It comes as a surprise to many that know me to find out that I don't really enjoy Shopping. Yes, I love fashion, but the link from that to finding shopping an enjoyable pastime is vast in my mind. I find no pleasure in the aimless wander through a suburban mall, and tend to find large stores crammed with 'stuff' overwhelming. There's too much choice!
Collins St, Melbourne outside the Georges Department Store circa 1950's.
But give me a small, specialist store and I'm in clover. I love a perfectly, tastefully curated array of well made, quality things to choose from. Unfortunately stores like this are in the minority and have to be carefully sought out, as the modern model of fast fashion and volume sales means they are rare in the face of the onslaught of loud, intrusive musak, overly bright lighting, and racks and racks as far as the eye can see. Who is buying all this stuff?
A book I recently bought was "Remembering Georges". Georges was a small Specialty Department store in Melbourne, and I can probably only equate it to Liberty in London in both size and style of content for overseas readers. The book is a collection of interviews the author undertook with past staff and customers - the store closed for good in the early 90's after 120 years of service.
What it highlighted to me was that all the things that make shopping an enjoyable social pastime have disappeared in today's shopping experience - it's really no wonder Internet Shopping has filled the gap so successfully in Australia. Georges had things that were eye wateringly expensive in it, but conversely it also contained well priced, good quality wares as well. What they all had in common were that they represented the best of their type. The main point of difference between Georges and other stores (aside from their superior stock which their buyers scoured the world for) was the overall experience and ambience of the store. There was a tea room, a hair salon, no one was pressured to sell and so no one was pressured to buy. It was well serviced by staff so that if you did require assistance there was someone helpfully on hand who knew their stock and the provenance back to front. Purchasing something was a special experience- the item would be carefully wrapped, even if inexpensive, and packaged up beautifully. A long way from being thrown into a plastic bag with houndstooth print on the side, even if the item cost thousands….The one thing all the reminiscences touched on was that there was space around the stock - there were clear aisles uncluttered by bargain bins and racks of clothes, there were chairs placed around the store to sit in if you needed to for a while… these things are all gone in modern Australian department stores, and are one reason why stores like Myer are a nightmare to me. The thumping music, the visual clutter… it's oppressive and far from pleasant.
It's a fabulous book and I enjoyed it so much. If you're interested in Social History post WW2 in Melbourne, currently work in retail, or used to enjoy shopping there in Melbourne then you'll love this book. And for those wondering why this wonderful shopping experience obviously failed after a long time… the store was purchased by a larger department store, who changed the stock to the same as the large department store a block away, and the model of sales and style of the store, and ran it down until had to be closed down.
Coincidentally, I had ordered another book recommended by a commenter on Faux Fuchsia's blog called "Orchids on your Budget" which dovetailed neatly in with themes touched on in the Georges book. It's a reprint of a small and entertaining book first published in 1937 and is essentially about living with flair on your budget. Lots of the lessons in this book made me feel like I was listening to my Grandmother talking about where to spend and save, and how to spot good quality amongst the dross.
I've written before about my Grandmother's philosophy - she was thrifty and frugal, but had flair and could sniff out good quality at 100 paces. It occurred to me when reading this book that the demise of the Home Economics classes in schools has been a great loss to all for those who weren't taught these things by their Grandmother or Mother (or Father). I don't think it's progress that life skills are no longer taught to school children (budgeting, basic cooking, sewing and cleaning), especially given that with busy households that rely on takeaway and outsourcing of chores, and the rise of consumer credit (and lack of budgeting that sometimes accompanies this) that there's no leading by example (and I feel that both boys and girls would be advantaged by this…). I've noticed that very few young people have any idea on finding things that fit them well, or that they're able to discern the difference in quality of fabrics, since Home Economics classes fell out of favour. They're simply unaware as pretty much no one home sews anymore. It's all ready- to- wear, and not particularly well fitted/ constructed at that. When even the Duchess of Cambridge constantly wears ill fitted clothes (many of them from the High Street she so loves, but some of the made to measure is equally poorly fitted), you know that the disconnect between the knowledge of garment construction and the consumer has been complete.
Made to measure Alexander McQueen coat with lumpy lapel, poorly aligned buttons and waistband, and straining top buttons.
Back to the Georges book, one of the people interviewed was Christine Barro, who was the accessories buyer during the 80's and 90's until the store closed. She went on to open her own accessories shop in Flinders Lane, Melbourne, called Christine. I visit every time I'm in Melbourne for a browse, and when I was in there last year, I got chatting to her in the store while I admired some beautiful costume jewellery in one of the display cases.
The store stocks all manner of things from umbrellas and hats to bags, sunglasses, scarfs, gloves and jewellery…. and after a lot of though I bought a long necklace, made by a Paris atelier called Goossens. Christine brings in all sorts of unusual things, and Goossens, it turns out, have an interesting history. They produce the famous Sautoir necklaces for Chanel, and have done so since they were first designed in conjunction with Coco Chanel in the 1950's. I had been drawn to the necklace in the display case and had commented to Christine that it was very Chanel like, minus the logos, so it was no surprise to then find that they made the costume jewellery for Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Dior and many others. If you're ever in Paris they have a showroom at 380 rue Saint- Honore to visit, which is definitely my kind of specialty shop.
16 year old Joseph tuxedo Jacket bought when living in London, white silk Joseph shirt bought in last January's sales and the Goossens necklace
I think it's a classic piece and I've worn it a lot already with jeans/ trousers and a white shirt or top, or as pictured above with jeans on my way to the movies on Friday evening.
So in terms of "Orchids on your Budget" I've stayed strong in the face of overwhelming numbers of emails entreating me to buy in the Internet Sales (and I've spent a lot of quality time unsubscribing from lists), and I've yet to set foot in a physical shop in Adelaide for the January sales… but I did buy one thing in the Netaporter sales. I'd been keeping my eye on it for weeks, waiting patiently until it dropped to 70% off. I have a feeling my Grandmother would have approved. It's a Lela Rose sheer lace coat (above). Not exactly a practical day-to-day item, it's definitely more a special occasion thing… but I think it's a timeless cut and will jazz up a plain black dress or trousers and top combo and providing I don't stack on the weight will be something that I'll be able to wear for many years to come.
So.. shopping. Still not my favourite pastime, but if I happen to be passing a small specialty shop on a high street with interesting bits and pieces in it you can guarantee I'll make a detour in for a browse. Somewhere along the way though, the race to sell cheap items at volume to the masses, rather than the single perfect thing to the individual has taken over the retail scene in Australia and not necessarily for the better. It's a great shame that the inducement to buy, and fast, has replaced the social aspects of browsing and carefully selecting.. and the old message that less is more.
British Colonial style in Singapore at Raffle's
Temple rooftop in Hoi An resplendent with Dragons
Hoi An was formally a trading port, and is now Unesco World Heritage Listed with an interesting mix of Japanese, Chinese and French Colonial Architecture dating from the 15th - 19th Centuries. Mr AV and I had holidayed through Vietnam 11 years ago, and loved it then, so I suppose you could say we'd already done some reconnaissance regarding the logistics of a family holiday and did not feel particularly daunted about taking youngish children there. Personally I feel it is a far safer destination than Bali, which is the default Asian family holiday spot for many Australians.
The Japanese Bridge, which dates to 1590
Inside the bridge there are several shrines, this one has a monkey
Timber post construction inside the Japanese Bridge
While all the resorts on the beach offer free shuttle bus services into Hoi An town, we felt that when our children became tired it would be far easier if we could just walk 5 minutes back to the hotel (or rickshaw them there while the rest of us walked), rather than wait for the next shuttle to a resort, hence why we broke the trip into two separate places to stay.
The two youngest being cycled in a rickshaw back to the hotel
You can get direct international flights into Da Nang (the nearest large city approximately 30 minutes drive away from Hoi An), so it made for an easy travel destination all round. The car ride did not seem long to the children as they were completely fascinated watching the traffic and the lack of apparent road rules, the strange things being carried on the back of scooters (animals, stock for shops), and the families of three on one scooter zooming past. While I would have loved to go back to Hanoi and also shown them Hue (the former imperial city), we decided staying put in Hoi An would be the go this time around. It was also easier to navigate due to the lack of traffic - the old town is blocked to scooters and cars, so is perfectly safe for pedestrians.
A street full of tailors
A shop that sold bamboo bicycles and straw baskets
They are also well known for their hanging lanterns, made in all different shapes and covered in silk, which are strung up all through the town and lit up at night to give quite a magical effect .
The children found the bartering aspect fascinating (and the performance that goes along with it), and the fresh food market with the stallholders produce set out on the sides of the roads - mounds of fresh coriander, ginger, salad ingredients, dragon fruit, women walking past with the traditional shoulder poles carrying baskets with fresh fish in totally them eye opening. There was a stall that sold live chickens in small bamboo cages (not sure whether to eat or for eggs, but you do see a lot of chickens wandering about roadside just out of town). It was no sanitised Western style market, and nor are the buildings a scrubbed clean Disney- style old town. There is a lot of patina in Hoi An still. It's all surrounded by rice paddies tended by workers wearing traditional conical hats and Water Buffalo and was a good eye opener to our children as to how people in other countries live.
French Colonial style at Hill Station cafe in Hoi An
I have always loved Vietnamese food and all bar one meal we had was exceptionally good (that meal was in a tourist trap style place that overlooks the river where they float lit rice paper lanterns down in the evening. The food was ok, but definitely not exceptional. View was good). Vietnamese food relies on fresh, clean tasting ingredients with lots of herbs. Hoi An has a lot of seafood locally caught, and the dressing and sauce flavours are sharp/sweet/clean tasting without so much of the chilli heat other Asian countries, such as the Thai, have. They are also very fond of a baguette, and their pastries are delicious (the French influence). Our favourites were the White Rose dumplings, a specialty of Hoi An (they have shrimp and pork in the centre and are very delicate in flavour and texture), and the Vietnamese Omelette, Banh Xeo, in which you cut the omelette into pieces and wrap in a section of rice paper with fresh herbs and salad leaves before dipping in a sauce served on the side. Delicious and something I'm going to look up to make at home. The small clay Hot Pots of curry are also worth trying, so delicious.
some sort of green mango salad and shredded chicken for lunch
One restaurant I'd recommend (and we ate there 11 years ago and enjoyed it then too) is the Brother's Cafe. It's just out of the old town, near the Anantara Hotel on the river. It's got an absolutely charming courtyard to dine in on the river, and at night is lit up with lanterns.
Brother's Cafe in Hoi An, which is housed in a French Colonial style building
All up it was an excellent family holiday - the highlight for me was walking out of the hotel one morning with an enormous bag full of laundry and having the 4 women, who have enterprisingly set up laundry services at the gates, begin fighting for the job. If only that happened at home. Returning home with a suitcase full of clean clothes after a family holiday was a miracle in itself.
There was also a lot of design inspiration all around me. While we didn't buy a lot, the beautiful details in the Hotels in both Singapore and Vietnam, the French Colonial and Chinese influences of the old town of Hoi An, their use of colour, traditional screens, pots and mood lighting were all inspirational in themselves. I could really get a sense of where the Australian/ British Interior Designer Anoushka Hemple found inspiration.
tiny tea pot
And as for what my souvenirs of the holiday were (aside from the happy memories and many photos), I purchased a tiny tea pot for one with tiny tea canisters of tea leaves from TWG tea in Singapore. You can buy the tea in David Jones' stores in Australia, but the range in Singapore was far larger, and the teapot was so charming I couldn't resist. The teapot has an insulating sleeve around it and literally brews only a single cup, so is perfect for me.
Halong Bay, still from the movie Indochine
My Hoi An purchase was a set of napkin rings carved from a single shell for each. They're apparently made up in North Vietnam in Halong Bay (If you've ever seen the movie starring Catherine Deneuve, Indochine, then you'll remember the stunning beauty of Halong Bay which was the second star of the movie, and if you haven't watched the movie then seek it out as it is beautiful). Another great movie, shot around Hoi An, is The Quiet American starring Michael Caine. And with that I think I'm off to do a binge watch of both those movies and relive a fantastic holiday. Hopefully we will return to Vietnam far sooner than in another 11 years.
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