saint and resident goddess. Her sultry gaze stares out from coin purses and phone cases, T-shirts and backpacks: here she is as a big-eyed Keane girl; there she is smoking a cigarette in full punk finery. She is dirty; she is splendid; she is ubiquitous. Kahlo-worthy embroidered frocks are for sale at the street booths for far less than $100, but the truly gorgeous examples are inside, at Androna clothing, where a white, square-necked dress resplendent with needlepoint flowers goes for around $300.

Credit: Alexandra Farias

Old Meets New | Day Two

You might think that by the next morning we would crave some relief from this relentless market activity. You would be wrong. Sunday is the day for the legendary Lagunilla market, an enterprise so sprawling, tourists have been known to wander helplessly through miles of sneakers and hoodies, never finding the good part. But we have Claudio. He tells the driver to drop us on Paseo de la Reforma in front of Chedraui supermarket. It is 11 a.m. and still not terribly crowded, but there are plenty of locals, many of whom are slurping what looks like a lethal combination of sangrita and tequila from giant cups. Collectively, we rapidly amass an early-20th-century Indian mask, a 1920s portrait of a Mexican baby, a turquoise-and-white Otomi coverlet, a tiny head that might have been whacked off a 19th-century Virgin Mary, and an itchy but divine woolen shawl. Alas, the tweedy Chanel jacket from the 1980s, a steal at around $300, makes both Kym and me look like overstuffed Nancy Reagans—but two minutes later we find a blue suede coat with a few fade marks and a distinct Miuccia Prada air for all of $15.

For lunch we skip the tequila and sangrita for our first foray into modern Mexico City: a quick bite at 30 Isabel la Católica, a 16th-century building in the Centro Histórico district that contains the Downtown hotel, a vertical garden featuring a precariously situated bicycle, a number of wonderful-looking restaurants (but we don’t have time for a full meal), and most important for us, a second floor of stylish shops. At Fábrica Social, traditional needle skills have been repurposed for modern garments, and everything comes with a detailed tag, so you know that a delightful beige-and-blue linen jacket was made by Nicola and took 36 hours.

A few doors down is Carla Fernández, one of Mexico’s new breed of designers, with a collection that incorporates indigenous hand-worked details and is frequently based on geometric shapes that are somehow both classic and avant-garde. At Remigio, a spot that Claudio has dubbed “Mexican Marni,” we find stacks of the traditional shawls called rebozos, each more gorgeous than the last, and peasant blouses that by some miracle don’t give you that dreaded maternity silhouette.

Now, frankly, I am flagging. But my spirits are revived with a coffee at the Casa de los Azulejos, an incredible blue-and-white-tile pile. Originally a Baroque palace, it became the flagship of the Sanborns restaurant-and-store chain around the turn of the 20th century. There’s a huge circular lunch counter straight out of a 1930s movie (paging Dolores del Rio!), and the second floor flaunts a spectacular Orozco mural (who says I didn’t see any art when I was in Mexico?). Thus fortified, we troop over to La Ciudadela, where, just at closing time, I scoop up a glittering $30 tasseled scarf that I swear could pass for Dries Van Noten; Kym grabs a bright blue tooled-leather shoulder bag, which prompts Claudio to observe, “Turquoise is the navy blue of Mexico.”

Boutique Boom | Day Three

Monday dawns, and with it, a desire to further seek out what is new and now. Our neighborhood of choice is Colonia Polanco, which some people say reminds them of the West Village, but which I think is more like Beverly Hills—gleaming chalk-white buildings, lush vegetation, posh homes hidden behind imposing gates. The streets in this quarter are all named for famous authors, so it is possible to meet someone at the Nespresso near Edgar Allan Poe or hang out on Calle Oscar Wilde.

This is a neighborhood for exploring tiny one-off shops, though like in L.A., everyone seems to drive. We walk, and discover Paolo Angelucci, where the handmade fringed bags and studded belts neatly reflect the 1970s vibe so prevalent on runways these days. At the gorgeously appointed Onora, the co-owner, Maggie Galton, an expat from New York, works with local artisans from across the country to create home goods and accessories that combine ancient handwork with a modern sensibility—rebozo patterns inform pillows, and traditional beadwork adorns bowls.

Our last stop is the recently opened concept store Anatole 13, which is also its address. (When Anatole France, the 19th-century French litterateur, wrote, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy,” was he thinking about just this kind of rapidly shifting city?) Turquoise may be the navy blue of Mexico City, but here, black, the international hue of hipsterism, holds sway. Taking in the Escheresque felt rugs, the art gallery, the newsstand with its array of obscure journals, you can’t help but wonder: if Kahlo had been born in her beloved hometown three- quarters of a century later, would she have traded her rebozo for a metal-mesh T-shirt?