Designer lifestyle ... jewellery by Wynn Wynn Ong.

Designer lifestyle ... jewellery by Wynn Wynn Ong.

The Philippines capital is fast becoming a global centre of style. Debbie Hunter goes shopping.

Long before the world had heard of Sex And The City's Carrie Bradshaw, Imelda Marcos was considered the world's reigning shoe fanatic. The Philippines' former first lady's collection numbered 3000 pairs, according to some reports. However, only about 1500 pairs were found in the presidential palace after she fled the country in 1986 with her husband, the corrupt president Ferdinand Marcos.

Marcos's expensive tastes didn't end with a glittering pair of heels. They extended to art, clothes, jewellery and homes. The excuse she gave for her extravagant lifestyle was a confessed allergy to ugliness.

"I have to look beautiful so that the poor Filipinos will have a star to look at from their slums," the former beauty queen, who was later acquitted of corruption charges, once reasoned.

While the divide between the haves and have-nots on this tropical south-east Asian archipelago of 7000 islands continues to widen, Marcos's desire for beautiful things has rubbed off on Manila's wealthy and burgeoning middle classes.

International brands Gucci, Bally and Chanel see a bright future here and are opening stores in salubrious surrounds, such as at Greenbelt in the popular Ayala Center. Set within exotic gardens, the Ayala Center mall is a few blocks from Imelda Marcos's Pacific Plaza address in Makati City - Metro Manila's prime business and entertainment hub, and the location of choice for five-star hotels like The Peninsula Manila.

Sharing precious space beside the luxury international brands are a growing number of local designers, including 51-year-old Burmese-born jeweller Wynn Wynn Ong, whose eye-catching accessories are worn by Manila's elite and are grabbing the attention of Hollywood's A-listers.

Crocodile, leather, titanium, gold, wood, semi-precious stones and even black-lip oysters feature in her unique and chunky pieces.

Bea Valdes is another local name making international waves. The 35-year-old designer's intricately beaded teardrop-shaped evening bags, which sell for about $US2000 ($2800) each, have become the envy of fashion-conscious women around the world.

Antonio Layug, or Budji as he is locally known, is a home furnishings tsar. The former hairdresser turned furniture designer is in demand across the globe and he has furnished the interiors of some of the world's finest hotels. Two of his stores can be found in Makati City.

Travellers keen to scratch below the city's surface can now enjoy access to the work of Budji and other celebrated local names as part of The Peninsula hotel's Peninsula Academy series of day programs. Available exclusively to hotel guests, a highlight of the academy's In Design tour is a trip to a 1940s compound in Pasay City, where seven historic residences have been turned into creative spaces. Guests can experience three of them: Albert Avellana's avant-garde Avellana Art Gallery; the A-11 Gallery, featuring limited-edition furniture and lifestyle pieces designed by Eric Paras; and the showroom of award-winning fashion designer Jesus Lloren. The trip includes a chance to meet the artists over a traditional Philippine lunch.

This meal is also one of several opportunities for guests to sample the best in Pinoy cuisine. The academy's culinary experiences include The Peninsula Hopper, a chance to dine in the hotel's four top restaurants in the one evening.

Not part of the academy's exclusive list, but highly recommended, is dinner at Bistro Filipino - where chef Rolando Laudico conjures a more modern version of Philippine street food - tapas-style. While Philippine food has yet to enjoy the popularity of Thai and Chinese food, Laudico's talents could change that. His restaurant in the newly revived Fort Bonifacio district of Metro Manila wouldn't be out of place in New York, London or Sydney.

With a first-class meal ranging from $25 to $50 a person, including wine, this is one stylish price tag even the budget-conscious, sandal-footed tourist can afford.

BARGAIN SHOPPING

· The Greenhills Shopping Centre, San Juan, is 30 minutes north of Makati. It costs 12 pesos (35 cents) by bus, 70-80 pesos by taxi. The centre's flea market has everything from footwear, knock-off designer handbags, DVDs, video games and furniture to mobile phone accessories.

· The Ballaran Street market, Paranaque, has shirts and shoes up to 50 per cent off. Haggling is expected. A bus costs about 12 pesos and takes 20-30 minutes from Makati South.

Divisoria is about one hour west of Makati (take the bus to Quiapo; fare is about 20 pesos). Open between 10am and 9.30pm, or 11am-9.30pm, it's great for textiles, accessories and homewares.

· Market Market in the Fort area, east of Makati (Fort Bonifacio) in the city of Taguig, has pearls, fashion and homewares for sale.

Salcedo Community Market in Makati city runs from 7am to 2pm on Saturdays and is known for traditional home-made food.

The writer was a guest of The Peninsula Manila.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Philippine Airlines flies five times a week to Manila from Sydney. Phone 1300 888 725, see philippineairlines.com.

Staying there

The Peninsula Manila, corner of Ayala and Makati avenues, Makati City, is 40 minutes from Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Phone 1800 116 888, see peninsula.com.

Touring there

The Peninsula Academy's three-hour gallery tour costs 35,000 pesos a person ($1144, minimum of two people). The Peninsula Hopper tour costs 4750 pesos a person. Three-hour guided walks of the city of Intramuros are conducted several times a week. See www.philippineholidays.com.au/daytours.htm.

The Museo De La Salle, a traditional 19th-century house (Bahay na bato), is a decorative arts museum. See www.dasma.dlsu.edu.ph to book a tour.

Sonya's Secret Garden and restaurant is where visitors can enjoy spectacular views. See sonyasgarden.com.

Designers

Wynn Wynn Ong and Bea Valdes designs are at the homewares store AC+362 in Greenbelt 5 and Firma in Greenbelt 3. See nagajewelry.com and beavaldes.com. Budji's furniture can be found at two stores in Makati City: Budji's Collection and B At Home, which also showcases the talents of Movement 8. See budji.com.

Further information

Phone 9279 3380, see philippinetourism.com.au.