An urban catwalk

Unstaged beauty ... a woman on a bench in Palermo.
Unstaged beauty ... a woman on a bench in Palermo. Photo: Getty Images

In Buenos Aires, Palermo is where the chic go to shop. Ben Groundwater tries to fit in.

IT MUST be nice not having to hire models to show off your clothes. The shops in Palermo don't even need mannequins in the windows, really. If customers want to see what the clothes look like on beautiful people, they only have to look outside.

Palermo's cobbled streets are filled with residents clad in the designer wear the suburb has to offer. They sip coffee at the pavement cafes, peer nonchalantly into the store windows; they sit in the squares smoking cigarettes and throwing their hands in the air.

Palermo is cool. Its residents are cool. They know it, too.

Buenos Aires has so many sides to it - the grunginess of La Boca, the dilapidated charm of San Telmo, high-class hustle of Recoleta and leafy streets of Belgrano - but it's the self-assured swagger of Palermo that's drawing in the cool kids.

This is a suburb that's all about boutique. The hotels are boutique - no large chains here, they're all artfully restored apartment blocks with personal flair. The shops are boutique too, tiny spaces packed with designer wares. The restaurants and cafes are similarly intimate and push the boundaries with Peruvian-Japanese fusion and south-east Asian cuisine.

The whole suburb has an air of effortless retro charm. The paint is chipped on the walls of the neoclassical buildings, covered by splashes of graffiti in parts but that just adds to the film-set feel. It all looks so perfectly unaffected that it surely has to be staged.

Tiny grocer's shops that must have been there for decades stand comfortably next to uber-cool fashion boutiques. The hole-in-the-wall cafes and rundown antiques stores all have the easy style that would have to be the product of some very careful planning anywhere else.

And everywhere you go there's those damn Portenos, the locals; the swarthy chaps in man-scarves and cardigans, the tousle-haired girls in tight denim. It's like walking around in a Ralph Lauren catalogue - they're beautiful. It's intimidating. It makes you want to go shopping to catch up.

Where to start? A street called Gurruchaga. It's cobbled and narrow, with cars trundling slowly past and it's lined with surprisingly affordable designer stores - and, even more surprisingly, quite a few are aimed at men.

There's Felix, Argentina's answer to British design house Paul Smith. The store does a great line in hipster-flavoured menswear, from chinos to cable-knit cardigans and elbow-patched blazers.

Nearby is Penguin, the classic American clothing store, and Bensimon, a local brand you might remember from such models as, well, everyone on the street outside. Bolivia is a trend-chaser's dream, with racks of skinny jeans and striped shirts.

Girls can duck around the corner to Juana de Arco on El Salvador. There, local designer Mariana Cortes has a store full of handmade garments that can account for a full day's worth of trips to the change rooms.

Once you're sufficiently decked out in the latest threads, you have to consider: what would a Palermo resident do now? The answer, obviously, is to go somewhere cool and allow themselves to be seen.

During the day that means sipping a cortado at a pavement cafe, indulging in a bit of people-watching while waiting for someone to admire your jazzy new scarf.

Best place to do that is Plaza Serrano, a busy square in the centre of Palermo Soho (the older part of the suburb, Palermo Viejo, is further split into two zones: Soho and Hollywood). There are markets set up in the middle of the square on weekends but even on weekdays it's the bustling centre of an otherwise peaceful neighbourhood.

If your shopping trip included the purchase of trousers big enough to accommodate having lunch, Lo de Jesus is the perfect blend of traditional and Palermo. Set on trendy Gurruchaga, it has the all-important pavement seating, as well as Argentinian steaks the size of the restaurant's small tables.

The afternoon calls for a siesta, then another workout for the credit card. It's homewares time.

Again, Palermo is filled with quirky boutique stores such as Calma Chica, which is the ideal destination if you've ever needed a cowhide rug in bright pink, or a wine decanter shaped like a penguin.

Nearby Pehache 1418 is a little more refined, set out like the ultimate Palermo apartment. It's the epitome of cool and, fortunately, everything from the paintings on the walls to the rugs on the floor is for sale.

Evenings are long and lazy in Palermo. There's none of the high-energy excitement of Recoleta - Palermo takes things slow. That could mean strolling the streets listening to bands busking on the corners, or having a quiet glass of wine before dinner.

As with the rest of the city, it's pointless trying to dine before 9pm. Once that rolls around, however, it's time to cross the railway tracks to Palermo Hollywood, home to the bars and restaurants any self-respecting trendite would like to be seen in.

Miranda, on the corner of Costa Rica and Fitz Roy, is Palermo's answer to the Argentine parrilla - a modern steakhouse with drop-dead gorgeous wait staff serving wood-fired, slow-cooked beef.

Take a piece of advice: bypass the traditional cuts and go for a thin flank steak. It's amazing. The bars around Miranda overflow with those Ralph Lauren-style models, who turn up throughout the night on fixed-gear bikes or retro skateboards to drink imported beers or cocktails. This is done, however, with a surprising lack of pretension, although it can still be tiring trying to keep up a facade of cool long into the night.

Fortunately, there are plenty of hotels in the area to retire to. Boutique, of course.

Trip notes

Getting there

Aerolineas Argentinas flies from Sydney to Buenos Aires, with fares from about $1700 a person return. (02) 9234 9000, aerolineas.com.

Staying there

Nuss Hotel is centrally located in Palermo, and, obviously, boutique. Rooms start from $US220 ($216) a night. nusshotel.com.

More information

www.turismo.gov.ar.

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