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In Buenos Aires, a Fashionable Fling

Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page P12

Like the tango, shopping in Buenos Aires can be a somewhat wicked pleasure. Argentina's economic collapse in 2001 devalued the country's peso considerably against the dollar. Since then, this country has seen hard times. The spectacle of closed banks -- shuttered in hand-beaten, corrugated metal and plastered with placards of disgust and hate -- is a sobering sight.

And while the crisis, which shows strong signs of abating, has been brutal for residents, visitors are filling hotels and loading suitcases with leather goods and textiles purchased at bargain prices. How does $30 for a cashmere sweater sound? Lengthy cab rides (go with Radio, the town's most dependable taxi company) are about $4 -- the approximate price of a generous steak dinner in a nice restaurant. Treat yourself to long-stem white roses ($10 a dozen) and boxes of fresh chocolates ($5).

Head to Buenos Aires for new togs at the Cardon flagship store, or pick up suede jackets and gaucho pants at its outlet in Palermo Viejo. (Cardon)

The nine-block pedestrian shopping drag on Calle Florida is the best place to find average-quality clothing, including leather jackets priced at $100 or less. In the ritzy Recoleta neighborhood, best known for the spectacular and spooky Recoleta Cemetery -- the resting place of Evita Peron -- are the high-end, Euro-couture houses of Fendi, Hermes and the like. On weekends there is a fun but oddly hippie-era craft market in the park in front of the Recoleta Cultural Center. Save Sunday for the Feria de San Telmo, a touristy antiques market that fills the Plaza Dorrego with stalls heaped with costume jewelry, vintage movie posters and gorgeous silver saddlery from the gaucho era.

But since you're in Argentina, consider checking out the work of local designers -- and there's no better place to do so than in the transformed neighborhood of Palermo Viejo, a sort of SoHo South. In an area once known for its car repair shops and plumbing supply stores, there are now more than 100 boutiques for avant-garde and modish clothing and accessories, with the highest concentration of shops between Plaza Palermo Viejo and Plaza Cortazar.

Balthazar (5131 Gorriti) has beautifully stitched men's dress shirts in fine cotton ($60), as well as crazy multicolored socks ($5 per pair). A second level is devoted to handmade Andes-influenced scarves ($70) and shawls from the Salta region in the northwest part of the country. Two brothers -- one into fashion, the other an industrial designer -- own the no-nonsense men's boutique Hermanos Estebecorena (5960 El Salvador). Racks are filled with ruggedly stitched, earth-toned apparel that crosses the line from haute to funky-chic, but don't overlook the clog-inspired leather shoes ($60). Ralph Lauren fans will feel comfortable in the country-casual Cardon (4755 Honduras). This is an outlet for the Cardon chain, whose 80 stores sell men's and women's suede jackets, jeans and attractive belts and bags. Houndstooth-check gaucho pants for men are $20, but women will want them, too.

For edgy dresses that drape and flair, made of natural fibers woven in Italy, Mariana Dappiano (4932 Honduras) is the place. At Chelo Combina (1632 Malabia), customers can peek into the store's loft/workshop and watch employees assemble the high-fashion leather and fur jackets by designer Chelo. Carolina Guti, owner of Harapos Reales (4901 Pasaje Santa Rosa), is known for her hand-woven, one-of-a-kind sweaters (starting at about $200) and shawls made of alpaca, rabbit, cashmere and silk.

Two architects design the handy totes, butterfly-shaped leather backpacks and multi-use soft-sided cases (from $20) at Humawaca (4692 El Salvador). Calma Chicha (4925 Honduras), one of the first Palermo shops, has an unusual mix of retro and modern home accessories. The penguin-shaped pitchers and wild cowhide pillows are cool, but I walked out with a violin-shaped backpack in brown leather for $20.

When it's time to write home, drop into Papelera Palermo (4945 Honduras) for handmade papers and notecards, as well as cowhide photo albums and scrapbooks ($5 to $15). La Mejor Flor (4900 Honduras) florists insist that a hotel room is best brightened by a large display of one type of flower, such as white tiger lilies. Next door is Tikal Chocolates (4890 Honduras), which offers free samples of excellent dulce de leche -- chocolates -- and ice cream.

Of course, a shopper needs nourishment. When it's time to drop the bags and grab a bite, consider Cipriana (4780 Honduras), a cross between a gallery cafe and a serious restaurant. You can't go wrong with the pumpkin ravioli topped with warm, chopped tomatoes and fresh basil or the charbroiled chicken with crisp french fries. The comfy conversation pit in the rear is the perfect retreat for sipping a glass of wine or a cup of espresso. Lunch for two is about $9.

A few blocks away and discreetly obscured by a tall wall is Olsen (5870 Gorriti), which by most accounts is the hottest restaurant in Palermo. Blond-wood walls form a blank canvas for chef German Martitegui's modern Scandinavian cuisine, including smoked pork shoulder and braised endive layered atop toasted brioche studded with pickled peaches and Roquefort cheese essence. Dinner for two is about $25. Reserve a table in the garden and spend the evening until the clubs open.

-- Walter Nicholls

For information on Buenos Aires: www.bue.gov.ar. For general information on travel to Argentina: 212-603-0443, www.turismo.gov.ar.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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