MILAN, Italy — Guiseppe Falzone smiles as he retells the story about the mink-clad countess and her friend, an Italian socialite, who unexpectedly encountered each other in his shop.
" Ciao ," says the countess, as her friend, a member of a prominent Milanese jewelry family, entered Falzone's outlet for discounted European designers' clothing. "But you know about this place, too?"
"Oh no," the other says quickly. "Someone only told me about it yesterday."
Falzone has long known both women as customers in the Milan shop bearing his name. But in this city, renowned for its high fashion, hundreds of its best-dressed women never reveal their favorite sources, even to dear friends. Not surprisingly, few tourists realize that such cut-rate treasures exist.
These modified factory outlets, called blocchisti, sell last season's haute couture in settings far removed from the refinement of downtown's chic boutiques, and at a fraction of the salons' original prices.
Often in basements or inside courtyards, the blocchisti remain unadvertised. They have no signs or window displays, although neighborhood residents can usually point strangers in the right direction.
And despite some customers' reticence, most newcomers arrive by word of mouth.
"The models come here," Falzone says, "and some students, but not many tourists. It's not on their circuit."
Indeed, after seeing some of Milan's notable sights, most visitors simply window-shop. Strolling along Via Monte Napoleone during the early evening passagiata, they browse among some of Europe's most expensive shops.
But the blocchisti are supplied by many of the same Italian designers whose shops line Monte Napoleone: Valentino, Versace, Armani, Ferri, Fendi and Cerrutti. Other Europeans also are represented in force, including Gaultier, Basile, Thierry Mugler and Montana. Lesser-known designers offer even better bargains. And though women's clothing dominates the selection, some stores also carry men's lines, especially Valentino, Armani, Versace and Cerrutti.
"Valentino is still everyone's favorite," Falzone says. "Yet there are others who are just as good, and less expensive."
Because Italians tend to demand a lot from their clothing, even "no-name" garments are generally made quite well, and in blocchisti they can cost far less than Americans might pay for synthetic fabrics at home. A simple white linen blouse costs $20, as does a tailored, long-sleeve silk blouse. A pleated and lined wool skirt is $35, an angora vest $12.
Yet work by even the most celebrated designers can be bought at bargain prices. Typical discounts range from 40% to 70% off Italian retail prices. European prices, however, are significantly lower than in the United States to begin with; the same garments may cost double or more after they're exported to the United States.
At Monitor, which specializes in silk dresses, a previous season's Valentino silk blazer, skirt and blouse ensemble is $330. That's about half the price of a similar but current style at the designer's Milan boutique.
At Il Salvagente, the biggest and best-known of the city's blocchisti, a hand-stitched summer-weight wool suit by Mila Schon is $110, although the Schon boutique's original sticker, still attached, priced the outfit at nearly $500. And at Leuce, which mainly carries haute couture, a Mondrani wool skirt is $60 while a butter-soft suede skirt by Versace is $100, minus its label.
Most Labels Removed
Removing such identifying marks is an unofficial agreement that most blocchisti owners abide by.
"Some people tell their friends they buy their clothes on Monte Napoleone," Falzone says. "If someone ever asks why the label is missing, they say they took it out because it scratched their neck."
To initiates, some designers' work can be identified even without its label. But when customer Ruth Nassima wanted to know who designed the yellow linen blouse she was ready to buy, Falzone wouldn't say. "Oh," she urged, "you can tell me." But the 45-year-old former police officer stood fast. "It's a secret," he said.
Revealing names can jeopardize a blocchista's access to merchandise, and few owners risk it. Distributors often also request a year's delay before surplus stock can be remaindered. For visiting Americans, who rarely see these styles during their first season anyhow, the delay makes little difference when they return home.
But occasionally a boutique customer sees an item she has just bought at full price on sale in a blocchista and returns to the boutique for a refund, said Falzone. The shopkeeper calls the distributor, "and they call me," he continued. "And then I go and cut the labels out."
Shop Early--and Often