Today even the best designers are haunted by the overarching question of financial viability. Indeed if fashion was all about the act of creation, wildly talented people like Mizrahi would not have gone out of business. Even Galliano the Eccentric has to make sure his designs of intense vision will sell. Hence the first step to a designer's survival is the conception of garments that exude a saleable sex-appeal. The clothes also have to be made available to those willing to spend the big bucks; if a designer does not have the right store on the right street in the right city, he or she will lose business. As the vice-president of Harry Winston, Richard Winston, once told me, "the difference between having a store on Fifth or on Madison is immense." In Milan, the "it-streets" to shop on are Via della Spiga and Via Monte Napoleone. Believe me, you will find every imaginable upscale store and more on these avenues of luxury and wealth…
The first rule to enjoying a delightful shopping experience in Milan (or anywhere else in Italy for that matter) is to dress in a manner reflective of your imposing buying power. Sales assistants in the US are well aware of the fact that it is almost impossible to differentiate the haves and have-nots of this world based solely on attire-especially in the Bay Area. Therefore they must treat everyone with respect, for it is highly possible that the checkbook belonging to the geeky, shabbily dressed man standing before them is significantly more impressive than the worn out sneakers he is sporting. Italians, on the other hand, have neither tolerance nor sympathy for such fashion victims.
Legendary designer Bill Blass once exclaimed, "You are only as good as your last collection." Well, in Italy you are only as good as your gold, diamond studded Patek, or your croc-skin Hermès Kelly bag. In fact, several years ago someone close to me, whose grandfather founded one of the biggest high-tech empires in the world, walked into the Gucci store in Rome to buy himself a suit. After walking around in his polo shirt and jeans for half an hour and being completely ignored by the gel-haired Adonis-type sales people, he bought the first suit he could find that looked about right and left the premises promising himself that he would never return.
The second rule: Italians are a nation of romantics who adamantly believe that good things can not be rushed. Gli Italiani take 2 hour lunch breaks, during which they usually drink delicious wines (by the bottle) and relax. While the mangiare rituals take place, all the stores are closed. If you hit the streets in Milan with hopes of getting your hands on the latest by Missoni or Prada, you will have to shop either before 1.30 PM or after 3.00. In between those hours I recommend that you try to forget about your habit of rushing through life and savor an authentic macchiato in a bar (coffee houses are referred to as bars in Italy), possibly across from the d'Uomo, and marvel at the power of man's creative instincts. (Please note also that all stores are completely shut down for the entire month of August, during which time the entire nation goes on vacation and commerce comes to a halt)
However, once the clocks strike shopping time the games can begin. I personally like to shop with a certain sense of purpose. It is easy to veer away from your primary needs and buy things you might not necessarily need or even want. Via della Spiga and Via Monte Napoleone are great (i.e. terrible) traps for consumers who lack self control. There is such an overabundance of alluring, exquisite goods to choose from that one must struggle against her (or his) instinct to buy, buy, buy and then buy some more. Try not to get sucked into every store. Make a mental list of the fashion houses or designers whose work you have worn extensively with pleasure in the past and start from there.
While in Italy one simply has to acquire something distinctly "Italian" and what could be more Italian than Versace? While referring to the late Gianni Versace, Veronica Webb said; "He had the wonderful nerve to do whatever he wanted to do whenever he wanted to do. What Versace offers his customers, what he offered you, was the one great 'fuck you' moment when you looked like you had it all." I could not agree more. If you are a bold, beautiful rock star type, do walk into the Versace store and pick out something that screams attitude. That said, I would warn the more daring fashionistas not to go completely overboard. Lost in a sea of couture-detailed biker jackets, skintight pantsuits and trenches with western trims, one can end up looking like an overly accessorized peacock instead of a sexy vixen as intended. And speaking of extreme, Dior is another store on Via Monte Napoleone that should not be skipped. John Galliano, the king of irreverent juxtapositions, described his latest collection this way: "It['s] hard-core romance! Sex robots!" I am not exactly sure in what kind of an alternate universe fetish queens in Kabuki face paints would qualify as "romantic," but Galliano is almost always three steps ahead of everyone else. As Frank DeCaro once said upon exiting a Galliano show, "a year from now, we'll know what this all means." In any case do
not fret; the great majority of the garments sold in Dior boutiques are the more wearable 'pieces' of Galliano's imagination.
For people with more conservative tastes, Louis Vuitton and Chanel are just around the corner. Karl Lagerfeld has done a phenomenal job of using Coco Chanel's legacy to maintain a culture of elegance, while elevating the company's new young appeal by integrating contemporary posh elements into his designs. The synthesis of Coco's unique style and Lagerfeld's rock glam edge is simply irresistible. Take the Chanel suits retailored to glide around the curves and show the legs in all their tall glory, matched with black patent stilettos and funky leather leg warmers; now we are talking about bold sexuality concealed in a shroud of innocence. Also make sure that you do not bypass the accessories section in Chanel, for it is all about the details this season. Try to get your hands on a strings of fake pearls wrapped round the waist, a pair of dangling earrings in the company's signature interlocking Cs, a rabbit fur bag or preferably the latest Jackie O. inspired large framed tortoise shell specs. Speaking of accessories, Louis Vuitton is the master of that game. All those who know me well can attest to the fact that I incurably addicted to buying LV's indestructibly constructed yet infinitely chic bags. First there was epi leather, then taiga, but now the bag of the moment is Takashi Murakami's Jap-animation studded monogram. I am not sure how long these bags featuring colorful little creatures and cherry blossoms will stay in fashion, but no doubt about it, they will end up being collector's pieces. Though many critics were skeptical about Tom Ford's ability to keep Gucci and YSL Rive Gauche as
two completely distinct styles, with his Fall 2002 collection he surprised
his doubters with a glamorous reinterpretation of 18th Century over-the-top
sexy allure that brought back fond memories of his 1994 resuscitation of
Gucci with '80s style Halston velvet hipsters and satin shirts. Indeed, Ford
himself best defines the degrees of separation between his visions for Gucci
and YSL. He says, "The YSL woman might tie her boyfriend up and drip hot wax on him before they have sex, for instance. The Gucci woman is just going to have sex." Indeed
this overall flexibility in conjunction with a reluctance to be married to
a single look or genre is the main ingredient in ensuring Ford's success
as the mastermind behind both YSL and Gucci. Having reviewed the collections
in both stores in Milan I too must concede that both Gucci and YSL have different
yet equally impressive pieces on the sales floor this season. Gucci seems
to be marketing the independent powerful woman image clad in cascades of
luxurious fabrics while YSL is selling sexily exuberant nostalgia. The choice
is yours, but before you put your platinum plastic on the table keep in mind
that the bottom line is always the same: sex-appeal is everything. Expensive
yet unbecoming clothes are not.
It would be heresy to go all the way to Italy and not stop by the Missoni and Moschino boutiques. Angela Missoni's light breezy blouses, pants, camisoles and twin sets in silky materials are to die for. You may not want to be clad from head to toe in a dizzying excess of Missoni's signature print, so I suggest you get one piece and match that with something in a solid color. As for Moschino Jeans; as soon as I entered the store I got the overwhelming feeling that I had mistakenly stumbled into a Marc Jacobs boutique. The good thing is that the company's preference for somewhat gaudy, definitely loud prints has been toned down, but the distinctive feel of its unique appeal has diminished.
Finally I would like to say a word of two about shoes, and more specifically about Italian shoes (though an extensive and detailed review is beyond the scope of this article.) I am convinced that the craftsmanship, quality and designs of footwear in Italia are unrivaled. Brands like Sergio Rossi, Baldinini, Salvatore Ferragamo, Bruno Magli, Cesere Pacotti, Fratella Rosetti offer such amazing selections and distinctive styles that shoes are reason enough to shop in Italy. Consider this a call out to the Carrie Bradshaws of this world; you will think that you died and went to heaven, just remember to bring your Tods flats for the hike back to your hotel, dragging a heavy load of shopping bags.