SHOPAHOLIC goes abroad! This is probably as close as I will ever get to the designer shoes of Becky Bloomwood: a trip to London, Manchester, Paris, and Nice with the sole preoccupation of 'shopping'.
Of course, there was a catch. It was a 'do it at your own peril' trip, where everything was paid for except the shopping!
And thus the journey began in November for a small group of Asian journalists, including moi; we were taken on a personalised tour of the two fashion meccas in Britain and two exciting cities of great promise in Europe, all of which sorely tempted us to melt our credit cards and live in perpetuity haunted by creditors.
Our first stop, after a 14-hour Air France flight with a transit stop in Paris, was Manchester, the 'original modern city' in Britain with a history of being revolutionary, innovative, and entrepreneurial.
And the perfect person to take us on a walking tour of Deansgate, one of Manchester's most vibrant and exclusive retail areas, and regale us with interesting tales was Dale Hicks, managing director of Manchester Fashion Network Ltd.
Affable and friends with the owners of just about every store he took us into, Hicks is well versed with the city's fashion, as his organisation supports designers and fashion and textile professionals within Manchester.
One of our first stops is his favourite shoe shop and arguably the oldest one in Britain, Edwards of Manchester. Established in 1830, it is still known today for its classic designs and quality and handmade shoes, especially men's footwear.
With prices ranging from £100 to £3,500 (S$279 to S$9,775), its clientele includes actors, professionals and - this being the heart of football country - footballers John O'Shea, Joey Barton and Wes Brown and Manchester United's legendary boss, Sir Alex Ferguson. Even Man U's power midfielder Michael Carrick had his shoes made here for his wedding last year.
With four premiership football teams in the city, the game's influence is everywhere, even on the cabs! That's former ManU player, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, by the way.
With a pair of fully bespoke shoes taking five months to produce, "the best of England is always the best", says Alan Clemence who was at hand to share that even the shoe trees are made to measure!
The store is located in Barton Arcade, which is being developed as a niche fashion centre.
Coming up in Barton Arcade is a brand new store that houses five labels including Religion, Buddhist Punk and very Mancunian brands like Elvis Jesus. Hicks predicts this store will be a hit with the young and trendy set - and the inebriated who frequent the watering holes just across the street!
Adjacent to Barton Arcade is St Ann's Square, which offers more street fashion. Hicks introduces us to Ran, a shop that specialises in street style - urban, casual and sports oriented - that is very popular among the locals and in Britain's North generally. The store has outlets only in Manchester and Liverpool and is much sought after, as its style has been made famous by rock bands like Oasis, Take That and Stone Roses, hugely famous stars that Manchester can proudly lay claim to.
"Mancunian fashion is very much dictated by generations of football culture and its diverse music scene (older famous sons include the The Hollies and the Bee Gees). In fact, Oasis packages what Manchester has to offer in terms of urban fashion," says Hicks.
"Sports fashion is also big in Manchester and people come from London to pick up on the trend. We have people who come from Liverpool, which is just an hour by road or train, to shop over the weekend."
With a huge young population enrolled at Manchester University and several other tertiary institutes - including Manchester Metropolitan, famous for its fashion and design courses - the city's fashion has a young, edgy dimension to it.
"I think people here are more dressed up than in London, where it's more casual. There's a passion about Manchester, which is reflected in the fashion take, and I like that about Manchester," says Hicks who is originally from Wales but has adopted this city as home for the past 13 years.
High end and high street
It was certainly fun to learn about the city's fashion history as we walked down Market Street, the main shopping area, but sheer torture to have to take notes and photos when our hands were itching to run through the racks and racks of clothes beckoning to us!
It was especially trying when we walked into the 'crowning glory' of designer stores - that of Vivienne Westwood, of Greater Manchester roots. The boutique is housed in an old building that has been beautifully refurbished and that offers the perfect backdrop for Westwood's collection and accessories.
We oohed and aahed and salivated over dramatic gowns, tartans, gorgeous velvets and knitwear that most journalists earning in Asian currencies can only dream of owning. Between dollar and sense, the latter won. Sigh, time to move on, Hicks!
So much to see and explore, all within walking distances of each other in this compact city - Manchester Arndale (Britain's largest in-town shopping centre), Selfridges, Marks and Spencer, Primarks, H&M, Boots, etc. Not to mention the restaurants, cafes, markets stalls, the glorious Royal Exchange Theatre, the happening Gay Village comprising a row of pubs and restaurants, the Ferris wheel called The Wind that gives visitors a bird's eye view of the city, the city's two oldest pubs, and the 18th century St Ann's Church.
(Primarks and H&M were our favourite stores and where most of our purchases were made, as the prices were the most affordable after conversion.)
Even fashion aficionados no longer feel the need to head south to London, as just about every designer god from Europe and across the Atlantic have taken up space at Harvey Nichols and Flannels in the city.
Considering that Manchester is home to four premiership football teams, it comes as no surprise that ultra high end Harvey Nichols is WAG heaven (Wives And Girlfriends of footballers, for those who aren't au fait with the jargon).
This is where personal shoppers come in really handy.
Jessica Lowe, who handles press and marketing, shares that the store has five personal shoppers, who, apart from seeing to the needs of their clients, ensured that at three recent weddings, including Carrick's, none of the VIP guests wore the same outfit!
The Dazzle cocktail's not for everyone - not when it starts at £15,250, thanks to the diamond ring at the bottom of the glass!
"We always try to be the first to bring in new top brands and we stock very few pieces of the same outfit," she says, pointing to the racks of Paul Smith, Alexander McQueen, Matthew Williamson, Marc Jacobs, Pucci and a host of other to-die-for labels that I was until then content to be a frontline viewer of online runway shows.
Budget blowers who need to be pampered by more than designer outfits can opt for the Day of Indulgence package that offers personal shoppers and luxurious beauty treatments.
Or take a break over sumptuous pasta and a cuppa at award-winning Second Floor Restaurant and Brasserie, famed for its view of the shopping hub and the skyline.
And if your dining partner is the one you love, make it a momentous occasion by ordering the Dazzle cocktail, a concoction created by Harvey Nichols and exclusive jewellers, Theo Fennell. At the bottom of the glass sits a pink kunzite and diamond ring. Way to propose, at a starting price of £15,250 (S$42,591)!
Vintage and quirky finds
If ubiquitous high street labels and designer rags are not one's cup of tea, perhaps the Northern Quarter will appeal instead.
It is the place for quirky and off-the-beaten-track fashion finds. Known primarily for rag trade wholesalers and cut-price Asian eateries before, this previously run down area is now dominated by independent retailers, vintage stores, and local creative talents.
Barton Arcade in Manchester has charming old architectural details and an interesting mix of shops.
The three-storey Affleck's Palace here is a must-check-out with its multitude of little boutiques featuring local designers, piercing studios and accessories shops, as well as record stores, art galleries, craft design shops, funky coffee shops and charming neighbourhood bars.
Zuzu Couture is a high end boutique that has a reputation for unique and edgy denim wear and is the place for those who want something different.
Hick's personal favourite is a little store called Oipolloi that is, he says, "the best encapsulation of Manchester's men's sports and fashion".
Another jewel in Northern Quarter is the Rags to Bitches vintage store, an award-winning boutique that has been featured in Vogue, Elle, In-Style and Guardian Weekend, among other top publications. A great place to browse for stuff mostly from pre-1950s and up to 1970s, the cosy two-floor shop offers a range of clothing, bags, shoes, hats, jewellery, and accessories. It also offers bespoke services, creating made-to-measure vintage-style dresses.
After a taste of what the city had to offer, we headed out of town for a totally different experience. We took an hour's drive through heavy after-office traffic to Trafford Centre, bypassing the Lowly Outlet Mall, the city's only factory outlet with over 80 stores, which is open seven days a week and offers designer and high street labels at discounts up to 50%.
The humungous, domed-roof Trafford Centre, on the other hand, has 230 stores, 55 restaurants, cafes and bars, a 20-screen cinema and other entertainment outlets including a casino - and an award-winning washroom!
For Asians who are unaccustomed to shops that close by 5pm, this is the perfect place to hang out and literally shop and eat till you drop, as the doors only close at 10pm on weekdays (Christmas shopping hours are extended till 11pm) and entertainment outlets are open till after midnight.
Even with 70,000 visitors daily (120,000 during Christmas), the mall is comfortable and jostle-free as the mass of shoppers is spread over 130,00sq m (1.4 million square feet); it is, after all, one of the top six biggest malls in Europe.
With just about every British brand under its stunning glass roof, Trafford Centre boasts the largest (four-storey) Marks and Spencer store, biggest and most successful trading John Lewis, Selfridges, Debenhams, H&M, and loads of other high street labels.
It is the perfect place for a family outing as everything can be found under one roof - there is no need to catch any buses or trains or carry a brolly. Just be prepared for very tired feet and an empty pocket!
And best of all, while the women shop, the 'shopaphobic' men can nip over to Old Trafford to enjoy the stadia and museum tours of Britain's most successful football region.
Hmm, now that I'm done with much-to-offer Manchester, I wonder what London has in store for us?
Photos by Leanne Goh
The writer's trip was jointly sponsored by VisitBritain and Maison de la France. For more information about shopping in Britain and France, visit shopbritainandfrance.com. BritRail sponsored first class rail tickets from Manchester to London, and London to Bichester Village.