Half-British, half-Argentine, Vanessa Bell, the woman behind the popular Instagram account and blog Creme de la Creme, knows a thing or two about blending cultures and finding beauty in unusual places.
Meeting over coffee in one of Bell’s favourite Microcentro hideouts, Los Galgos, the Times got the lowdown on her bespoke cultural concierge service and what makes Buenos Aires so enigmatic for the writer and stylist.
Born in Paris, Bell moved to London at the age of five, living there throughout her childhood. But despite that European upbringing, she says she always felt close to her porteño roots, Remaining close to her Argentine roots, visiting her other homeland as a young twenty-something on many occasions.
“I loved it here and I thought ‘How can I make this happen in Buenos Aires?’ she recalls. “It’s such a really long way though, the distance is huge, I was sort of flitting between the two and not really deciding what I wanted to do and drifting a little bit in my twenties. And then I thought ‘No I’m going to bite the bullet and try and not live here as a ‘perma-tourist.’”
Design and style were already a key part of her life. Before her transatlantic move, Bell ran a vintage clothing store online, as well as on Shoreditch’s Brick Lane, the now-famous London location seen as one of the capital’s coolest spots.
At the time, however, it didn’t quite have the reputation it has today.
“I would be getting there at 6am on a Sunday with a whole load of heroin addicts and mobile phone sellers,” she laughs. “But it was fantastic. It was the easiest way for me to work while not feeling that I was selling my soul.”
Working as a personal assistant in the NHS for a few years too, Bell cites both experiences as giving her the possibility to be both creative and entrepreneurial, allowing her a unique skill set that is important for her work now.
Soon she branched out into writing. Finding her feet as a contributor to Time Out and later Wallpaper*, it wasn’t long before Bell started to explore other, more alternative angles to Argentina.
AN ALTERNATIVE LOOK
“As a half-Argentine I felt frustrated at the shoddily sold image of Argentina,” says Bell.
Citing clichés and overdone stereotypes, she felt “Buenos Aires wasn’t really being sold – either in writing or with a tour or a curated experience – in a way that a local lives in the city.”
“Buenos Aires is a bit of an enigma, people think they know so much about it and ultimately they don’t, it’s often a very romanticised view,” she argues.
“It’s the whole Malbec, polo, tango, gaucho concept,” she explains, adding that there’s more truth to be found in the gaucho experience.
Bell says she’s much more likely to promote people going to San Antonio de Areco, than perhaps to a tango show.
“Going to the countryside, seeing folklore, I think all of that is actually far more traditionally Argentine than tango is,” she says. “In fact, most porteños haven’t been to a tango show or a milonga. It’s a bit of a myth really”.
Shying away from obvious tourism, Bell now delivers a self-described “non-touristy service” called Creme de la Creme, a tour combining fashion, art, design and architecture. She says it’s a “an experience aimed at those who would never ever take a tour in a million years.” A completely curated experience, each tour is unique and bespoke to each client.
BEAUTY AND BRUTALISM
Bell is also an advocate for emerging Argentine brands, as well as second-hand, vintage finds. One of those people that you immediately want to do a wardrobe swap with, she’s used her eye for design to create shopping tours that take in closed-door, pop-up stores and appointment-only venues for international clients looking for unique pieces to take back home.
Offering visitors an often high-end and alternative look at the city, Bell’s clients are a mixture of the wealthy looking for new and fresh view of the city, as well as architecture and design enthusiasts, keen to see another angle of Buenos Aires and fashionistas looking for the best in local offerings.
A champion of celebrating the peculiarities of local architecture and history, Bell’s Instagram and Twitter feeds are a smorgasbord of brutalist buildings, a smattering of uniquely modernist apartment building lobbies and throwback photos that will have you wishing you were around in Buenos Aires during the 11960s.
Counting around 14,000 followers to date, her accounts act as a sort of architectural inspiration for both those internationally afar but also residents of Buenos Aires. “People like re-appraising their city and seeing their neighbourhood in a different way,” she says.
Bell says she’s not phased by the potential pressure of running a popular account but humble about her local fame and growing recognition.
“Last year I started getting recognised which I found to be quite overwhelming and weird,” she laughs, recalling a time when people had stopped her in the street during one of her tours.
Now seeking to explore lesser appreciated parts of the country, one recent trip saw Bell visiting Santa Rosa, the small capital of the La Pampa province. A town of just 100,000, her visit took in brutalist buildings as well as the overlooked work of Argentine-Italian architect Clorindo Testa, she says.
“More and more with my work I need to embracing this thing of being nerdy, curatorial, becoming ever more serious with the historical side to things,” she explains. “This year the big project is to start doing books, being able to use my English side and my intimate knowledge of Argentina, through the fact that I’m half-Argentine, half-native, which helps break down so many barriers.”
To date, she’s allowed Buenos Aires to be seen from many different perspectives, but Bell would rather visitors make their own mind up about the city, “Really, I don’t want to precondition how someone sees Buenos Aires, I want to present it as a blank canvas which is why I no longer categorise the tours.”
What Bell is undoubtedly most animated about, it seems, is encouraging everyone to look up, to look around them.
“I can have the power to influence someone who’s walking on the same street every day to work, to suddenly look up and see a totally different side to the buildings they’re seeing every day,” she says excitedly.
Vanessa’s top recommendations
“My local is Los Galgos (Av. Callao 501), I love it because it’s like an old café that’s been given a new lease of life. The owners, Julián Diaz and Florencia Capella own Bar 878 (Thames 878) in Villa Crespo too. I often come here for an early evening cocktail which I enjoy at the bar with a good book.
“Donnet (Jorge Newbery 4081) is a great vegan restaurant with tasting menus offering the full experience which usually involves a mushroom-centric feast of cured, fermented and experimental flavours. The restaurant operates out of what was once an old-fashioned cafe, complete with the original Formica tables and wood-panelled interior.
“For the best mash in town, it has to be El Español (Rincón 196). A three-story bodega and local eatery whose set weekday evening menu include a starter and a main with house wine and soda which is a steal at less than 300 pesos!