We talked to WGSN’s Senior Editor of Insights, a trend scouter who recently made the move to Europe, after a decade living in the Big Apple: meet Australian born yet now Lisbon-based Sarah Owen.
With an ambition to make it big in New York’s media system, Sarah Owen moved to the city that never sleeps from Australia. However, after a while, New York can be too much, and after a decade pursuing a career in fashion and journalism and travelling the world scouting the next big trend as WGSN’s Senior Editor of Insights, Owen recently moved with her husband to Lisbon, attracted by the Portuguese town’s intrinsic connection to nature and newly-minted artistic community. Discover all about her and her favourite spots in Lisbon in our insider’s guide to the town of longing and Saudade.
What pushed you to make the leap from Australia and come to New York? How has it been living in New York all of those years?
I moved to NYC at a fairly young age, with a single suitcase, seeking the “American Dream” and pursuing my career in fashion and journalism. Living in New York was probably the most formative period of my life, both professionally and personally. Working between some of the most prestigious companies in the world left me with a trail of unforgettable stories. From red carpet reporting with the most famous faces and attending gala dinners on the weekly, to assisting the likes of Annie Leibovitz and Patrick Demarchelier on shoots and running coffee orders for Anna Wintour. When I first moved to NYC, a good friend gave me a piece of advice that defined the rest of my time in the city: “eat or be eaten”. It’s not so much a positive adage but it is the most real thing I ever heard about living, surviving, and thriving in New York.
Why did you decide to move to Lisbon from NYC?
I've travelled across Europe multiple times and was always fond of it. After almost a decade, a city like New York gets to you, and I eventually felt like I needed and wanted a change of pace, another lifestyle. It’s a city that takes as much as it gives, and let’s say I was getting close to where the balance was no longer worth it, even if I dearly miss my colleagues and long for my friends. That, and being Australian had me longing for a bit more space and nature. The political situation in America didn’t help either. I discovered Portugal with my husband and it's a unique country that combines many things which are important to me. A sense of community, incredible food, and such diversity of landscape all within a manageable size.
Where are you based in Lisbon? Can you tell us a bit about your neighbourhood - why did you choose to live there and what are your favourite local hangouts?
We just moved to São Domingos de Benfica, a neighbourhood on the periphery of downtown, after living in Alameda. Many areas in Lisbon have been growing rapidly with tourism and incoming ex-pats, retirees from France and the UK, to where the neighbourhoods have begun to feel a little too bustling and international. We wanted to live in a corner of Lisbon that felt like we were actually in Lisbon and residing in Portugal, but without being too far removed from the scene that is forming downtown. It's a relatively quaint, calm and mostly residential area, even if we're lucky to have a natural reserve park and a mountain right next door for weekly hikes. The businesses in the vicinity are a good mix of traditional and modern, to where we find all we need for our daily needs, even speciality products, much like you would in places like Paris or NYC, but can also hit up the more traditional corner cafe where no one speaks English. Some of our favourite spots are Massa Mãe, one of our favourite bakeries (their artisan bread is stellar!); Palace Fronteira, an 18th-century palace with the most amazing gardens; and Monsanto Forest Park where we go for weekly hikes.
A Sunday with you in Lisbon, what would you do?
Lisbon overall is a pretty calm city, and it lends itself to getting lost or planning punctually. Sundays often tend to be the best of both worlds. I generally walk to the local farmers market with my husband to grab some fresh produce for the week, and head to one of our favourite joints for a bite. We currently alternate between a coffee house called Milkees and two brunch spots, Fauna & Flora and Seagul Method Cafe. Sunday is generally a catch-up time but we either make it back to Alameda, where we enjoy the park and various local restaurants, or we head out for a stroll downtown, generally around The Praça do Comércio, an area rich in architecture and with a great boardwalk-like set up along the water. It's also on those days when we either make it out from a drink, on the calm side, over some music (say at the Hot Club), or to the movies. We're into local cinemas, and here old and new movies are often subtitled in English, which is a plus as my Portuguese isn’t quite there yet.
Where do you go in Lisbon when you want to feel the energy and where when you need to relax and recharge?
I love getting lost in the tiny, winding alleys of Alfama, the oldest district in Lisbon. But when I want a place to relax and recharge, I head to a quiet kiosk in the sun (they’re dotted around the city, generally in parks) or escape to Sintra which combines the best of the mountainous landscape and incredible beaches. The Palacio Nacional da Pena in Sintra is so stunning, it’s worth a trip alone to just check out the architecture.
The best getaway from Lisbon?
With Portugal being such a reasonable size, there are so many great places to escape to. I love the Algarve coast in the summer, and along the way, there are regions like Alentejo which are known for their incredible wine. I’m particularly fond of white wine and Alentejo’s Évora, Borba, and Redondo white varieties are amazing. We’re also big fans of Porto - which is rich in culture, diverse architecture, and feels like a typical Portuguese coastal town - and are all about weekend escapades to small beach towns like Peniche. Last summer we took a boat out to Berlenga Island and were in such awe at its beauty.
Would you recommend something special to do in Lisbon?
Food-wise, I tend to take my visiting friends to Lx Factory, a hip closed-off street with great food, shops, and art. The Gulbenkian is a memorable museum to visit, as is the Tile Museum. Shopping wise, I love strolling in Príncipe Real and checking out Embaixada Concept Store. For special Portuguese-made products, I always recommend people swinging by A Vida Portuguesa. On a nice sunny afternoon, I also suggest taking the ferry from Cais do Sodre to Cacilhas and eating at Atira-te ao Rio on the river at sunset, you get the best view with a wine in hand.
What keeps you inspired on a day to day basis? Do you ever get FOMO?
My work keeps me super inspired. Most of my time is spent researching culture which is endlessly fascinating to me. A lot of my work is also social media-based so I’m constantly soaking in inspirational content across platforms. I have my limits though, I’m super conscious of switching off and enjoying analogue activities. Regarding FOMO, I think everyone does to a certain degree. To me, FOMO is basically a form of curiosity, and so sure, I want to check out the latest exhibit at the MoMA, or head to a new boutique hotel in Berlin, but I think it’s about ensuring you don’t let any drive to mindlessly capture content or tick off lists take over.
How has travelling informed your eye for trendspotting?
I don’t think I could do my job justice without travelling. Having said that, I don’t think travelling will ever be the same post-pandemic. I feel fortunate to have spent the last ten years scouting the world for trends and working with global clients all over. Living in such a globalized world, many trends these days have a homogeneous nature, so travelling to local environments is critical to understanding cultural patterns that live outside of mainstream internet culture.
As an assiduous traveller, how do you see people going back to travelling once this crisis is over?
I think this “new norm” we’re all expecting is going to entail quite a few challenges, namely logistical and bureaucratic ones, but all in support of ensuring the spread of the virus is managed and contained effectively. This period, or pause in time almost, I think has allowed many people to assess their travel habits and really question the need for endless cross-country trips. Looking back, I almost feel guilty for the amount of travel I did, but at the same time, I’m grateful I did as I don’t think to live on a plane one week to the next will - or should - continue. This relatively recent travelling logic that has international commuters constantly and quickly flying from one point of the planet to another is simply unsustainable; to a certain extent, when considering what’s been taking place these last few months, it also seems unnecessary.
Where is the first place you’ll be travelling to?
If I’m being optimistic, then I’ll be strolling around Sardinia’s coast in August. If I’m being realistic, it’ll be one of those many quiet, sleepy towns in Portugal that we have yet to discover.