Buying souvenirs on vacation doesn't have to mean settling for Big Ben key chains and street vendor postcards. Shopping while on vacation is more about bringing the exotic back home to enhance your everyday existence.
Hitting the snooze button suddenly gains resonance when your alarm clock stirs memories of that cute home-goods shop in Palermo Soho. And, "Oh, this old thing? I designed it with my tailor in Hoi An." But a case of foreign retail fever can have serious financial repercussions (just ask any shopper who's ever been to Tokyo).
We've compiled a list of our favorite bargain shopping spots around the world. From sources for $3 Chanel in Florida to emporiums of Jackie O–worthy jewels in Jaipur, these are the places where you'll get the most bang for your souvenir buck.
Vintage Shopping, Florida
Florida's estate sales and thrift stores have long been a secret shopping resource for vintage store owners from New York and Los Angeles. The Sunshine State's wealthy retirees often shed their collections of vintage clothing and furniture, from '50s Dior gowns to Saarinen side tables to Chanel handbags. To score the goods before the big city markup, get ready to scour thrift stores like the warehouse-size Red White & Blue, five miles northwest of Miami, in Hialeah. The shop is one of a half-dozen thrift stores filled with funky buys, such as cast-off Pucci minidresses or Hollywood Regency side tables, that make up the Flamingo Plaza strip mall. And if you tire of having to dig for treasure, check out the impeccably curated 5,000-square-foot space at Miami Twice, in South Miami. You'll pay more, but if you're willing to forgo big-name labels, you can score swingy sundresses and '60s sunglasses for $10 and up, because one woman's trash is another's sartorial treasure.
Red White & Blue Thrift Stores
901 E. 10th Avenue
Tel: 305 887 5351
6562 Bird Road
Tel: 305 666 0127
Chain Stores, London
London may be one of the world's most expensive cities, but it's also responsible for bringing designer duds to the masses. In 1993, Debenhams department store convinced high-end milliner Philip Treacy to do a line of affordable hats, launching a retail frenzy that has been adopted by everyone from Target to H&M. Although fashion-world fave Topshop gets lots of press, London is awash in chain stores selling not just designer collaborations but a full range of on-trend clothing and home goods. And no one on the other side of the pond needs to know that your new purchases are mass-produced. We suggest basing your binge along Oxford Street, which houses outsize versions of England's best chain stores. Start at Primark, a sprawling wonderland of fast fashion, and home to the four-quid organic cotton tee. Then continue on to the 26,000-square-foot New Look, where you can score trendy items like a cropped military jacket for the equivalent of just $36. And be sure to stop into Debenhams, where it all started, to check out their new H! by Henry Holland line. But whatever you do, please mind the Gap, and do not buy that which can be purchased at home.
(Faux) Designer Accessories, Shanghai
Designer knockoffs are so ubiquitous in Chinese cities these days that foreign tourists are more likely to be greeted with cries of "Prada, Gucci!" than "Ni hao." The latest must-haves from Chloé, Miu Miu, and Marc Jacobs barely seem to make it down the runway before they're copied and sold in markets like Yatai Xinyang (also known as the "fake market") in Shanghai. Though quality varies widely, you can find some pretty spot-on rip-offs that might easily pass muster back home. But beware, bargaining starts at close to what the real deal would cost and dissolves into a high-stress exchange that makes used-car salesmen seem gentle. Smile while spitting counteroffers and carry a calculator so as not to stumble over exchange rates. Better still, skip the faux bag fracas and opt for more interesting knockoffs like eyeglasses. The Sanye Wholesale Market of Eyeglasses, located beneath Shanghai's main train station, sells imitation designer frames with prescription lenses for less than $25. You'll still have to bargain, and bargain hard, but the return on this investment far outweighs that of a pleather Louis Vuitton bag.
Science and Technology Museum Metro Stop (Metro Line 2)
Sanye Wholesale Market of Eyeglasses
Shanghai Railway Station
Fashion Label Outlets, Italy
When fashion editors come to Italy for the runway shows, they'll often skip out early and head for the suburbs of Milan and the hills of Tuscany. It is here — in obscure industrial parks, down poorly marked roads, or in faux-folksy outdoor malls — that the world's most coveted brands dip their well-manicured toes into the realm of affordable pricing. It's like a treasure hunt to find the Prada and Miu Miu outlet near Florence, housed in a building marked only "Space," but once there (follow our directions), you can score real-deal bags, shoes, and clothes at up to 75 percent off. The Mall, 40 minutes southeast of Florence, sells classics like Fendi and YSL along with Yohji Yamamoto and Alexander McQueen in an open-air retail complex. If you're visiting Milan, head an hour outside the city for Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, and many other big labels at the Serravalle Designer Outlet. Or you can venture out of the country altogether: Just over 30 miles from Milan in Switzerland is FoxTown, home of half-off (or more) Prada, Ferragamo, Gucci, and Missoni. Because everyone deserves a little Miuccia in their dolce vita.
68 Località Levanella
Tel: 39 055 91 901
8 Via Europa
Tel: 39 055 865 7775
Serravalle Designer Outlet
1 Via della Moda
Serravalle Scrivia, Italy
Tel: 39 0143 609 005
18 Via A. Maspoli
Tel: 41 91 630 08 03
Emerging Stars, Bangkok
Michelle Obama favorite Thakoon and sister act Sretsis helped put Thai designers on the sartorial map. You can seek out Bangkok's up-and-comers before the inevitable Bloomingdale's markup by exploring the boutiques in the Siam neighborhood of Bangkok. The 10,000-square-foot department store Mob.F in the Siam Center mall is like the Colette of Thailand, showcasing both established and on-the-rise buzzy Thai labels like Finnegan Gingham (dandy menswear) and Eightandahalf (artfully draped dresses). Next to Siam Center is Siam Square, a warren of tiny shops and cafés with local favorites like Kinky, a streetwear store owned by Thai hip-hop star DuJaDa, as well as less-established designers who sew new pieces at a counter. Prices tend to be lower here (think Forever 21) than at Mob.F (which can range from Zara levels on up to Barneys-during-a-sale). But both areas offer great deals on fashion-forward and often handmade pieces.
Siam Center, 4th Floor
1 Rama Road
Tel: 66 2 658 1115
Underground Lido Theatre
Siam Square Soi 2
Tel: 66 2 252 0334
Home Wares, Buenos Aires
Nearly everything (and everyone) is beautiful in Buenos Aires, so it's natural that you'd want to take a slice of that eye candy home. Though there are deals to be had on clothing, the truly underrated shopping opportunity in Buenos Aires is for home design items. A sophisticated, good-value-for-money scene with scores of cutting-edge boutiques can be found along the tree-lined lanes of Palermo Soho. Our favorites? Picnic, where you can score Pop art pillows, and bold, graphic wallpaper. Calma Chicha gives a contemporary treatment to Argentine classics — colorfully dyed cowhide rugs, monotone maté gourds — and mixes in quirky accessories such as cowboy boot mugs, tin whistles, and mod sock puppets. Local chain Artentino lends a South American touch to Scandinavian-style design with great deals on a rainbow of stainless steel cups and saucers, Pop art baby mobiles, and other home accessories you never knew you had to have (frog toothbrush holders?). And for last-minute gifts, pick up a kaleidoscope of handcrafted soaps with quirky Spanish sayings at Sabater Hnos. You could easily buy enough to fill up a second home (anyone know a good Argentine realtor?).
Jaipur, India, is the world's capital of colored gems, where hundreds of millions of stones are cut and polished before being shipped off to (and marked up at) Barneys, Cartier, and Tiffany. Well-prepared shoppers can score precious and semiprecious pieces for a fraction of the cost back home. We suggest starting off at the granddaddy of Jaipur's jewel purveyors, Gem Palace, where ornate antiques and chic contemporary pieces have drawn everyone from Prince Charles to Mick Jagger, Jackie O to Bill Clinton. You'll pay slightly more here than in the city's other stores, but you're assured a regal (and honest) shopping experience, without hassles and pressure (but don't worry, you can still bargain). Even those on a limited budget can afford a shiny souvenir, such as delicate 14K-gold stacking rings lined with semiprecious stones (about $140). Also check out the turquoise necklaces, silver cuffs, and semiprecious stones at Amrapali (whose jewels have adorned glamazons like Nicole Kidman and Naomi Campbell). Fill out your collection with silver costume jewelry from the Johari Bazaar. Be prepared to bargain hard in the bazaars, starting at less than half the price. The more established shops require delicate exchanges, usually winning you 10 to 20 percent off the quoted prices. Diamonds may be a girl's best friend everywhere else, but you should choose a precious souvenir worthy of the riot of colors bursting from India's streets.
Watch a video of gem shopping in Jaipur, courtesy of Condé Nast Traveler.
Made-to-Order Clothes, Vietnam
Bespoke clothing and bargain shopping are rarely compatible. But in the picturesque UNESCO World Heritage town of Hoi An, you'll find hundreds of tiny shops that will copy your favorite duds, sew designs pulled from fashion magazines, or create Westernized versions of traditional ao dai tunics. The biggest act in town is Yaly Couture, which goes so far as to employ body scanning machines to ensure precise fits. You'll pay a bit more here, but the tailors have a good eye for Western cuts; there's a wide selection of high-quality cashmeres, wool, and silk; and their turnaround times are reliable. Another popular shop is Thu Thuy Silk, which constructs custom suits and dresses in 24 to 36 hours. Prices here start at about $10 for custom skirts and shirts and can range upward of $180 for men's suits, depending on the fabric. If you're spending only a few days in Hoi An, get the tailors started on your new wardrobe before sightseeing around town — it may take more than one alteration to get the right fit, and you can't brag about bespoke if it turns out baggy.