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CRITIC'S CHOICE / MILAN

Milan, the land of the spree

Shopping is high art in this Italian city that knows how to strut.

April 24, 2005|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

Milan, Italy — On a drizzly February morning, a bride and groom posed for photos in the barrel-vaulted Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the world's oldest and grandest retail arcades. They held hands and kissed in front of the Louis Vuitton and Prada stores, the latest "it" bags spotlighted in the windows behind them.

In a city that's serious about shopping, it was a fairy-tale setting.

Traveling two months of the year to runway shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris, I find a plethora of retail possibilities. But nowhere is shopping a more welcome diversion than in Milan, the gritty postwar metropolis that's said to be home to as many banks as Rome has churches.

Milan is not known for quaint villas, olive trees or charming fountains. People here don't lounge around living la dolce vita. They work. This is the economic engine of Italy, a melting pot of people who come from all over to make their fortunes.

Although it's a rich city, it's not an especially rich cultural center. Certainly, the Duomo is a Gothic marvel, but it's been under scaffolding for years. La Scala finally reopened in December after renovation, but discord has led to the cancellation of numerous performances. It's difficult to quibble with Da Vinci's "Last Supper" at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie -- who doesn't want to see what Dan Brown was talking about? -- but reservations are required, which quashes spontaneous visits.

Really, the beauty of Milan is its everyday hustle and drive. It's in the office buildings, fashion studios, design showrooms and pizzerias. And it is in the stores, the jewels that dress up this ugly stepsister to Rome and Florence.

Before World War II, Italy was internationally known for textile and leather goods production, but it didn't become a fashion center until the 1950s and '60s, when designers such as Valentino and Roberto Capucci showed their made-to-order couture collections in Florence and Rome. With the increasing importance of ready-to-wear in the world market, editors and buyers began flocking to Milan in the 1970s to see the offerings of Missoni and Krizia. But it was the contributions of Giorgio Armani and Gianni Versace in the 1980s that at last made Italian sportswear a rival to the decadent fashions of Paris.

Over the years, the definition of Italian style has blurred. No longer bound to the status-suit-and-handbag uniform, even the upwardly mobile Milanese are embracing the vintage-inspired eclecticism of Miuccia Prada and Marni's Consuelo Castiglioni. Residents are opening their wallets to ethnic and outlet shopping like never before. And vintage clothing is gaining a following beyond designers seeking inspiration.

Besides being a godsend for those of us trying to stretch a weak dollar, this new fashion diversity creates a retail experience that goes beyond big-name boutiques to the medieval-turned-trendy Porta Ticinese neighborhood and the factory outlets just 45 minutes away in Mendrisio, Switzerland.

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A three-ring circus

I usually consider staying in a different area, but I always return to the city center, to a street behind the Galleria that leads to the Duomo, not far from La Scala. From here, Milan's streets radiate out in three concentric rings. This is not the most quiet or peaceful place, but it is the heart, the Times Square.

Much of the area has been given over to pedestrians, so it bustles constantly with tour groups looking skyward at the nearly 700-year-old Duomo spires and at the occasional manifestazione, or strike, accompanied by a bullhorn. On Saturdays, sauced soccer fans gather here, their chants reverberating off hotel windows.

The Galleria, named after the first king of a unified Italy, was designed by architect Giuseppe Mengoni in 1861 to connect the squares of the Duomo and La Scala, symbolically unifying church and state. But more important, the iron and glass arcade represented the evolution of shopping from necessity to a leisure activity.

Even on dreary days -- which is all I seem to encounter when I'm here -- the glass-domed Galleria is magnificent. The mosaics in the floor represent Europe, Asia, Africa and America and the symbols of Italy's great cities, including Turin's bull, where it's a tradition to stand, spin on your heel and make a wish.

The arcade has branches of Gucci, Tod's and Vuitton, nestled among T-shirt stands, a Rizzoli bookshop, a McDonald's and Bar Zucca, the coffee shop Verdi and Toscanini favored.

But for shoppers, the real attraction is the first Prada store, a mecca for all fashion pilgrims. Founded as Fratelli Prada ("Prada Brothers") in 1913 by Miuccia Prada's grandfather Mario, it has an old-world feel with built-in wood shelves, a black-and-white checkerboard floor and even the original cashier's desk and sign.

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