Postcard from Milan

Friday, September 25th 2020
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When I was young, my family used to play a game on holiday.

The question for all of us was: what can you see that tells you you’re in a different country? It could be the types of trees, the style of road signs, the way people gesticulate. It made you notice these little nuances.

Today, you can add anti-Covid measures to that list. In Milan, I noticed, most people on the streets wear masks even if they’re nowhere near anybody. That doesn’t happen in the UK. And yet, in cafes or restaurants, there is no ‘track and trace’ system, no request to register your attendance. This isn’t working that well in the UK, but the requests are everywhere.

I was briefly in Milan this week, principally to visit the Francesco Maglia umbrella workshop (above).

I find it endlessly fascinating how people relate to these local makers. Maglia is perhaps the best umbrella factory in the world, yet it’s in the basement of an anonymous street, and most fashion people in Milan don’t even know it exists.

I’ll write about the company, the process, and the umbrellas later, but it was nice to see what a busy place it was: a small shop from Switzerland were there placing an order, picking silks from the rack and matching them with woods; and a local man popped in to ask about repairing an old silk umbrella of his father’s.

I also took the opportunity to have a fitting with Nicoletta Caraceni – the proprietor of the lesser-known Caraceni house in Milan (Ferdinando Caraceni), but my personal favourite.

I had asked Nicoletta to make a navy version of the double-breasted cotton jacket I have from them, and picked a cloth from swatches sent earlier in the year. Nicoletta has a great selection of vintage cloth, and the wool/cashmere I went for had a lovely feel.

Tailors all over the world are in trouble, but the large Milanese houses seem to have it particularly bad.

The problem is they don’t do trunk shows – they’re dependent on customers coming to them. Savile Row is very reliant on the US, but at least it requires just one trip to New York to make things better; Nicoletta needs the whole world to be able to travel, including England, Brazil and Dubai. Apparently only the Swiss are coming at the moment.

Ferdinando Caraceni is a small operation, with just five full-time staff, and Nicoletta has never overstretched herself by trying to grow too big or too fast. She sometimes closes orders for a few months every year, once the workshop is at capacity. But still, when 70% of customers are international, it’s a big blow.

My last morning, yesterday, was spent visiting a few shops. I have an old shirt from Al Bazar that’s been worn so much it’s falling apart, so I took it to the shop in the hope they would have a new one.

No such luck. But still, they had enough other denims (different colours, weights, tuxedo, Western) for me to find another I liked.

Al Bazar is Lino Ieluzzi’s taste, and in the most politest possible way, it is not mine. But the shop is so big and varied that there are always little gems to be found. Avoid the double-monk shoes and the shiny belts, and look at the knitwear (above), or the blousons.

I particularly liked a raglan-sleeved sweater made in a Sea Island cotton. Like a luxury version of a vintage sweatshirt, complete with high collar and narrow waist, but a big chest. And best of all, the yarn meant the luxury was all in the feel – it still had that sweatshirt look.

I also popped into Bardelli, which is another great Italian menswear store – the kind London has always sorely lacked.

The taste level is pretty much always good, and it revels in the grey-cashmere-and-brown-suede aesthetic of the best Italian menswear. There are skinny stone-washed chinos too, but alongside some great tailoring, outerwear and accessories. I tried a really chunky fisherman’s knit, but the fit didn’t quite work.

The thing that’s killing all these Italian stores is they have no e-commerce. I’ve had conversations with many of them over the years about it, and like big brands they’ve said they just want to focus on the in-store experience.

But everyone else has slowly realised online is part of modern customer service – as much as knowledgeable advice or good stock. Hermes, Loro Piana etc all resisted and were proved wrong. The sad thing is that it leaves these menswear stores very vulnerable.

There wasn’t time to visit the lovely Stefano Bigi, though I’m told his tie workshop (above) now has a mini-store where customers can make bespoke orders. Maglia is doing that too: it’s probably quite an effective way to bring people closer to the production, and perhaps understand it more.

I did briefly visit Bernardini, the high-end antiques dealer that specialises in men’s favourites like watches and trunks. Seeing how they’ve repurposed Louis Vuitton models made me wonder if I should do something similar with mine. I was also very tempted by a couple of vintage watches and an old Hermes letter opener - but stayed strong.

Most Milanese people I talked to seemed surprisingly upbeat, perhaps because their anti-Covid measures are apparently working better than those in Spain, France and the UK, at least for now.

Still, I’m sure that will change: it may be a good while before I get to return to Italy. While I was there, that knowledge made the brief trip all the sweeter.

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Triskel

Hi Simon, the other game we used to play was guessing nationalities from appearance, particularly clothes. Now that things are so much more international, doing that successfully (and I do note your comments on grey flannel and brown suede) is, I think, much more difficult. But it does make the game more challenging! It’s good to see these shops surviving in Milan; you used to see them everywhere in Italy, with their beautiful window displays.

Robin

Beautiful article.
Much different to anything I’ve seen you write before.

I think the Italian tailors will probably stand a better chance of surviving more than some of the Savile Row free market , private equity fund, profit maximising tailoring houses.

Sadly in the UK we’ve lost touch with the craft we taught the world but have maintained a superiority complex that refuses the courtesy of wearing a face mask for the benefit of others.

Some more humility and compassion wouldn’t go a miss on these isles.

Anonymous

Yes please Simon.

Stefan

This was a fun article to read, you write these quite well and more articles about the things you see when preparing the other articles would probably be quite nice to read? (Now, if you want to indulge us with some interesting variety then by all means follow up on the recent article about evening dress with a similar article about tracht? 🙂 )

Robin

Yes , please.
The beauty of this article is the introduction of tailoring houses / brands with a degree of polite honesty .
Places you may never fully review but you mentioning means they are worth looking up.
Something more easily done with online shopping really available.

Burt

Agree. Esp. your observations make it a good read. It’s like an afternoon stroll with panoramic views 🙂

Sigmund

Please do, very much enjoyed this read.

Dennis Chuah

Love your writings, Simon.

Dennis

Matt

I also enjoy the travel writing married with the apparel coverage. Since you get to visit such interesting places, more articles like this would be welcome.

Luciano

Great article, Simon. I would like just to point out that in the 2012 article you refer to
(for the Vuitton case) there is a video which seems to have gone lost
cheers

Ronnie

Was in Milan 3 weeks ago. Different world when it comes to handling Covid. M. Bardelli was a beautiful shop too.

Stephen Dolman

Hi Simon,
I found the article most interesting.
I love small independent boutiques & on my travels have picked up some of my best pieces.
May I recommend 2 or 3?
The first two, by coincidence are both named “Bruno” and are in
St Johns Wood , London
And The Croissette in Cannes
Number 3 is Jean Jacques in Monte Carlo
In my opinion they all have a very well edited and selection of tailoring, shirts and acccessories. Perhaps you know of them
Kindest Regards
Stephen

SD

Simon, I know the focus is on the clothes here but where did you eat and how were those places faring? I haven’t been to Milan in a while and am deeply concerned for some of my old favorites.

Anonymous

There are so many incredible restaurants in Milan.

1) La Proscuitteria
2) Osteria del Binari
3) Dal Bolognese
4) I copatosta

Those should cover lunch and dinner whilst youre there for a few days.

GONZAGUE

Pleasing post indeed and am glad to discover a retailer with an extensive choice of vintage UG Compax…

Adam

Living in Germany, I’ve found that Lombardy in particular is the only place that is as good as if not better than Germany for day to day adherence to anti covid measures. I’ve been there twice (for tailoring reasons – so, essential travel) since the borders opened and it’s no surprise as to why the incidence in Italy and Germany is staying lower than in other neighbouring countries. I like to think that I was doing my part by going there to take delivery of my jacket, and most importantly, pay my bill and hopefully keep a business open a little longer.
Today’s post made me wish I’d known about these places the last time I was in Milan as it’s doubtful I’ll be visiting again any time soon. The streetcars there reminded me of my hometown of Toronto, although the similarities kind of drop off after that. But it’s places like these, selling things you can’t get elsewhere, that give character to both the place and the thing that you buy. Many of my coworkers only seem to care for Milan insofar as it is (or was, until recently) the only place you can buy Starbucks mugs in Italy – but then look at me like I have two heads if I tell them that I got a one of a kind jacket made by hand by people who I met and whose hands I shook.

richard schiffmann

Adam, may I ask who which tailor you worked with and was it a positive experience?

Rollefc

Simon, I like all your writing, but this I liked even more. Your usual writing is quite instrumental/factual, and here I sense a more poetic tone. Please continue with your usual stuff and add more of this as well.

Anonymous

Simon I think we should all aspire to being as elegant and tasteful as you. Such sophistication is a fountain of knowledge from which we are grateful to drink.

Ahmed Bashir

Definitely a throwback piece in both style and substance. Really enjoyed being able to stroll in and out of those stores with you!

Duncan McPhie

Great piece, Simon. Thanks for that.
Given that so few of us are travelling now, it’s good to read about someone who is.
Please keep doing what you do so well!
And feel free to add in some details of your hotels, restaurants and bars in future articles.

Matrix.RX1

the small Swiss store must have been Pelikamo, from Zurich/Basel. Great menswear selection (pelikamo.ch).

John

Hi Simon,
This is a lovely post! Please, do overhall what you allready have in your attic and see about what you could do out of it. Personally, I think your perspective on how people dress at various moments and in different locations within single cities could be of interest. From time to time, a pic that illustrates what you might have seen of interest could be instructive too.
As to anti-Covid19 measures, Italians having been the first hard hit seem to have learnt the lesson. Yet the most troubling and dispiriting case is not happening in Europe, but in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA! Frankly, I feel at once furious and sad when I think about what is going on over there. That this could happen in this country and in this very 21st century is utterly beyond my grasp! And the standardbearers of the anti-Covid19-measures claim “they are exercising their freedom”… Obviously, more readers of PS are needed in this country, to say the least!
John

E L

Makes me want to go to Milan. One of your finest pieces Simon, maybe because of the content, maybe because of your enthusiasm, or maybe just because you seem a bit more natural than normal (not that you normally sound unnatural).

Rick Green

Hi Simon,

next time in Milan (if you wanted) you could try Sartoria Sapienza on Via Rembrandt. He (Sapienza is his surname) was recommended to me by the ladies in Il Vecchio Drapiere (which you know i think- they do cloth for suits=it’s just near Bardelli)- it has none of the glamour of Caraceni et al, but in my view (which is worth little perhaps in this area) he makes a wonderful bespoke jacket- and it might an interesting take:- a tailor that does not cater to wealthy russians etc at enormous prices, a little off the ebaten track-

all the best-

Peter Hall

I enjoyed your piece ,greatly. Just the sort of writing to kill time on a Sunday, chatting with my wife who agrees we must visit Milan soon. We were in Vienna recently- the men dress so well, and these great European cities ooze class.

Barry Pullen

I had to smile at your opening, “When I was young”–I don’t want to give my age away, but the last time I was in Milan Giorgio Armani still had some black hair on his head, the fabled men’s store Barbas Bibas was still open, and I was spending Italian lire, because euros didn’t yet exist.

Sadly, as an American citizen I am currently banned not just from Milan, but from the entire country. But I have no beef the Italians, who wrote the book on dealing with Covid-19. A book, apparently, that many Americans even at the highest levels are too illiterate to read.

So I must, for the time being, enjoy the charms of Milano through the eyes of others like yourself. Thank you for the dreamy piece.

I am DYING to get to F. Caraceni; the jackets they made for you are superb…

Daniel

Wonderful post! I have traveled often to Italy for academic research, but how fun now to read about this beautiful country, its people, and its traditions from the perspective of someone so knowledgeable about Italian tailoring – a new area of interest for me. While I have longed admired Italian menswear, I never paid it much attention (though I was able to visit Mario Talarico’s shop in Naples). Now, I love learning about these craftsmen and artists, their materials and techniques, from your perspective. Thank you!

ANM

Simon,

Excellent article, and one with a tinge of sadness about it (if these wonderful shops/manufacturers disappear).

I hate to go all “business school” on the subject, but many people think ‘failing to keep up’ with the market is all about product content and quality…..but if anything the last couple decades has shown us, it is also about HOW you reach your customers (no website?), and what defines ‘service’ these days (it has not changed, just expanded)…

The funny thing is, they obviously know about PS, and sit for your interviews, videos, etc….and they must know PS is a ‘virtual’ publication…one would think this would have been a ‘lightbulb’ moment, or at least a sign, that perhaps they should explore the online world….If not, they must have noticed at least some new customers coming in, and saying they read about them on PS…..

Andrew L

What a brilliant, engaging, and evocative article! We can’t leave Australia (for the foreseeable future), and I missed my summer in Europe more than I thought possible, so it was an utter joy to be able to travel and shop vicariously with you. Thank you.

Initials CG

Three of the best shirt makers in Rome have decided to call it quits… a few local Roman tailors and several bartenders are closing shop… these are all artisans in the finest sense of the word. Their craft, once revered, will soon pass forever to be lost like the nameless ancient Roman civil engineers that built the pantheon, the aqueducts, and the roads and cities of Europe … yet, I do believe the craft, skill and techniques will survive.
Some young tailors in Rome are carrying on thanks in part to a discreet clientele in Milan. Milanese clients pay better than their Roman counterparts and the Italian tradesman rely heavily on local demand.
This is poignantly missing in other European markets. Most European tradecraft is reliant on International e-commerce by now. Not a bad thing, but I feel that certain skills, like a really good bartender, needs a direct interaction with a passionate clientele in order to keep his skill sharp, current, relevant and most of all, permanent.
In part, Simon, you carry a heavy burden of continuing the excitement around the finest of men’s presentation… what the heck else is an Oxford PPE doing if not leading the charge ?