By Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Javier Pinzón
Panama City has a well-earned reputation as a shopping destination. Since the 1940s, cruise ships traversing the Panama Canal have dropped their passengers off for shopping in the Colón Free Zone. Although the country was a little slow to ride the mall wave, it quickly got up to speed and the capital now possesses some of the largest and best-stocked malls in Latin America. Nonetheless, a new shopping trend has been quietly taking up shelf space in the city.
There are now more small shops selling items made by local designers and creators. While not necessarily expensive, the shops are notable for their small inventories, distinctive aesthetics, and cultural value. The genesis of these stores is equally unconventional: a shop might have been founded by a group of small entrepreneurs sharing space, services, and administrative costs, or by someone with a personal artistic or social project. Panorama of the Americas discovered some of these offbeat places with individualistic style. The shops tend to favor locations outside the same old shopping areas; they are more at home in neighborhoods that are Bohemian or in the process of revitalization.
Shopping in these stores is an energizing experience, since they do not fit the mold of the usual temples of mass consumption. The first on our list is La Plural, which has been operating since this past March in an old mansion in the Panama City neighborhood of San Francisco. This is a multi-purpose commercial space, where you will find everything from the vintage designer shop Volver to Hombre, a jeweler featuring idiosyncratic pieces, and Uber Shop, which sells fair-trade clothing designed and imported from distant lands like Australia.
La Plural could be defined as a co-op store. According to Massiel Pinzón, a specialist in designer shops and owner of Objeto de Culto (one of the businesses here), “It is a matter of coming together to survive.” His business partner, Mairena Briones, adds, “The selection of items is very important, given that buyers are looking for something different, perhaps a unique gift, not to mention a more personalized shopping experience with a human touch.”
The selection is critical because it reflects the individual aesthetic of the store’s owner. At Undercover Store, another shop we visited, the inventory consists of products linked to Panama in some way, whether created by Panamanians or foreigners living in Panama, or made with Panamanian raw materials. The shop opened in July 2014 to market Undercover Boots, Panamanian-made rain boots designed to reflect the country’s culture.
The store is located in the city’s Historic Quarter, so many of the customers are tourists. “After opening, we decided to invite Panamanian artists, designers, and businesspeople to bring us their products,” explains Mary Quintero, one of the owners. The yearly collections of boots are decorated with designs by Panamanian artists; a portion of the profits go to the country’s social programs. Alongside the boots, the store sells pieces by local designers and clothing with prints by artists like painter Rolo de Sedas, designer Jean Decort, or illustrator and entrepreneurial coach Mayi Carles.
De Sedas incorporated his now famous “Mamis” (neo-pop women in Panamanian dress) into various everyday objects, pioneering this use of art, but he is no longer the only one. For example, you can now buy “Panalisas” by painter Elsy Acosta, who explores the diversity of Panamanian women with a wink to Da Vinci’s famed Mona Lisa. Acosta is represented in Panama by the Weil Art Gallery, a business that makes our list of alternative stores on its own merits.
Operating in the Bella Vista neighborhood since 2003, Carlos Weil’s Gallery sells art pieces and memorabilia, some of which have served as inspiration for parallel lines of ornaments and functional objects. Aside from the aforementioned Panalisas, Weil Art offers “The Kiss of the Oceans,” based on early 20th century posters used to promote the construction of the Panama Canal, and “The Guardians,” sculptures jointly created by collectives of Wounaan artisans. As Carlos’s son David says, they offer “something with more emotional charge, something more heartfelt than an ordinary souvenir. We consider several aspects of a piece, including artistic or historic value.”
On the first weekend of every month, the Weils organize the French Market in the Plaza of the City of Knowledge. The aim is to promote creators and entrepreneurs who have yet to acquire space in stores and galleries. These endeavors can be defined as pop-up markets. Here you will find garments —even for pets— handmade by local designers. Another well-established project of this type is the Mercado Culturoso, promoted by Plataforma Open Arts PTY, an organization that seeks to bring together Panama’s creative and cultural industries. The initiative has found a home at the Alliance Française, also in Bella Vista, and provides a showcase for artists, artisans, and designers with refreshing and original ideas.
Support for up-and-coming artists and designers underlies many of these undertakings. Another example is Lupa, founded in 2015 as a platform for encouraging local and regional talent. An initiative of the Panamanian collective Diablo Rosso and Costa Rican artist Ingrid Cordero, the project hosts art exhibits while also providing space for the sale of responsibly-produced designer items.
Available brands include the clothing line Frau Lamb, the Panamanian design collective Rumba, and Ingrid Caduri’s jewelry shop, which features sea-glass pieces made in Pedasí. As Ingrid Cordero notes, this is “one of the few places in the city that offers responsibly-produced local design products. We select our designers for their aesthetic appeal, but we also try to forge a relationship with the creators in order to understand their processes, materials, and other details that are often ignored.”
Debbie Kuzniecky, La Plural shareholder and famed fashion and style commentator in Panama, agrees that the boom in alternative stores is driven by more aware consumers who want assurances of social responsibility and fair trade. She adds that there are other reasons, such as the “cool factor,” which the world of fashion and style understands as an attitude or behavior or look that is widely admired. “Before, people wanted to flash Armani or Gucci from head to toe, but today it’s more a matter of combining pieces by local designers with other luxury items.”
The reasons may vary, but in the final analysis, these spaces where entrepreneurs can connect with customers wanting something a little different seem likely to proliferate in Panama. So, if you enjoy learning exactly what an artist wanted to say when he or she designed that skirt, or conversing about the indigenous community where that necklace was made, Panama offers many opportunities to satisfy your passion for alternative shopping.
Check It Out
Panorama of the Americas visited some of the stores and organizations that offer alternative shopping in Panama City. Here is more contact information to help you shop off the beaten path.
Calle 74, San Francisco. Tel: (507) 308 2455.
Facebook: La Plural.
Avenida A, Historic Quarter, between 4th and 5th, Panama City. Tel: (507) 209 6606.
Weil Art/French Market
Casa La Trona, Calle 48, Bella Vista. Tel: (507) 264 9697.
Avenida A, between 3rd and 4th, Historic Quarter, Panama City.
The Plaza, City of Knowledge.
Avenida A, between 4th and 5th, Historic Quarter, Panama City. Tel: (507) 388 8428.
Nina Concept Store
Calle 53 Este, Obarrio, Panama City. Tel: (507) 390 5671.
Calle 69 Este, San Francisco, Panama City.
Facebook: Mixo Concept.