July 22, 2011 10:14 pm

Mystery Shopper: Awesome in Oregon

Portland’s beatnik vibe made me fear it would be all floppy hats, floral patterns and macramé

When most people think of the Pacific North-west, Seattle, Vancouver (and rain) come to mind. A little further south, however, sits Portland, Oregon, known for its greenness, hippies, microbreweries, and lap dancing clubs.

Though that combination of atmosphere and activities could keep anyone busy for days, my 24-hour visit for a board meeting afforded me a mere four hours of freedom. I have to admit the beatnik vibe made me a little nervous about what I might find when set free in the streets: floral patterned everything? Floppy hats? Macramé?

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First, the good news: there is no sales tax. My shopping adventure began on SW Morrison Street in Pioneer Square at Say Say (www.saysayboutique.com). At the entrance I was greeted by a display of reclaimed silk neckties by Sugarlust (available at www.etsy.com). I fell for one that, according to the salesperson, had been “made awesome” with the addition of a black vinyl robot appliqué with a red-coloured heart ($18). I thought it would, indeed, make an awesome belt with a black suit. Slightly less practical was a short-sleeved black-and-indigo hoodie with a cutout back ($38.50) by Skunkfunk (www.skunkfunk.com), though I was baffled by how this obscure Basque designer had found its way to Oregon.

A few blocks away, on SW 10th Avenue, I browsed through what felt like someone’s living room but was actually a store, Radish Underground (www.radishunderground.com). The small but cosy space featured satisfactorily stereotypical items such as a $165 Raw Earth Wild Sky (www.rawearthwildsky.com) army green, distressed cotton, short-sleeved dress with an apron-like large pouch on its front. The colour fell flat on me but I liked the concept of extra storage in the front rather than on my hips. What I actually bought was a black wool waistcoat with short-sleeve jacket ($158) by Preloved (www.preloved.ca), a Canadian clothing company that works with reclaimed fabrics.

I also succumbed to a small collection of killer leather bracelets by local artisan Gordon Dent that had been strategically placed at the cash register: a 3in warrior cuff in burnt orange with the head of an angry looking horned dragon in burnished silver ($24); a manacle of black and gold uncoupled zipper halves ($28, a little itchy); a 6in black slotted leather cuff ($22); and a black armlet with a double row of buffalo nickels ($30).

Although the sign in the window clearly noted opening hours of 11am-5pm, the Portland Design Collective showroom was still closed at noon when I walked by, though an apologetic clerk hurriedly opened soon after. Once inside, I found the smoky smell of used and surprisingly expensive clothing permeated the room, distracting me from the appeal of a one-of-a-kind dress ($250). It was artfully constructed from a feed sack made of recycled cotton muslin but the sizing wasn’t right and, even with alterations, I wasn’t sure I wanted “Purina” emblazoned across my chest.

At the risk of upping my carbon footprint, I decided to drive the one or two miles to the Pearl District. The weather was changing and it might have been difficult to explain my sudden sogginess to the other board members when we reconvened.

It was a good decision because it gave me more time at Moulé (www.moulestores.com), where I managed to fit into a comfy pair of wear-to-work slouchy black sweatpants from Young, Fabulous & Broke (www.yfbclothing.com) that were fitted around the hips with silver ankle zippers ($128), and a crew neck gauzy long-sleeved blouse with unfinished edges by Velvet (www.velvet-tees.com) for $68.

Just down the street and overlooking a beautiful park was Parallel (www.parallelportland.com), where I discovered some items from Improvd (www.improvd.com) made from mixed, over-dyed materials washed in orange blossom oil – which I have decided is possibly a clothing pheromone, because it drew me to an atypical V-neck navy cotton T-shirt with sheer black polyester back ($56). I also found a (black) below-the-knee stretchy silky polyester/spandex wrap dress with chiffon edging, and a leather belt held together by three cleverly placed snaps ($195).

Physical Element (www.physicalelement.com) on NW Lovejoy Street was my last stop and felt, finally, familiar, as it was filled with mostly black items from international designers. I was captivated by a black jersey dress with a printed beige tape measure wrapping around the bust, waist, and hips by Isabel de Pedro (www.isabeldepedro.com) at $298, whereupon I had to admit, much to my surprise, that hippies have exquisite taste.

The Mystery Shopper is a globe-trotting executive who shops as she travels for work

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