On the Pleasures of Travel and Shopping

Monday, November 24, 2008

Recently, a friend was admiring a pleated gray purse I was carrying. “This is fantastic. Is this new? Where did you get it?” She asked, caressing the soft, worn-with-age leather. “This thing?” I replied, thrown by the compliment. The purse, made by the Italian label Anteprima, was about three years old, and I had only begun wearing it again after discovering it in the back of my closet. I felt a little embarrassed by my answer: “I got it in Milan years ago.” “Oh no, not you, too!” My friend said, laughing. “You’ve become one of those ‘What, this old thing? I got this abroad, of course’ people!”

There is nothing more obnoxious, I will admit, about becoming one of “those people,” parading around, wearing souvenirs of their travels and then, when asked to identify the province of their purchase, smugly cite Buenos Aires or Tokyo. Over the past few years, the pleasure of my trips abroad has become inextricably linked with the pleasure of shopping. There is nothing more exhilarating than exploring a new city on foot and experiencing its retail labyrinth. Perhaps it is one way for me to justify my purchases, but shopping can be another way to experience the cultural heart of a place, which in some cities like Paris can be an aesthetic delight on par with its art, architecture and cuisine.

“But you live in New York City!” Some might protest. “Why travel all that way to shop, when you can get everything you could want in your backyard?” Living in Manhattan has its retail advantages. One is almost spoiled by the wealth of shops here, but there is something wonderful and seductive about buying unique items while traveling that you can’t get here. Besides that, work keeps me so busy that the only time I have to truly enjoy shopping is when I am on vacation. Some people buy art or books when they travel; I like to collect fashion.

My wardrobe over the years has become a collection of special travel memories made tangible. Whenever I wear a particular glen plaid, draped dress, I think of the annual trip I take with my closest girlfriends, which that year took us to Las Vegas and yielded a last minute splurge at the newly opened Alexander McQueen boutique at the Wynn Hotel. When I wear my grey, egg-shaped wool Lanvin coat, I think about the day my friends and I wandered the Rue St. Honore, trying to find the Hermes store, only to stumble into the bijoux boutique where I fell in love with that same coat. The brown corduroy jacket with kiss-clasp pockets that open like a coin purse? An avant-garde find from the Viktor & Rolf “upside-down” boutique in Milan, which my husband scouted on a rack for me.

Not all my souvenirs are “high fashion” buys. Some of my most treasured items are anonymous labels or up and coming designers, such as those from the Causeway Bay area of Hong Kong, where the arcade style shops are often manned by the young designers themselves. I bought one of my favorite tops, olive, asymmetric and made of draped jersey, which was proudly fitted by a young woman who declared it “special.” The design was so special, I was surprised to find that her stuff was only carried in Hong Kong, at that particular mall, and not in New York at all!

Of course, I don’t travel just for the shopping alone. It would be madness to give up viewing the rich Renaissance paintings of Florence for an afternoon at the Prada outlet or a tour of the Vietnam war museum in Ho Chi Minh City for a visit with tailors for a pair of custom-made silk pajamas. But why give up any of these things, when you can experience it all, as I have? As long as I continue to travel, I will continue to shop, adding small pieces to my wardrobe along the way.


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