A guide to fashion-forward Milan

An intimate connection with fashion is woven into the fabric of Milanese culture, from innovative galleries to designer boutiques reimagining former industrial buildings.

By Julia Buckley
photographs by Diana Franceschin
Published 16 Jun 2019, 08:00 BST
Duomo di Milano
Duomo di Milano
Photograph by Diana Franceschin

On the first floor of the Poldi Pezzoli museum in Milan’s Quadrilatero d’Oro — the city’s ‘Golden Rectangle of Fashion’ — a young woman looks towards the window. She has her profile to me: eyelashes curled, cheeks just rosy enough that I can’t tell if it’s blusher or a youthful glow, retroussé nose pointed towards the sun as she gazes into the distance. Her dress — red sleeves on a green bodice — exemplifies what the Milanese do best: fashion-forward but discreet. Her blonde hair, done up in an elaborate bun enveloped in gauzy silk, is dotted with pearls to match the ones around her throat. I can’t stop staring.

“We don’t know her name,” says Fedra Pavesi, my guide. Posed as perfectly as an Instagram queen, this fashionista was painted by Piero del Pollaiolo in the 15th century. “The woman isn’t the subject,” Fedra explains. “This painting shows the richness of her family.”
Fedra’s not any old guide; she works for Milanese ‘cultural journey designers’ Elesta Travel. The company avoids places with big queues, like Leonardo’s Last Supper, or the Duomo, with its crowds scuttling, ant-like, across the roof, dwarfed by the fourth largest church in the world. Instead, the company designs tours around the interests of its well-heeled clientele, each as precisely tailored as the made-to-measure suits of the Quadrilatero. I want a taste of Milanese fashion, I’d told them. So here we are, at the Poldi Pezzoli, learning how high-end threads have always been part of the culture here; and how past and present intertwine in Milan’s fashion scene today.

This, says Fedra, is what the Milanese consider to be ‘their’ museum. Throughout the years, wealthy locals have donated their collections to the institution. These include founder Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli; Bruno Falck, a 20th-century industrialist who collected gold clocks (which were a men’s fashion accessory centuries back); and numerous families who’ve bestowed jewellery, including an Etruscan brooch, gold Lombard hoop earrings and an 18th-century ring in the shape of a Venetian mask, which opens to reveal a red heart. The museum’s Armoury section, laid out by Milan-based sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro, looks like a theatre set, with a ghoulish, helmeted army squaring off against disembodied swords rising from the ground. Only in Milan could a weapon collection look so stylish.

Europe’s fashion capital has always favoured discreet luxury over more boundary-pushing styles. As I walk around the Quadrilatero — centred around Via Monte Napoleone, where every doorway I pass seems to belong to yet another designer brand — I’m taken aback by how normal-looking it all is. That is, until I step inside. Larusmiani has a 1970 Lamborghini Miura sitting alongside the rails of men’s clothing; Buccellati’s glittering jewels include a ‘black gold’ cuff, on sale for a cool €34,000 (£29,500). Bottega Veneta, meanwhile, has a fountain by the shoe display and a glass wall overlooking a garden so bucolic that for a moment I forget I’m in Milan. And on neighbouring Via Borgospesso, the flagship Bottega Veneta Home store displays its signature plaited-leather armchairs between walls opulently frescoed by 18th-century artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

“I love that expression,” grins showroom worker Katherine Peña, as my jaw drops when I walk in. “Until 10 years ago, we were thought of as an ugly city, but now we’re being seen as a cultural place and a real destination — not just somewhere you come to shop. But you need to discover Milan to see it.”

She’s right — this isn’t a city that puts everything on display. It’s one that makes you scratch beneath the surface, invites you to peek through that open doorway into a flower-filled 18th-century courtyard, to cross that disused railway track to find a world-class gallery, to ring the bell at a nondescript apartment block and be buzzed into the workshop of the Merzaghi family, jewellers to the Milanese elite since 1870.

The first Merzaghi to turn his hand to jewellery, great-grandfather Rino, worked on a tiara for Pope Pius XI. Today, father and son, Marco and Mauro, use Rino’s tools to handcraft similarly exquisite pieces, some of which are based on his original designs. For others, they start from scratch; often, clients bring in family heirlooms that need reworking to 21st-century tastes. What binds them together is that same Milanese discretion. “It’s the kind of thing you can show when you want,” says Mauro’s sister, Paola, brandishing a bracelet shimmering with diamonds. “But you can also cover it easily,” she says, pulling her shirt cuff over it. In Milan, one never shows off.

And in Milan, the artistic riches are often shared. Back in the Renaissance, Fedra tells me, the leading artists of the day were often hired to decorate churches. Today, the elite create their own art galleries, often helping to regenerate rundown areas in the process.

Larusmiani store
Photograph by Diana Franceschin

Culture & fashion become one

In the northern suburbs is the Pirelli HangarBicocca, a former train factory repurposed by the Pirelli tyre company as a modern art space. In the south east is the Fondazione Prada: a one-time distillery renovated by Rem Koolhaas and filled with Miuccia Prada’s collection of modern art.

There are temporary exhibitions in the main complex, while Torre — a stark, white, upended shoebox of a building opened last year — contains works by artists Miuccia has sponsored, a scenario that would have been familiar to her Renaissance forebears. Here, fly-filled cubes by Damien Hirst square off against Carsten Höller’s giant, upside-down, spinning toadstools; bright metallic ‘tulips’ by Jeff Koons look out through floor-to-ceiling windows across derelict train tracks to the distant gothic spires of the Duomo.

Prada’s other gallery is the Osservatorio Prada, based in the 19th-century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II — the mall to end all malls, with its designer brands overwhelmed by the frothy terrazzo flooring, belle époque palazzos and vaulted glass roofs.

When I pop into Café Trussardi, one of many bars run by a fashion brand, I find myself sandwiched between a woman in leopard-print leggings and impeccably dressed couples. “Are you going to the opera, madam?” asks bar manager Luigi. “We’ll speed up if you are.” As I drink my Trussardi-brand Prosecco, half the clientele drift off in their glad rags to La Scala next door.

Tradition, elegance, giving back: turns out Milan isn’t half as elitist as I’d thought. And now there’s a new generation coming through, wanting to turn the design scene on its head. Far away from the galleries of Brera and Via Tortona, the two self-styled design districts, on the nondescript Via Torino, is Art Mall Milano, which opened in April. Previously a grimy subterranean nightclub, it’s now a bar stuffed with super-cool modern art, and everything’s for sale, right down to the chairs.

It’s aperitivo time, and my glass of wine arrives with a platter of pata negra ham (softer and nuttier than prosciutto), salami, lardo, bruschetta and two types of cheese. The art on the walls tonight (the exhibits are overhauled each month) is a bit too cool for me, but I’m taken with a stool made from the base of a typographer’s chair from a historic Milanese design agency, topped with a Vespa saddle. Ten minutes later — after the bar’s co-owner (and creator of the stool) has lovingly explained its history — it’s mine. He even gives me a hefty discount because, he says, I “get” how his work honours the past.

He’s not the only one to do so. At Fratelli Bonvini Milano, near Fondazione Prada, Roberto di Puma is one of six ‘associates’ from the world of high design who’ve pulled together to save a stationery and typography shop. Opened in 1909 by the Bonvini family, it closed in 2013 and was set to be destroyed.

The shop sells everything from top-drawer fountain pens and vintage Olivetti typewriters to handmade Italian stationery and small-press books. Round the back is the printing press, where they still use the original machines. The drawers are full of
old lettering and typesetting paraphernalia — the only thing they’ve added is electricity.

The associates were keen to keep a dying tradition alive, providing work for machine menders and, along with Fondazione Prada, regenerating the post-industrial area by encouraging locals to get involved and holding workshops for schoolkids.

Last year, an upstairs opened; already, Carlo Stanga, a well-known Milanese architect and illustrator, has exhibited there. It’s modern Milan through and through: classy, traditional yet open to all. You can thank the likes of Poldi Pezzoli for that.

Published in the July/August issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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