Made in Milan

High-end tailoring is sewn into the social fabric of Italy’s design capital. Here we trace the city’s rise from renowned textile producer to fashion powerhouse.

Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Prada - they are some of the world’s most well-known brands, and they were all founded in Milan. So it’s not surprising that this city - the fashion capital of Italy - is still one of the world’s most stylish destinations.   

Milan’s fashion identity is rooted in the textile industry. Northern Italy had been synonymous with luxury goods (products such as silk, spices and dyes) since the 16th century, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that the mills of Lombardy - of which Milan is the capital - began producing coveted textiles that were in demand both nationally and around the world.

It was a lucrative industry and the embrace of consumerism by the newly wealthy Milanese residents was most evident in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, or simply the Galleria. The city’s most iconic landmark is a shopping arcade, but this grand building is not your typical mall. Constructed between 1865 and 1877, it’s one of the world’s oldest and features a vast glass and iron roof, allowing sun to stream onto the well-heeled shoppers. Known as Milan’s ‘living room’ (because it is a favoured meeting place), the Galleria stands at four storeys tall and connects the city’s main square, Piazza del Duomo, and its adjoining cathedral with another important landmark, the Teatro alla Scala opera house. Sit long enough in Caffè Miani (aka Zucca), which has been in the Galleria since it opened, and you’ll see immaculately dressed people pass by clutching bags of designer garments from Armani, Valentino and Versace.  

Building on the glamorous reputation Italy managed to foster through films such as Roman Holiday, Milan started carving out its reputation as a fashion powerhouse in the 1960s. It was during the 1970s, however, that a seismic shift occurred, as designers in Milan moved away from the rarefied atelier fitting rooms to focus on ‘everyday clothing’. Casual attire, such as jeans and T-shirts, emerged as high-fashion items, paving the way for ready-to-wear fashion.

Combining the renowned manufacturing expertise of Lombardy’s factories with Italian design aesthetics, two Milan-based designers, Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani, each began to create items that were marketed to younger customers. There were other significant events that led to Milan’s dominance as the country’s fashion capital, including a decision by the city of Florence to ban luxury knitwear label Missoni from participating in its 1968 Palazzo Pitti fashion shows (the previous year, the label’s models had caused offence by walking down the catwalk sans bras). Missoni took its collection to Milan instead, and after a successful show, other designers followed. In 1978 Milan hosted its inaugural fashion week, with more than 50 designers participating, and the city has been recognised as a leading style innovator ever since. 

Style pervades every aspect of Milan. The Armani Hotel, on Via Manzoni in the heart of the fashion district, is in a building that reflects another high point of Italian design: rationalism. The style of architecture, developed in Italy in the 1920s, is characterised by marble, rhythmic colonnades and arches. (A must-visit for students of design is the Villa Necchi Campiglio, where the 2009 film I Am Love was shot. Aside from its brush with big-screen glamour, the house is a showpiece of rationalist design.) After you’ve perused the latest designs in the Armani concept store beneath the hotel, ascend to the restaurant or lounge to see vast amounts of marble and floor-to-ceiling windows that offer panoramic views across rooftops.

Just a five-minute walk away, the Bulgari Hotel offers a more low-key, but equally stylish, accommodation option. While Bulgari is actually headquartered in Rome, this is the brand’s first hotel (followed by openings in Bali and London). With its tranquil garden setting and minimal design, it comes a close second to The Armani as a favourite of the fashion set.

They, of course, start their day at Pasticceria Marchesi, a bakery and sweets store founded in 1824 but now owned by Prada. Here, the pastries are displayed in glass cabinets and coffee is served to standing customers as it has been done for nearly two centuries. It might seem like an unusual decision - a leading fashion house owning a chain of bakeries - but Miuccia Prada, who took over the family-owned business in 1978, says it’s about giving back to her home city, a concept that’s also behind the Fondazione Prada cultural centre. Since 1993, the Prada Foundation has hosted acclaimed shows of contemporary art at its Milan and Venice locations, as well as installations at galleries and museums around the world. Its new headquarters, which opened in May 2015, was designed by Rem Koolhaas’s firm, OMA, and includes an open-air cinema and more than 11,000 square metres of exhibition space. Perhaps the most photographed element of the building is its four-storey tower covered in gold foil, although the 1950s-inspired cafe by American film director Wes Anderson is also worth a look.

While the city is home to many heritage family-run houses, there is also a new generation of designers attracting the attention of critics. Waiting to reach the height of Armani and Prada are labels including MSGM, Philosophy by Lorenzo Serafini and Vivetta (carried by boutiques Antonia and Suite 123). To find them, head north to Brera, and then to Via Solferino, lined with restaurants and boutiques carrying designs by names you haven’t heard of… yet.

Porta Romana, in the opposite direction, is one of Milan’s hottest neighbourhoods (thanks in part to the Fondazione Prada). The northern end, near the gate that gives the suburb its name, has long been an upscale residential and retail area, but Milan’s tastemakers are now venturing into its more industrial southern quarter, where a collection of new bars, restaurants and shops has begun opening up. If you want to know what will be in fashion tomorrow, visit Porta Romana today.

Words by John Newton - Published in Voyeur 7th March 2016
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 1,310,320
Time Zone UTC +1
Languages Italian (official)
Currency Euro €
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