ZOU XOU WOMAN: VANESSA BELL
Vanessa Bell has what one might call a very “posh” British accent. Her voice carries the clarity and elegance of crystal glasses clinking at a toast; she gives off an air of refinement that almost seems like it’s from a past era. When she switches over to speaking Argentine Spanish, there's a sense that something has been ignited. Her speech becomes animated and sprinkled with Argentinian slang; she bubbles over with enthusiasm—particularly for any topic related to Buenos Aires.
The freelance lifestyle + design writer/trend-hunter was born in Paris and raised in the U.K., but moved to Buenos Aires on her own in 2010 seeking the start of a new life phase. Vanessa developed an eye for the sides of the city often overlooked by guidebooks and set out to share her point-of-view with tourists drawn to things found off the beaten path. Enter Creme de la Creme, the bespoke tour company Vanessa founded in 2012, which offers curated experiences centered around the city's art, fashion, design and architecture scenes. Her business attracts the kinds of intellectual and creative clientele to which most luxury brands aspire. Vanessa has earned an international following for being a connoisseur of Buenos Aires style because she can see the city from a contemporary angle with both an insider’s and an outsider’s gaze. Her Instagram feed is a love letter featuring everything from Buenos Aires’ quirky post-modern apartment lobbies to typical meals at classic Porteño cafes and archival images of Argentine artists. The past year marked one in which Vanessa began to see more opportunities and growth in her brand than ever before. The life and career Vanessa has built for herself is owed to her blind faith in her abilities and her unwillingness to stay in her comfort zone. I met up with Vanessa on a spring day in Buenos Aires to talk to her about growing up in East London and what 'having it all' means.
Photos by Pilar Condomi
1. You're British and Argentine but grew up in the U.K. and Paris. You visited Argentina often growing up thanks to your Argentine mom. Can you share more about your upbringing and childhood? How did it shape your sense of style (in fashion, literature, art, design, beauty, objects, interiors, food, etc)?
I was lucky to grow up with two very inquisitive and restless souls as parents. My mother left Argentina during the military dictatorship and moved to France to work as an au pair, my father was working as a doctor at the American hospital in Paris and they met across a crowded room at a party. We lived in Paris till I was 5. I remember our flat there like it was yesterday, and revisiting the art deco lobby of the apartment block this summer I understand that my appreciation of architecture began at a very early age! I remember my dad playing Elton John, Roxy Music, Faces records when I was young and as I became a teenager musical 'homework' sessions after school. My mum’s musical influence was more Brazilian and Argentine folk music, which I still love and listen to today. She’s also a big film aficionado, and I’ve learnt a lot from her, particularly her knowledge of French independent cinema from the 60s onwards. Both my parents took me to art museums and concerts from an early age, I danced ballet and played recorder as a kid and was going to UK music festivals with my aunt and uncle from the age of 12. I guess I developed a precious sense of style as a result, heavily influenced by the new age traveler and festival trends, I was wearing doc martins, shaving my head, dying my hair and wearing army surplus and patchwork in my early teens. I raided my dad’s wardrobe as we went to live with him when my parents split up. I was quite a tomboy but lucky that my dad had been an Olympic fencer so was wearing his official British team tracksuits, he’s tall and lean so his clothes fit me. I’ve loved finding gems in thrift stores since I can remember and vintage even now is a big staple in my wardrobe My Argentine grandmother was of French extraction and used to travel to Europe and bring back expensive fabrics which my mother would take to her seamstress and design clothes. My mum still wears clothes she had made when she was in her 20s and so I’m still waiting for the day I can wear them!
You’ve been living in Buenos Aires since 2010. What led you from London back to Buenos Aires and starting Crème de la Crème?
I’ve been coming to BA all my life to visit my Argentine side of the family, but I did a TEFL english teaching course in my late 20s as I wanted to see if it would be possible to potentially make a living here and be out here permanently. I was frustrated in London and didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I moved out here permanently in 2010. I started teaching and did an internship for Time Out Magazine then began writing for Wallpaper* magazine which opened many doors for me. I began working for a New Yorker who had a local tour company as a personal shopper but realised that I wanted to appeal to a younger, more inquisitive crowd and be able to show people some of the hidden aspects of the city so I set up Creme de la Creme in 2012 and my services and areas of expertise and interest continue to grow and diversify.
Your enthusiasm and love for Buenos Aires are obvious in what you do. Compared to the places you’ve lived before, what are some things about the city that you find a) magical b) odd c) frustrating?
a) This city is magical because it’s spontaneous and unpredictable. I also like the fact that society doesn’t dictate what time you have to do things. If you fancy a steak and mash at 4.30 am it’s doable and if you want to drink a cortado with medialunas at 11pm no-one will bat an eyelid. I feel free to do what I want, when I want.
b) I think the lack of common sense among Argentines can sometimes seem a bit odd. Some things don’t make sense, and I’ve given up trying to figure out why. I have a hashtag which I regularly use which sums up my feelings about this #onlyinargentina
c) The excess of bureaucracy and red tape. The Argentines have made queuing a national sport. At customs, at the airport, at the bank, supermarket, nightclub, museum.
You are a freelancer and often work from home. What is a typical day like for you? Do you have a routine that keeps you centered? What does a day off look like?
Every day is different and I’ve promised myself for the coming year that I will exert more routine into my working week and switch off more from social media and work at a certain hour. I work from home with my mac, a few days a week with my assistant, other days alone. It helps when she comes as it forces me to get organised, but I hate to admit it that you’ll often find me in my pijamas eating my breakfast after midday when I’ve had a particularly heavy workload. The lead up and beginning of the high season is crazy (as on November) with requests for tours and finishing up projects before the end of the year. As my work diversifies into consulting, location scouting and taking on ever more projects, it’s about finding the time to do everything and prioritising my time effectively to fit everything in. I’m learning every day!
What are the elements that form the basis of your personal style? How does ZOU XOU fit into it? Do you have a daily uniform?
I think as I’ve got older my style has become more sophisticated, but I’d definitely say that my biggest fashion influences are French. Living in East London for most of my 20s was fun as I was always inspired by the people around me as much as my own fashion references, and perhaps it meant I was more daring with my own outfits. I used to run a Sunday vintage stall on Brick lane so it was also a good excuse to get dressed up for a day of people watching. I think I was doing something right as I used to get photographed regularly for street style fashion blogs.
I love fashion from the late 70s and early 80s as well as the carefree yet chic lines of the 90s into the early 2000s, think Jil Sander, Armani and Calvin Klein. I think it’s also important to know what works with your body, and wear clothes that you make you feel amazing even if you only have 5 minutes to get ready. I’ve begun buying vintage on Instagram and it’s a become a bit of a drug! My fallback will always be white shirt and black trousers for smart events or interviews or for a tour in winter. months. My Zou Xou’s go wonderfully well with the high waisted trousers I’m living in at the moment and the colours match well with my wardrobe palette preferences.
Without spilling all of your secrets (well maybe one or two;), what are some of your favorite haunts in Buenos Aires for: a) taking a client for coffee b) meeting a friend for a cocktail ?
a) I take clients to Birkin in the Botanical Gardens area as it’s a great spot to people watch chic locals and they know how to make decent coffee (not always easy to come by in BA!)
b) There’s a tucked away bar/cultural centre in Almagro called Señor Duncan (they make a mean margarita and dirty martini), my local haunt Los Galgos where I always order my favourite and sit at the bar, an Argentine cocktail from the 1940s called a ‘pato' or for something more upmarket maybe Casa Cavia.
We are constantly growing and learning about ourselves. What are some words of wisdom you would give to a younger version of yourself?
Don’t always be hard on yourself, look ahead and project to your next goal but make sure you take stock of your progress and learn to take compliments (it’s vital to give yourself a pat on the back every once in a while). Find out what really makes you tick, what gets you fired up, passionate, what makes your heart sing and throw yourself into it. Don’t try to be something you’re not or pretend to like something just because it’s in fashion or cool. It’s cool if YOU think it is.
What does “having it all” mean for you? Is having it all a worthwhile pursuit?
I don’t even know what success is anymore and I certainly haven't worked out what having it all means but as I’ve become busier and a little bit more comfortable financially I realise that I often just crave a day off where I indulge myself and allow myself to do ‘nothing', to relax, read a book, meditate, go for a walk with my dog and so I think that having it all means striking the right balance with work and play, having a quality of life that allows for indulgences but also involves working hard, most importantly, at something you love.
What are some upcoming projects that you have in works that you're excited to share?
I’m starting to work as a location scout for fashion brands for their editorial campaigns which is exciting, which ties in with my obsessive curiosity and photographing weird and lesser known neighbourhoods in BA. I have a few book projects in mind, as well as some articles I want to write. I dream about expanding my curated tours into Paris and enhancing the tour experience in Buenos Aires with curated itineraries for Montevideo and Santiago so I suppose that 2018 will involve travel and research to see if this will be feasible. I have blind faith and conviction in what I do professionally so I guess it will be more a question of ‘when' than 'if' I make it happen!