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Loose and Easy in the Streets of Sydney

In the land Down Under, the multicultural city is rich with trendy fashions, pristine beaches, eclectic architecture and bodies beautiful.

September 13, 2000|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — Outside a neighborhood joint here called the Rose Hotel, there's a sign that declares, "No dogs."

Inside, there's an open-air patio, a funky bar serving ice-cold beer, and a super little kitchen dishing up hot chili prawns. And, wandering around, a sweet-tempered brownish mutt happily wagging a short tail.

"Sydney goes by itself, loose and easy, without any bossing," goes the saying, which comes from the English writer D.H. Lawrence, who made his way down here in 1922.

Much has changed and the city is more international, but Sydney is still loose and easy, a big city with great weather, solid neighborhoods and beautiful beaches. This is a town with a distinctive, comfortable style all its own--a mix of this and that from Britain, America (and particularly coastal California), Asia and, of course, the wide and diverse continent that is Australia.

Listen to a street musician on one corner playing the bagpipes. Across the way hear the didgeridoo, an aboriginal instrument. Chinese newspapers, Lebanese restaurants and Greek Orthodox churches are as much a part of this city of more than 4 million people as the old English traditions. The city also is home to one of the largest and proudest gay cultural centers in the world.

Sydney is to Australia what New York once was for the States--the center of fashion, design, fine food and trends. "The big smoke," they say, meaning the undisputed big city. (Though those in Melbourne beg to differ.)

Much of Sydney style is defined by water and weather. At Bondi Beach (pronounced BOND-eye), 15 minutes from downtown, the waves are steady, the water turquoise and the bikinied scenery memorable. "Oh, yeah--plenty of optics," says 25-year-old Stephen Rainford, a Bondi surf regular.

The weather is mild. Consequently, sport--not "sports," is the thing, for men and women. "When I first got here, I worked at a women's magazine where everyone would go to the gym every day," said Maggie Alderson, a British fashion journalist who came to Sydney seven years ago. Now a style maven at the Sydney Morning Herald, she said, "Coming from London, this was quite a shock; we'd go to lunch and talk about the gym."

Fitness plays a key role in Sydney fashion, she said: "It's about having a great natural body, not plastic surgery. It's about a body that's been worked out its whole life."

Sydney is "very proud," of its fashion industry, she said, noting that leading designers Collette Dinnigan, Akira Isogawa and Peter Morrissey are among many Australian lines now sold in the United States. Dinnigan's work leans to the feminine and romantic, Isogawa does "refined avant-garde" and Morrissey--well, his stuff is "pure Australian body-conscious raunch."

Morrissey is one of three designers commissioned to design a range of costume pieces for a segment dedicated to Olympic fashion in Friday's opening ceremony. The locals can hardly wait.

The stores are full of halters and little tank tops in pastel pinks and blues for summer--spring begins next week--and Alderson said, "They really know how to dress for summer here. You stay cool but look reasonably smart."

With a confidential air, she added, "Exposed armpits are a big part of it." For the moment, so too are manicures--very in. And straight hair. Curly, at least right now, is "very declasse," she said.

The thoroughly hip Sydney dude wearing a fine-looking suit (no tie, please) sets it off with sandals like the slip-on kind you might wear in L.A. to the pool. Socks are a no-no. "It looks good, actually," Alderson said.

At the beach, it's de rigueur for any male to wear those teeny-tiny Speedo-style bathing suits.

And colored socks with sneakers are OK, not just white. Shoes themselves are decidedly optional, at least when prowling one's neighborhood.

Bare feet will not, however, get you into most pubs, much less one of the in places to be on a Friday after work--the Slip Inn, near Darling Harbor. It's a three-level joint: on top, a pub; underneath, a bar with a DJ spinning techno-beat tunes; underneath that, a disco dubbed the "Chinese Laundry."

Outside, the Sydney bus stops are decorated with oversize photos of a magazine cover featuring Britney Spears in a blue bikini. Inside the second-level bar, the DJ, who goes by the moniker "N-Zed," declares the place a no-Britney zone: "You couldn't pay me enough."

If that's the Friday night action, weekends are for being out in the Southern California-like weather, typically at the water. The Tasman Sea rolls up from the east at beaches such as Bondi and Manly.

And then there's glorious Sydney Harbor. As Bill Bryson points out in his new book, "In a Sunburned Country," it's not "so much a harbor as a fjord, 16 miles long and perfectly proportioned--big enough for grandeur, small enough to have a neighborly air."

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