THE instructions were simple. I was to rendezvous with a woman called Matilda at 10am on the corner of Queen and Oxford Streets in Woollahra, Sydney. Feeling like a character in a second-rate spy novel, I idly wondered if she'd be wearing a red carnation for identification purposes. But, as the lone occupant of that particular corner, Matilda - who was to be my guide on an Urban Walkabout Tour of the fashion districts of Woollahra and Paddington - was easy to spot in her military-inspired Trelise Cooper coat.
Stranded in Sydney one wintry Saturday while my husband attended a conference at the Sheraton on the Park, I took my cue from corporate wives the world over and decided to hit the shops. To date my knowledge of Sydney had been fairly poor, my personal retail map of the city not stretching much beyond the David Jones department store and the luxury designer enclave on Castlereagh St. But all that was about to change thanks to Matilda, a local fashion aficionado and design student with an insider's knowledge and an eye for the next big thing. We were joined by two sisters, Danielle and Elyse, who also confessed to virtual ignorance of the area despite being lifelong Sydneysiders.
The tour had been carefully curated. Matilda made sure to take us only to those shops she felt were worthy of our attention.
With around 24 boutiques to visit in less than three hours, there was no time to waste on the also-rans. Our attention was quickly diverted elsewhere if we showed signs off wandering off-track.
Although Matilda was warmly greeted by most of the shop proprietors, she was quick to assure us that no commissions were involved in the process. This was purely her take on the best her suburb had to offer. I was glad she wasn't relying on commission, as we ended up being an especially frugal trio that day, managing to purchase only a table-runner between us. The sisters planned to return for a more leisurely visit while I, fresh from a week in New York, considered myself pretty much shopped-out.
Even so, it was a fun and rewarding way to while away the time. Matilda was simultaneously mother duck and new best friend. As she herded us into each boutique she had an anecdote or mildly juicy detail to impart. We started by trekking down both sides of Queen St, Woollahra, then along Oxford St to off-the-beaten-track William St - a residential zone in Paddington that has steadily been taken over by eclectic retail spaces. A vast range of Australian designers were represented in this geographically compact fashion precinct, from well-established names with a global presence such as Collette Dinnigan, Akira (Isogawa) and Lisa Ho to lesser-known labels such as Body and Flannel. All fashion tastes are catered for - from Leona Edmiston for grown-up frocks to Lucette with its self-proclaimed "rock romance vibe".
I was struck as much by the imaginative and creative decor in many of these boutiques as by the merchandise itself. There were quirky murals, neon lights, deer antlers, chandeliers, gilt-framed black-and-white photographs and all manner of eye-catching detail. The tour culminated at the Paddington Inn, a large, yet welcoming boutique pub, where Matilda shouted us lunch and a drink before leaving us to eat and chat among ourselves. The verdict was that the tour was well worth it and Matilda a stellar host. We all resolved to return another day and proceed at a more sedate pace.
* Urban Walkabout Tours are "tailored for the design and fashion savvy". The Fashion Secrets Tour offers "behind-the-scenes access to the best fashion and style in Sydney". Held Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 10am until 1pm, the tour concludes with a pub lunch, which is included in the $95 fee - as is a shopping bag and Urban Walkabout Sydney Shopping guides to Paddington and Woollahra as well as Potts Point, Kings Cross and Woolloomooloo, Balmain and Rozelle, Glebe Village, Surry Hills and Darlinghurst.
* Axel Mano, 46 Queen St. Webbing bags, straw hats and bags made of vintage scarves.
* Di Nuova, 92 William St. Recycled designer clothes and accessories in mint condition.
* Fleur Wood, 464 Oxford St. Homewares, clothing and accessories with a contemporary boho edge.
* Just William Chocolates, 4 William St. Handmade truffles, pralines and bombes.
* Lee Mathews, 10a Queen St. Romantic and feminine fashion.
* Pelle, 90 William St. Recycled designer footwear and accessories.
* Quincy, 76 Queen St. Two floors of designer shoes: think Manolo Blahnik, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Pucci.
* The Corner Shop, 43 William St. Hip fashion from young Australian and international labels.
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