One of the many joys of traveling is shopping for clothes and bringing them back from afar. In exotic fabrics, in unfamiliar designs, in rich or faded hues, clothes tell a story as much as any selfie or tchotchke. They’re also practical. And provided they’re looked after, and acquiring their own patina of age, the better ones can last a lifetime.
True, you have to like shopping in the first place, but I plead guilty on that score. And while I’m not great with the big names — the old chestnut, shouldn’t Mr. Hilfiger pay me to advertise his wares on my chest, rather than vice versa, applies — I’m a pushover for the souk or local bottega.
Take shopping in Tulum, for instance, the idyllic Mexican resort on the Yucatan peninsula, which seems to have style built into its DNA. At the American-owned boutique, Josa Tulum (josatulum.com), the one-size fits all, jungle-print dresses are instinctively right for the place, and they won’t cost you an arm and a leg either. Across the street at Mr. Blackbird’s jewelry shop (mr-blackbird.com), with its sandy floor and random pieces of driftwood for display, you’ll find the jewelry to match the dress — obsidian, lapis, amethyst and quartz — all of it a steal. Hacienda Montaecristo, right by, fills in, with the irresistible robozo scarves and leather bags. (haciendamontaecristo.com).
There’s lots of things you might want to take on vacation to Ibiza, the hippy-dippy Balearic island, which gives laid-back a whole new meaning, but clothes should not be among them. To take them — or too many — would be to miss out on Bagus, with its dazzling, Inca—inspired Pitusa kaftans, its beaded bags and its sexy, strappy sandals. Happy wife, happy life — and meanwhile I’m happy as a sand boy at Ibiza Republic, with its pastel shirts and shorts, all in the softest pure cotton. Incidentally, if Ibiza isn’t on your travel itinerary any time soon, the great Ibiza swimwear brand, Syd & Rex, Spain’s answer to Vilebrequin, with its totally delicious — and addictive — designs, is now shoppable online. Check out sydandrex.com. Benedict Cumberbatch is a fan.
Over in India, a recent discovery for me, although by no means new, is Fabindia (fabindia.com). Founded in 1960 by a certain John Bissell, who was then working for the Ford Foundation in New Delhi, this terrific clothing company now has 170 stores across India, as well as a handful of international outlets. But I feel its spiritual heart is in Delhi, where you can shop its Khan Market store for men’s shirts with zingy chevrons and ogees, blinding white Indian pants, silk cotton kurtas (tunics), salwars (wide pants) and the loveliest, most delicate shawls. There’s also something appealing about the fact that founder Bissell was born in Hartford and the company, Indian to its core, was first incorporated in Canton, Conn.
Colorful though they are, I’m usually wary of outdoor clothes markets, where you can’t try before you buy. What looks fabulous hanging on the rack for a handful of euros in Florence’s Piazza Ciompi market or glinting in the Mediterranean sun in Marbella’s rastro, or in the neon-lit night market of Hong Kong, looks less fabulous after you’ve schlepped it back across the Atlantic only to find that it will fit only an elephant or a stick insect — and the stitching unravels before your eyes. One exception, though, is the terrific Gambetta Market in Cannes, just off the ritzy rue d’Antibes, where an Italian straw hat and a vermillion-red, hand-knitted dog coat (for my dog, you understand) have been two of my recent finds. Still in southern France, Edith Mézard’s linens from her gorgeous shop in Lumières are not something you’ll want to miss, if you find yourself remotely near Provence. (edithmezard.fr).
You know the old joke — breakfast in Hong Kong, dinner in Paris, luggage in Brisbane. It has many versions. A lifetime of lost luggage has taught me it’s not really a laughing matter. Arriving in tropical Bangkok from wintry Boston in only the clothes I traveled in — plus a heavy cashmere overcoat — I was able to buy a complete new wardrobe in 30 minutes flat, in the incredible MBK covered market and get change from $100 — seersucker suit included. Landing in London, for a conference, minus suitcase, without so much as a pair of socks, a trip to Primark, the fashionable, homegrown discount clothing store on Oxford Street, had me kitted out in a new three-piece suit for under £60, or $90 (primark.co.uk).
At the grand Volpe Ball in Venice some years ago, my friend, the novelist Tania Kindersley, met Carla Bruni, aka Mme. Nicolas Sarkozy of France, on the grand staircase. Carla, in floor-length Valentino, turned to Tania and said, “Fabulous dress. Whose is it?” My friend thought for a split second before answering, truthfully, “Wallis, £19.99, last year’s.” Wallis is a mass-market, UK chain store (wallis.co.uk).
Often it’s not about what you wear, but how you wear it. Wasn’t that what Rod Stewart once sang?