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Milan's Elements of Style

Roberto Frankenberg

Photo by Roberto Frankenberg

View of the Duomo from inside the Museo del Novecento.

As anyone who has fallen in love knows, the most striking statements are often delivered in the faintest of whispers. And so, too, is it with style, where the loudest proclamations are often revealed in the tiniest of details. So what better item to highlight Milan’s devotion to style than the simple pocket square, that seemingly insignificant swatch of fabric permanently relegated, sartorially speaking, to a supporting role?

“There aren’t many other cities where, let’s say, your normal haberdashery brings out a new line of pocket squares every season,” says Guy Trebay, a style reporter for The New York Times. But that custom—supported by a populace with a desire to continually upgrade what amounts to a sliver of visible cloth— illustrates how Milan cherishes every element of style. From designers to shops to the sidewalks, it’s clear that style is woven into the very fabric of the city.

Milan, the capital of the northern Italian province of Lombardy, is a modern city in a country that by many measures is not. As a hub of design, finance and business, Milan lacks the easy appeal of other Italian destinations such as Rome, dense with monumental attractions, or Florence, peppered with picturesque piazzas. Instead, visitors wishing to see the sights must wander widely: south to the Navigli Canal area and the up-and-coming Ticinese district, north to the upscale Brera neighborhood and the leafy walkways of Parco Sempione. Even nabbing the top tourist ticket in town requires advance planning: Timed 15-minute entrances to view Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” at the Santa Maria delle Grazie church often sell out weeks in advance. But Milan’s biggest draw is its undisputed status as Italy’s fashion capital, home to fashion weeks where the front rows of runway shows are filled with celebrities and the streets are overrun by photographers angling for the best shot.

So, naturally, the easiest places to find in the city are the flagship stores of top Italian designers. Most major Italian fashion houses have headquarters in the city and all have at least one, and often multiple, stores. The heaviest concentration of designer labels is in the upscale shopping area known as the Quadrilatero d’Oro, or Golden Quadrilateral, where every major label has etched its name on a door. There’s Miu Miu and Marni, Missoni and Moschino. There’s Gucci, Pucci, Versace and Valentino. There’s Etro, Fendi and Gianfranco Ferré. There are three different Pradas and an entire city block dedicated to all things Armani, from fashion to flowers.

But Milan is much more than a parade of recognizable logos. A bit more effort will turn up rare finds, from fringed flapper dresses to ’70s Valentino suits, at the city’s well-stocked vintage emporiums: Cavalli E Nastri, Vintage Delirium and Lipstick Vintage. These are the cult spots where stylists seek out pieces for the stars and designers trawl for inspiration and ideas.

But delve even deeper and you’ll discover that the true backbone of Milanese style lies in the inconspicuous storefronts of the city’s many long-standing artisan shops. Those milliners and haberdashers and cobblers maintain a tradition that “you don’t see in other cities anymore—it’s mostly gone,” says Trebay, who has covered fashion here for more than a decade. In Milan, the skilled craftsmen endure.

So whether your passion is for designer shoes or vintage gowns, there’s a shop to satisfy your whims. As Trebay says: “It’s very much a connoisseur’s city.”

       
Fashion designer Giorgia Tordini of Like My Mother wearing a dress of her design. Photo by Roberto Frankenberg.

       

DESIGNERS

In the 1980s, Milan solidified its status as a fashion capital with the rise of Italian designers such as Versace and Armani. Today, these same designers still draw the fashion cognoscenti to the city season after season, but one name now stands out from the rest: “The thing is, in Milan, you still just go for Prada,” Trebay says. “It’s all about her, creatively.”

Miuccia Prada may be Milan’s dominant designer at the moment, but support for the next generation—the next Armani or Prada—is growing. Recently the National Chamber for Italian Fashion announced a slate of new programs to identify and support emerging designers in Milan. “The young generation is coming,” declares local designer Sara Battaglia, whose eponymous line of flirty yet elegant handbags can often be spotted on the arms of Italian “It” girls.

Indeed, recognizing the importance of a vibrant fashion scene, some of the city’s top designers are also stepping up to support the next wave of talent. During Men’s Fashion Week in June, Giorgio Armani invited up-and-coming designer Andrea Pompilio to show at the Teatro Armani. And Dolce & Gabbana, the Italian design duo that shows in Milan, is also putting a spotlight on new talent at their store, Spiga 2, which opened three years ago as an incubator for young designers such as Roberto Fragata.

“There’s a community of creative people in Milan that represents the new generation,” says Giorgia Tordini, the designer of Like My Mother. Describing her growing Milan-based label, Tordini says: “It’s a collection of dresses based on lace. I started two years ago when I discovered my grandmother’s wardrobe full of forgotten treasures: beautiful dresses, shirts, skirts made with lace and precious embroideries.” With that sort of homage to the past, Milan’s boutiques should be well stocked for the foreseeable future.

CONCEPT

Concept shops in Milan broadened the definition of clothing boutiques by integrating fashion with art, books and design. But more than anywhere else, these are also the spots to find well-known designers alongside newer labels.

Shops in the trendy Ticinese area stand out for their dedication to creativity and penchant for unearthing the next great designer. At Frip, of-the-moment international brands such as Acne share space with emerging local labels such as Lucio Vanotti. Art events enter the mix at the nearby WOK Store, which also stocks one-off designer collaborations and eclectic streetwear. But the current fashion-pack favorite is Antonioli and its shadowy showrooms filled with an assortment of high-end pieces, such as lace pencil skirts from Dolce & Gabbana and supple leather totes from AB A Brand Apart, a Milanese accessories label.

On the opposite side of town, near the Porta Garibaldi train station, is the city’s most innovative shopping destination, the store upon which cool stores around the world now model themselves: 10 Corso Como. The store, opened in 1990 by gallerist and former Vogue Italia editor Carla Sozzani, is now a fantastical shopping-and-dining complex replete with a bookshop, small hotel, art gallery and sun-dappled courtyard café. Shoppers flock here from around the world for the fashion floors, where you might find vinyl Courrèges jackets, Sara Battaglia’s fringed bags or whimsical Alessandra Zanaria headbands. In addition, the store’s exclusive collaborations result in still more covetable pieces, such as a recent collection of handbags by Roberta di Camerino, the only major Italian fashion house based in Venice. Those whose credit limits can’t handle a 2,000 euro knitted Alaïa dress will be delighted to discover the marked-down wares at the shop’s outlet a few blocks away.

       
Lino Ieluzzi, owner of Al Bazar menswear store. Photo by Roberto Frankenberg.

       

MENSWEAR

Naples was historically the sartorial capital of Italy and still houses its top tailors. But Milan, with its legions of fashionable financiers and businessmen, is where you’ll likely find the highest density of well-dressed Italian men.

Local style-setters such as Fiat heir Lapo Elkann and Beppe Modenese, the distinguished founder of Milan’s Fashion Week, have recently emerged as international style icons thanks to photographs snapped by Scott Schuman for his fashion and street-style blog, The Sartorialist. Their signature sprezzatura, or stylish nonchalance, is derived from classic suiting twisted in artful new ways.

Lino Ieluzzi, the owner of the haberdashery shop Al Bazar, has himself become a familiar face on men’s street-style blogs. Ieluzzi’s store, one of the city’s top haberdasheries, reflects its owner’s idiosyncratic style: slim-cut double-breasted jackets, spread shirt collars and cuffed trousers hemmed short to show off polished double-monk-strap shoes.

A more classic style prevails at M. Bardelli, one of the city’s oldest shops, where fashionable men of means have sought out cashmere knits and tailored suits for decades. Many other menswear boutiques specialize in bespoke items, such as custom shirts at AD56 Milano, an elegant shop where style-conscious consumers do not simply choose a shirt; they select a fabric, collar, cuff and pocket style—the small details that are essential for perfecting sprezzatura and getting noticed on the street.

STREET STYLE

Weaving together all the varied elements of Milanese style—designer fashions and artisanal products, vintage and haberdashery—takes skill that locals hone over a lifetime. But a quick skim of street-style blogs will reveal the simple fact that Milanese men and women are particularly well versed in the art of dressing themselves.

“In Milan, fashion is colorful, fun and joyous,” says street-style blogger Caroline Blomst, who visits the city every season to capture the look of chic locals for the popular blog Stockholm Streetstyle, which she runs with partner Daniel Troyse. “With a lot of color and lots of patterns, they mix wildly,” says Blomst of the Milanese women she’s caught in her viewfinder. And when it comes to accessories, she says, residents go bold: “big necklaces and bracelets and some fun bag to top it all off.”

The proliferation of street-style blogs, including Stockholm Streetstyle and photographer Tommy Ton’s Jak & Jil, has elevated a number of stylists and editors—once relegated to working behind the scenes—into fashion-world celebrities. In Milan, these nouveau icons include fashion editors Giovanna Battaglia of W magazine, Anna dello Russo of Vogue Nippon, Valentina di Pinto of Glamour Italia and stylist Viviana Volpicella. But in this city, one need not look to the front rows during fashion week to find beautifully dressed Milanese. Simply stroll down the street and you might spot polished brogues on the neighborhood butcher, a silk square peeking out of a waiter’s pocket or smart pinstripe suits lined up at the coffee bar.

ARTISANS

The world may look to Milan to discover what’s next in fashion, but timeless style is on display at the traditional shops of local artisans. One season, stilettos are the thing, then platforms, then espadrilles. But to walk around town, you’ll want a pair of ballerina flats, and the place to procure them is Porselli. This tiny shop behind the Teatro alla Scala opera house is where dancers go for ballet slippers and fashionable insiders go for soft, handmade flats. But a woman can’t live by shoes alone. At Sermoneta, a specialty glove shop established in the 1960s, shoppers will find everything from satin evening gloves appropriate for the opera to hand-stitched, cashmere-lined leather gloves. And on days when the skies look threatening—Milan is not known for fair weather—stay dry in style with a colorful umbrella featuring a curved chestnut handle from Ombrelli Maglia. The fifth generation of Maglias now runs the family company, which produces high-quality, handmade umbrellas that will last through scores of stormy seasons. //

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