Barcelona. A seaside city of culture, beauty, late night suppers and ‘faff-free’ styling. Londoner-turned-ardent-Barcelona-fan (and resident), journalist Gemma Askham, lets us in on the city’s style secrets. The labels to shop, the Instagrammers to follow, the joy of jumpsuits, eschewing a bra if it doesn’t suit an outfit…
Smart, funny, gorgeous Gemma is another Glamour alumni. She was much-missed when left London for a stint in Sydney. Then, she returned for all of five minutes before announcing she was moving to Barcelona, renovating a huge old apartment (worry not, I’ve already asked her if she can tell us all about that in due course), and freelancing from its sun-soaked squares, cafes and her terrace; clocking off at 6pm to meet her husband, Jordi, for sundowners by the sea. No, honestly, we’re not at all jealous… Do follow her @gemmaaskham for a glimpse into her gloriously sunny life and fabulous style. And settle back – maybe take some notes – for her brilliant insider’s guide to Barcelona style.
Jumpsuit: Mango. Sunshine: obligatory.
When and why did you move to Barcelona?
My husband Jordi is half Swedish and half Spanish, so even though we met in London, I knew there was a strong chance we’d settle elsewhere. After spending 18 months in Sydney to tick off my bucket list dream, when we returned to the UK in 2016 I felt flat. I’d ‘done’ London but wasn’t ready to ditch the city (read: Deliveroo) for rural life. Then Jordi got a job offer in Barcelona. I laugh that while he was sensibly weighing it up, I was already packing my bags. We did a recce in May, un-sensibly bought an apartment after two days (even less sensible – a total renovation project) and became residents in June. The city gives me joy every day.
How would you describe Barcelona style?
Neutral palette (navy, black, white), red lipstick, cotton shirts, boyfriend denim, statement glasses, cropped trousers, jumpsuits. In the UK, jumpsuits often fall into what I call ‘fidgety fashion’ – you know, they either feel too dressy or too carpenter’s overalls and you can’t quite relax. In Barcelona, you see them at their functional best: smart enough for work, practical enough to ride there on a scooter, whip-off-able for a quick hour on the beach, then chic enough for 10.30pm dinner. Barcelonan women have an uncanny knack for making styling – particularly one-piece or trouser styling – appear totally faff-free.
What differences have you noticed between the way women dress in Barcelona and London?
One item: heeled espadrilles. Sure, the Adidas effect is taking hold, but wedge or platform sandals that combine comfort with a height boost remain the shoe of choice. Because Barcelona is a motorbike city (and women needn’t scale the precarious concrete stairs of the Victoria Line), there’s a glue-like attachment to heels. I recently saw a motorcyclist in five-inch electric-blue block heels. I mean, ankles of steel.
Does it shift from area to area as it does in London?
Barcelona is about 10 times smaller than London, so that whole north/south-of-the-river rivalry is more Barcelona vs Madrid than an inter-city thing. That said, each neighbourhood has a ‘micro-vibe’ that’s reflected in its shops. Gracìa is the hippy, arty, green-juice-and-yoga hotspot. Poblenou is the Shoreditch tech hub. Raval and Sant Antoni are the up-and-coming Peckhams of five years ago. Gótic’s winding alleys are like Soho – we even have a Soho House. Eixample, where I live (which encompasses Gaudí’s La Sagrada Familia and Casa Batlló) is more of a Fulham or Islington, say. El Born is whatever London’s most hipster postcode is right now.
Do you think they’re more or less trend-led? Or is that they gravitate towards different trends?
I don’t think any city is more on-trend than London. When I arrived in Barcelona, I naively expected to snap up totally unique offerings from the Spanish giants, Zara and Mango. Then I walked into Zara in August – when it was still 30 degrees here – and saw the shearling coat I’d bought in London in January and rails of autumn sweaters. Considering it was too hot in Barcelona to even wear a t-shirt sleeve, I realised that trends are always “London first”.
How has your style changed since moving to Barcelona?
I’ve definitely got a Barcelona uniform: a lacy or silk cami, cropped boyfriend jeans or vintage Levis shorts in summer (when you live in a hotter country you *really* discover the importance of finding a pair of denim shorts that don’t have an argument with your crotch every day) and sandals or Stan Smiths that I can walk kilometres in. I’ve also majorly rediscovered cropped trousers and jumpsuits. When the temperature drops, layers of knits and leather.
Gemma in her Barcelona uniform of Oysho cami and Levi’s denim shorts
Is it more or less dressed up than the UK? I know all about their fondness for late suppers (not sure I can handle that right now with two small children…) but do they dress for dinner? Or is the vibe more casual?
Hmm, tricky one. Although Barcelona isn’t a slave to trends, one key difference – which I LOVE – is the range of generations that live in one area. There isn’t a ‘young person street’ or a ‘family area’ – every block has kids and young professionals and grandparents socialising together. And the older generations always dress up. Do you know the Instagram account @advancedstyle? It’s the work of photographer Ari Seth Cohen, who profiles the global style of the over-60s: sharp trouser suits, print dresses, beautifully styled hair. With the older generations making this much effort, I don’t think anyone completely slacks off in Barcelona – it’s more about smart layering to take a look from day to (a late, late) dinner. Though, simultaneously, there’s an atmosphere of total freedom. I once saw an older couple dressed up to the nines to go to a flamenco show. Before the show started, they were blissfully enjoying a drink outside a gay shop that had a window full of latex pants and whips. No one batted an eyelid.
How do they dress down?
They go to the beach and take everything off.
Think of Latin countries and there comes that hot-blooded, sexy cliché. Do you think the style is sexier there?
People are definitely freer when it comes to PDAs: couples snog on the street, friends kiss twice as a greeting (curiously, Spanish footballers often kiss each other on the cheek at the end of matches instead of a ‘manly’ back-pat). Emotion just isn’t anything awkward here. I also think there’s a very British attitude of sexualising nudity, whereas in Barcelona, women sunbathe topless on the beach and they go bra-less under dresses, but it’s not to be sexual – it’s just, why deal with weird underwear lines? It’s not a big deal – and because of that, there’s no self-consciousness about it. Sky-high heels and killer leather trousers are considered much sexier.
Whose the Alexa Chung of Barcelona: who’s considered stylish?
Elsa Pataky (@elsapatakyconfidential) – Chris Hemsworth’s wife – is a huge style and lifestyle icon in Spain. You forget how gorgeous, how flawless, she is (damn Chris’s distracting biceps). Just in the short time I’ve been here, I’ve seen her on the cover of Spanish Glamour and Elle.There’s a crop of mega street-stylers too:
Gala Gonzalez (@galagonzalez) – she’s considered the first model/DJ/socialite/blogger, of the Alexa Chung ilk.
Belen Hostalet (@belenhostalet) – slick fashion and travel photography, great for summer wardrobe inspo.
Blanca Suárez (@blanca_suarez) – Spanish actress with shots of her travels and shoots, often styling staples such as monogrammed tees.
Vanesa Lorenzo (@vanesalorenzo_) – model-turned-yogi who fits that whole Goop/Gwyneth brief of looking amazing despite having kids/no time/no make-up on.
Anything that’s considered a serious sartorial faux pas over there? (For instance: a friend who lived in Paris recently said that women NEVER wear leisurewear or gym clothes unless they are actually going to the gym.)
Despite being a beach city and an active city, you definitely wouldn’t wear gym clothes unless you were at the gym or going straight there. Leisurewear is not dinner-wear! Or even coffee-wear. Before leaving London, I planned to buy loads of patterned leggings (I loved Sweaty Betty’s cactus print), visualising myself athletically swooshing around Barcelona in them. But I would never have worn them. I also wouldn’t recommend wearing a Real Madrid football shirt.
Shopping. Serious stuff. Tell me about the need-to-know labels…. Is Zara big in its homeland? Where do you shop for your basics? Any amazing websites? Tips – we need tips!
Oysho – This is my favourite, favourite find for undies, swimwear, 40-euro cotton dresses and the softest lounge-at-home pieces. It’s part of Inditex – the Zara mothership – and combines the aesthetic of The White Company with H&M prices (SERIOUSLY). They could so easily have gone down the Primark route with bulk stock and bargains, but it’s totally the opposite: the stores smell like Liberty’s fragrance section (you always smell them before you see them), and the lighting is kind. I tell everyone to go here for a bikini that gives support, looks five times more expensive than it is, and won’t fall apart after two weeks in the water. I’ve already bought three camisoles, two cotton jumpsuits and am obsessed with the velvet-soft sweaters. Best bit: it’s all machine washable.
Poolside in an Oysho jumpsuit
Uterqüe – Where you’ll find me when I’m not in Oysho. Another Zara sibling, Uterqüe is like the big sister with glamorous taste. The look is quite J. Crew – feminine, high-quality fabrics, and not afraid of embellishment. Though it’s really best known for its leather and suede . Top of my autumn list is this leather jacket with stars. It also does excellent Donna Ida-style high-waisted denim, plus basic tees, all around the same price point as & Other Stories.
Passeig de Gracia is Barcelona’s equivalent of Oxford Street… if you replaced the tube station with a couple of Gaudí masterpieces, obviously! You’ll find all the international designer labels plus high-end European high street (Sandro, Maje, Cos) in this spot – which also happens to be slap-bang in the centre of the city. For handbags and purses, head to Loewe – Spain’s answer to Mulberry.
Uterque top and jeans
Bimba y Lola combines high-quality fabrics with cool prints (everything from geometric stripes to kapow-style pop art) to create loose-silhouetted dresses and quirky tailoring.
Santa Eulalia – The chicest multi-brand store in town, it has a champagne bar, amazing labels (Chloë, Louboutin, Céline) and genuinely brilliant service. It’s all very Carrie Bradshaw, with a Fenwicks-y vibe.
La Roca Village – A designer outlet, 40 minutes’ outside of Barcelona (there’s a special bus or a train to get there), that’s actually part of the Bicester Village group. As well as the usual big-brand savings (Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Jimmy Choo), every summer there’s an event called Barcelona Designers Collective, where, for a couple of months, you can snap up items from over 70 local Barcelonan fashion designers.
What’s the jewellery vibe: more is more? Layered? Subtle? Real or fake? Blingy?
Fine pieces, layered. PD Paola is a Barcelona jewellery studio that only started in 2014, but already has 101K Followers on Instagram. The aesthetic is delicate gold necklaces, geometric stud earrings and angular rings – all quite Scandi, actually.
Is there more or less pressure to look good? (I am guessing that with the temperature there is more flesh on display, generally speaking, but does that make people less self-conscious?)
I always say that anyone with body-confidence niggles should spend a few days on a beach in Spain, because you’ll see every type of body shape imaginable – possibly ALL OUT – and no one giving a sh*t. A British friend was in Barcelona recently and we were messaging about where to have coffee. Before I arrived, she WhatsApped to warn me: “BTW, I’m wearing a crop top. I think I’ve turned in a 15-year-old.” To which I replied: “Great. I knew you’d love Barcelona.”
What’s the attitude to health/the body beautiful? Is Barcelona a fit city? As obsessed as London is with classes etc? Or more about being outside in the sun? Are the streets littered with hotties?!
The streets are littered with smoking hot… gay men! It’s a very gay-friendly city, to the point where it’s not uncommon to see gym signs that say: ‘heterosexuals also welcome’. I think for a gay guy, the standard/competition would be high. FYI, I highly recommend the male volleyball players on Barceloneta beach: small Speedos, huge… abs. Overall though, in comparison to London, I’d say it’s more of an outdoorsy city than a fitness-crazed one. People run along the beach, swim in the sea, cycle, walk everywhere, hike the nearby mountains and cliff-top treks. But there’s no deprivation – it’s also a city of Vermouth, cava, eating (a lot) outside (a lot), and enjoying life.
What about the attitude to food/diet/eating? Is the wellness movement a thing there? Or are you all too busy eating tapas?
Healthy food has definitely arrived. Forget the idea that tapas only consists of bread and fried stuff – locals joke that the national food of Barcelona is now sushi. There’s a whole crop of juice bars, vegan restaurants and health food stores that could easily rival Planet Organic or Whole Foods. Flax & Kale, one of Barcelona’s most successful health restaurants, even has a collaboration with the city’s flagship H&M – called Flax & Kale x H&M, there’s a juice bar and Pret-style café on the second floor.
And what about beauty/skincare? Any must-know brands?
I’ve never lived anywhere with more pharmacies: each street seems to have one every 20 shops, where French chemist brands like Vichy and La Roche-Posay are really popular (maybe due to the geographical proximity to southern France). In Sephora and El Corte Inglés (Spain’s John Lewis) you’ll find some interesting Spanish brands. Sesderma is a Valencian anti-ageing skincare line that does excellent, award-winning vitamin C serums and retinol night creams for around 40 euros. Etnia Cosmetics – not to be confused with Etnia Barcelona, which is actually a super-cool local sunglasses brand – is a Spanish no.7, say, with affordable make-up and face/body care. One thing that really surprised me in Barcelona, and in Sydney, too, is the number of fake-tanning salons. You think: err, has no one been outside recently, it is sunny! But everyone’s becoming more sun aware. Every street now also seems to have a spa specialising in cosmetic treatments to reverse all that sun. I’ll probably be in there in 10 years…