Of Dinosaurs and Bras

I have a little obsession here in Madrid.

There are these peculiar stores that are like nothing else in the US and they’ve taken my attention for awhile. This is mostly because I came to discover that what I thought was one type of store is actually more nuanced than I realized.  So, after chatting with a few owners who gave me the lowdown, there seems to be three inconsistent, unenforced, and somewhat overlapping categories:  “mercerías” (haberdashery), and “lencerías” (lingerie and sleepwear), and “corseterías” (bras and girdles).

Big bras
Big bras, bibs, and buttons.

The first one I went into was Mercería Lolita that has been around for 56 years. I was greeted by the owners Elia and Pedro who told me all about their family business.  It’s a cozy, clean shop with tons of small boxes of t-shirts, pajamas, and underwear stacked in cabinets and on shelves. She’ll happily guide you through your shopping experience.  She’ll climb up her trusty stepladder, find your underwear, unbox it, unwrap it, unfold, present & discuss, and then put it all back if it’s not what you’re looking for. As an American “solitary shopper” I just can’t imagine having to tell someone over and over again that the underwear they’re showing me isn’t big enough.  “Lo siento Señora, pero mi culo requiere más tela.”

No Quickbooks here.
No Quickbooks here.

They’re quite aware that the business is a dying breed so they make it very clear that all of their products are hecho en España: their main selling point.  They’re not as in the dark ages as you might think though. Astonishingly, they whatsapped me a youtube video and an article about their business.  Really nice folks. And there’s a warm, comforting feeling about just buying a simple t-shirt or pair of underpants.  No sexy brands or photoshopping. No red and white bull’s eye distracting you with aggression.

Lydia...the tattooed lady.
Lidya…the tattooed lady.

I moved on to a lencería called Lidya’s (can we acknowledge the names for a second?! Love them!) down the block but you’ll quickly notice that it also has “mercería” on the awning but this is just for the ladies. No matter, I was so high from how nice the Lolita owners were and how well we communicated that I was determined to see every beige bra in the city.  Unfortunately, I was a little overconfident and pulled a rookie blogger move when I walked in and forgot to ask if I could take pictures. It will probably take me ten years to get over how she glared at me and bluntly said, “Dime” (talk to me).  I nervously apologized and told her my lame story and then she warmed up.

Let me get that for you.
Let me get that for you.

They’ve been around for 44 years.  That’s just about as long as Zara has been in business. Both operations started similarly but clearly had devastatingly different trajectories and levels of ambition.  Perhaps Amancio Ortega wanted a little bit more control of the product. 😉

I have to admit I was shocked at the price for a “made in China” polyester nightgown: 71 euros. But they had some fancy, lacy hosiery on sale.  I was looking for something white because it’s Spring but La Señora would have none of it.  She made it clear to me that white was for children and first communion.  My American fashion individuality conflicts with such a homogenous country.

Dancing Lady Underpants.

On to Berta’s (mercería and corsetería) who has been around for 26 years and, lo and behold, has a website. Again, lots of boxes, lots of service, and lots of unique merchandising:

Magnificent merchandising
This contraption can only hold socks called “El Ejecutivo.”

So this one had kids stuff too. And I thought these socks were darling.

Someone special back home is getting these.
Someone special back home is getting these.

Finally, we get to round this out with the well-known, very old, Almacén Pontejos (Warehouse on Pontejos). It’s under construction right so I couldn’t go but it’s existence raises some questions. I’m no retail historian but traditionally a haberdashery = sewing supplies, and a mercery = textiles.  These guys sell sewing supplies, not apparel, but they also call themselves a mercería. Go figure and I’m tired now. So for your viewing pleasure, I’ve created a (by no means exhaustive) visual explanation:


By no means exhaustive.

I’m probably making too much of a deal about this but I have a special place in my heart for them now. I hope these beautiful, analog, institutions of historic merchandising stick around a little while longer. It’s important to get to know the person who sells you your underpants.



Madrid Es Moda

Madrid just had their fashion week. (#MBFWMadrid in case you didn’t know.)

Events beget events in fashion. Living off the momentum of MBFWM,  Madrid Es Moda is the city wide event that brings the fashion from the runway to the rest of us. Fashion pops up not just in window displays, but in museums, hotels, design and art exhibits, open studios, bookstores, parties, movie screenings, fashion contests, and other cross-collaborations.  There are even specially themed tapas you can order at over 25 restaurants. They are proven to help you fit sample size.

These fashion moments are not the main event.  They’re cursory or something to glance at while you’re eating your pulpo. I went to the lovely Hotel Gran Melia Fenix to get a closer look at the designs of Amaya Arzuaga, the mistress of undulating shapes; Jorge Acuña, jeweltones and silk charmeuse;  Moisés Nieto, the king of mesh; and my new favorite, Devota & Lomba, my fellow lovers of red, black, and white.  The concierge looked at me like I was a freak for explicitly coming to see these.

(Sigh.  I´m still adjusting.  It took me 15 minutes to figure out how to add an accent to the “e” and then do an upside-down exclamation point on this keyboard.)

There was also a free event at El Museo Cerralbo called  “La Mujer Ochoa: Modernisma y Modernidad.”  Ochoa was an artist and illustrator that has been said to simultaneously be a part of Art Deco, Surrealism, Pre-Raphaelites, Abstract art and Gesturalism. Not bad. These mujers are fantastic and so inspiring. You can almost hear the the scratchy record playing in the background as he painted them.

This seemed to be a more casually organized idea and I don´t think the ticket ladies actually knew what I was talking about (or they probably didn’t care).  They wrote something down and waved me in the right direction.

The always recognizable Desigual had a “Street Takeover!”:

I signed up to see a screening of “La Modista/The Dressmaker” (tagline: Revenge is Back in Fashion—mwwaahahahaha!) with Kate Winslet.  The directions were to send an email to a random address to get on the list.  We shall see what happens!

Here’s a beautiful and I think particularly seamless store display that I just happened to walk by and realize it was part of the happenings as well.  Store: Florin Antiques;  Dress: Ion Fiz:

Muy elegante.

There was something called “Designers´Rooms Fashion Bits” that was a presentation of…well, honestly, it took me awhile to figure it out. Something about online showrooms and 100% Made in Spain!…There were so many ideas and events and collaborations and then throw a little language barrier in there and I was lost sometimes.  I think universally, fashion suffers from “event fatigue.” These opportunities are seductive but they can become a thorn in the side of any designer and make them do a quick cost-benefit analysis. Some cool stuff though:

Last thing. Davidelfin and IKB 191 Collab:

Some bleak drama courtesy of
“Inferno” meets Mid-century Modern. Why not?

So here’s the deal so far:  I average 5 miles a day walking around the city looking, talking, and thinking.  Is there something inherently Spanish that I can discern?  Why am I always the only one here looking at this?  I hesitate to summarize yet but I’m certainly past the knee-jerk assumptions of Spanish designers being inspired by warm weather and bullfighting. (Nor did I ever go there!!)  I think it’s pretty damn cool to have Ochoa’s art in the zeitgeist.  And to see fashion incorporated so homogeneously everywhere. (Especially my two favorite things that aren’t often paired, food and fashion.) And to that point, that designers and businesses collaborate so willingly, and goodness gracious, SO MUCH. The breadth of the events is staggering.  I didn’t even go to 1/4 of them. Need to meet the folks who organized this.

Madrid is really doing their own thing and their fashion week is not a separate, isolated event. Fashion is relevant to everyone and a reflection of what’s going on. So I really get it when they called it “Madrid es Moda” because they truly made it their city full of fashion.



An Ode to El Corte Inglés

Let’s just take a moment to gaze at that glorious typeface.  It makes me so happy.

El Corte Inglés on Calle Princesa ready to serve you.

And it’s green!! A solid, classic green. When was the last time you saw a department store with a kermit the frog green sign? Stein Mart, maybe?



Green is the color of money, luck, earthiness, health, and nature. It makes me wonder what bounty lingers behind the concrete facade of this, the most prevalent and important of Spanish department stores? (Quickly, El Corte Inglés is the main department store in Spain and well, I find myself there quite a bit. The end.)

So it deserves an ode. That dignified name demands it: The English Court!  An ode to department stores and their elephantine yet historically game-changing ways, their shiny and chrome yet intoxicating perfume and jewelry counters, and their definite promise of satisfaction but disorienting path to obtain it.

A little Roman inspiration in this door handle?

From Dillard’s to Hecht’s, from Wanamaker’s to Macy’s, department stores have ushered my sister and I through every awful back-to-school, Christmas, and swimsuit shopping season, but I love them. I love their breathtaking selection of pantyhose, their hefty, manual credit card machines (in days of yore), the enormous registers and particle board cash wraps, the dressing rooms with burgundy curtains and off-gassing, beige carpets, and the ever present ladies shuffling around with their name tags, clicking pens, and spiral keychains wrapped around their biceps.

Stand to the right in all cultures.

We can talk about merchandise assortment, price point, and positioning, but I think the defining detail of a real department store is the presence of an escalator. You can’t have a department store without one and the experience is just not complete if you don’t have a mini panic attack in your stifling, puffy coat, carrying your bundles, dying for water, whilst stepping precariously onto the people mover.  It’s the same everywhere, I swear it. Preferably, there are two sets of them to keep things exciting.

Fortunately, at El Corte Inglés near Callao, if you get through all the floors with your bundles, there’s something special waiting for you at the top. This isn’t a food blog, but man, the Spanish sure know how to do a food court.  A nice way to shop.

Let’s regroup.  This place has everything. You can get shoes and shirts but also purchase insurance, plan your vacation, get a spa treatment, go to the grocery store and the pharmacy, and play the lottery!

They even cater to plus sizes and first communion.

There’s a Corte Inglés for every market too: books, housewares, furniture, electronic equipment, home improvement. It reminds me of Harrod’s (another green logo) tagline: “All Things for All People, Everywhere.”

So the flagship, fancy store is at Calle de Raimundo Fernández Villaverde. Clearly, they cater to tourists because the signage is multilingual and all the normal luxury brands are represented.  I don’t normally poke around in these parts but the lady at the Chanel counter was more than happy to give me a free sample of Bel Respiro. (I know, I know. It’s French.)   

Finally, they’re celebrating their 75th Anniversary.  They designed a special website so that customers can share stories and memories of shopping there over the decades.  Like many apparel brands do, it started as a tailor’s shop and then grew, and adjusted its sails through tumultuous times and changing hemlines.  Here we are today. It’s unbelievable to me that there are still a few of these beasts of enterprise that have held on.  They technically shouldn’t be here given the ease and efficiency we have with digital and mobile shopping. Maybe people still go because they secretly like the elevators, perfume counters, and piped smooth jazz.  I still remember the perfectly coordinated “travel outfit” my mom and I picked out at Dillard’s before we moved to Germany in the 80’s: creased, navy slacks, a light blue cable knit v-neck sweater, and a plaid, button-up shirt with blue and gold accent threads and puff sleeves that brought the ensemble together. I felt ready for the big journey. It was such a big deal to go there, experience that.

You can’t get that on the internet. Not yet anyway.




El Rastro or What’s All the Fuss About?

I’m obsessed with finding things that I can only get in a single solitary place. It makes me angry when I go all the way to a boutique in another country and they tell me at the register (after paying) that they ship to US.  I’m not necessarily looking for superior quality, or something beautiful.  I just want to be awarded for the effort with exclusivity and authenticism.

So I started my Spanish shopping investigations at the very beginning with El Rastro, the main flea market in Madrid.  It’s cheap, democratic, unrefined, and it’s likely to have artisan designs that I hoped reflected something of what’s going on in the city.

Show me something I can't get online.

After walking up the old hill through a hailstorm (come on, Madrid!), and passing standard flea market merchandise (army surplus, polyester flamenco costumes, kitchen supplies, leather goods, deadhead fashions), I found my first forjador de metal. Señor Manuel Manceras creates cool, one-of-a-kind hair thingies and doodads.  So I got two.  He doesn’t have a website and he’s not on Etsy. You gotta go through a hailstorm to see him.

Manuel manceras
Manuel Manceras called me “una reina.”

Like most flea markets, haggling is part of the process. (NO. PLEASE LORD, DON’T MAKE THE AMERICAN LADY TALK TO PEOPLE WHEN SHE SHOPS.) I was bracing myself for this, but instead I heard and saw very little haggling (and therefore relinquished myself from the task.)  What I did hear a lot of was vendors shouting their hottest deal.  In particular this lady:

2016-02-14 12.22.28
Selfie stick deal of the century.

As awful as it is, I was charmed to see the “Curlz” typeface represented.  In a sea of white tents, most had no signage or distinguishing visual expression. I thought a lot about Margaret Kilgallen and how she said, “Always see the line waver.  That’s where the beauty is.”  I want to see more ad hoc marketing.  I’ll have to go back and look closer.

2016-02-14 12.00.11
Passionate typographers look away!

Another place that stood out to me was “Vintage.”  There were two booths and all they sold were second hand librarian blouses from the seventies.  I thought it was really peculiar that their entire merchandising assortment consisted of such a specific and not-so-classic item and that they had so damn many of them.  This spoke to my exclusivity and authenticism needs so I bought a black and white one.  I wonder if this was the unofficial uniform of Spanish working women in the seventies?  I’m also wondering if older Spanish ladies will look at me and think they’re seeing a ghost?  Will their daughters and sons say I look like their 3rd grade teacher?  Is this something that no one will be caught dead in except an ironically dressed hipster?

Old lady Vintage
“Card Catalog Chic”

At first I was turned off by the messy piles of clothing but then I remembered what the second week of January in H & M in Paris looks like.  Just a different customer.

Who remembers Filene’s Basement?

I saw an African-made leather bag that I wanted and would have easily just paid for.  In a cringeworthy moment, I acted like a hard sell and walked away after the vendor told me the price.  When I sheepishly came back to get it half an hour later, he either didn’t remember or didn’t care (didn’t care) and I gave him the 28 euros and now I have a bag. There’s some fashion communication for you.

My big brave purchase.
My big brave purchase.

It’s refreshing to go to a normal flea market especially after the authoritarian style Les Puces has adopted. Here, you can actually take pictures, get a silly, 10 euro shirt with dogs on it, smell the incense and recreational aromas, and not make such a big fuss out of everything.  Sounds very Spanish to me.

Scary Flamenco girl.
Dangling Flamenco Chica.