Fashion, art, and design: A tour around Italy’s fashion capital, Milan

Dubai: Planning your Eid vacation? Want to take a break from the summer heat? Why not head to Milan, the fashion capital of Italy, a quarantine-free destination that is open for tourists who have completed their COVID-19 vaccinations and tests. Plus, the weather will still be perfect early May.

The birthplace of iconic fashion names like Gucci, Armani, Prada, and many others, Milan is one of the “Big Four” fashion capitals of the world. Unlike the other three cities – New York City, Paris, and London, it may not be a capital city, but there is fashion in every direction you look.

Women in stylish coats and designer boots and men looking dapper in blazers and hats scurry along Milan’s beautiful narrow cobbled streets. Every now and then, they stop to make way for a bright-coloured tram passing.

For someone who loves art, Milan is the perfect muse – from its architecture to people’s fashion, even the weather.

For noted Chinese fashion illustrator Fei Wang, it’s this style of Milan’s fashion crowd that fascinated him. Wang illustrated them in his coloured pencil sketches. The contemporary artist who is also known as Mr. Slowboy found Milan’s uber stylish men – from Milanese restauranteurs, to shop owners, and sketched them.

“I wanted my sketches to capture even the weight of the fabric of their coats,” he said.

“This collection of sketches shows some very well-known Milanese personalities, from restauranteurs, to shop owners, fashion photographers or friends of Wang,” said Sophie Clarke, Radisson’s global director of social media and consumer PR.

Wang’s work will be exhibited till August 2022, at the Radisson Collection Hotel, Palazzo Touring Club Milan. Built between 1914 and 1915, this club was the historical headquarters of the Italian Touring Club.

Later it was converted to a five-star hotel but, preserves many intricate details from when it was first built.

Stops for fashion and art in Milan

Now when in Milan, who doesn’t want to go shopping for the very latest in designer brands? Ester Ghezzi, a local guide, took us to the right place for this – Milan’s Quadrilatero D’Oro, also called Quadrilatero Della Moda, literally meaning the fashion square.

The quad houses historic high-end shops and boutiques. Outside these shops, tourists and elegantly dressed Milanese locals with their equally stylish dogs line up in queues, waiting their turn. COVID-19 rules don’t seem to have dampened the shoppers’ spirit here.

“Italy has a long-standing relationship with fashion,” she explained. At the time when the Italian Renaissance flourished in the 15th century, everyone wanted to dress lavishly like the nobility. Italian women were showing off elaborate clothes and accessories, and men wore pigmented colors and intricate embroideries on their tunics. Their outfits were a symbol of their position and authority.

Eventually, cities such as Florence, Venice, Milan, Naples, and Rome started producing their own textiles and fabrics like wool, silk, and velvet. Hollywood actors and actresses began travelling to Rome to film movies directed by prominent Italian moviemakers like Federico Fellini, and Italian designers started producing clothes for them. Roman “haute couture” (high fashion) became famous all around the world. But soon, Florence and Rome gave way to Milan as Italy’s fashion capital.

Quadrilatero D’Oro is one of the most expensive neighbourhoods of Milan. Its tall old buildings and narrow cobbled roads have been restored to retain the architecture. While the ground and lower floors have luxury and designer boutiques, the top floors of many of these buildings have apartments and residences.

Standing in the middle of the lively city, the historic architecture, sculpted gardens, and famous piazzas (public squares or marketplaces in Italy) will leave you mesmerised. If you visit Milan, make sure to take a walk on these four streets that showcase Milanese style.

First stop: Hats on Via Sant’Andrea

Ghezzi first took us to the historic Borsalino store on Via Sant’Andrea that displays the latest hat designs that were showcased by the hat atelier during the Milan Fashion Week.

Milan is characterised by its ancient palazzos or palatial buildings where well-known aristocratic families lived. These buildings have huge facades with intricate architecture. “In Milan, you need to be more curious and look past the gates. Milan is a city of beautiful courtyards and secret gardens,” said Ghezzi. Every palazzo has a spacious courtyard at the center, and a garden either behind the building or on the terrace. We crossed one such courtyard to reach the Borsalino store.

In 1857, even before Italy became a sovereign state (1861), an iconic Alessandrian milliner named Giuseppe Borsalino started making luxury hats. It was a time when everyone in Italy was wearing hats, the store manager explained. Borsalino’s hats grew to such fame that his name became the dictionary-defined term for a wide-brim hat. His first store in Milan is a small, charming space to pick up a dashing felt fedora (a low, soft felt hat with a curled brim and the crown creased lengthways), the likes of which American actor Bogart himself wore.

It takes more than 50 manual steps over six weeks to make a single felt fedora hat, the store manager explained. The Bogart collection, which has a crown measurement of 12-14cm, costs from 250 Euros up to 500 Euros.

However, the costliest hat in the store is not a felt hat. It is a straw-hat style called montecristi, which costs 1050 Euros.

“King Giorgio’s” boutique in Via Sant’Andrea

The next stop was Italian designer Giorgio Armani’s boutique in Via Sant’Andrea. It is in the same location where in 1983 Armani, who is affectionately referred to as “King Giorgio” by the Milanese, opened his first boutique. The interior architecture of the boutique has been inspired by style elements of the 1930s, the period to which the building dates back, but these influences have been used in a way to display contemporary design.

Ghezzi said: “Milan has been the city of fashion since the 1970s. They were the golden years for fashion in Milan, thanks to two big names in fashion – Giorgio Armani and Giovanni Maria Versace.

“The two men could not be more different. Neither was Milanese, and their styles were completely different. For Armani less has always been more, with a focus on classic colours like black, blue, white, red, and grey. Whereas, Versace, whose mother was a seamstress, created colorful designs.”

Recollecting the assassination of Versace in 1997, Ghezzi said: “All of Milan observed huge funerals in the Duomo Di Milano for weeks.”

Renaissance art on Via Della Spiga

Our next stop was the Bagatti Valsecchi Museum, which houses art collections of the two brothers, Fausto and Giuseppe Bagatti Valsecchi. The building is a palace built by the two art collectors to showcase Renaissance art from the 1500s.

After the two brothers passed away, the palace was turned into a museum and opened to the public. The building also has one of the first examples of a bathroom in Milan.

Via Monte Napoleone is an absolute must-see

Situated in a historic palace at the heart of the Quadrilatero Della Moda is the Versace boutique in via Monte Napoleone. This street is an absolute must-see if you go shopping in Milan. The district’s most high-end boutiques of world-renowned designers are located here – like a huge Valentino store with its seven-window display and a Salvatore Ferragamo boutique. He was the first Italian designer to design shoes for Hollywood stars. “He returned to Italy during World War II, after which stars started coming to Italy for his designs,” said Ghezzi.

From here, as we made our way to the Teatro Alla Scala, or the Theatre at the Stairway, one of the principal opera houses of the world and the leading Italian opera house, we passed a building with a striking façade featuring elaborate Baroque designs from the 1600s. This is now a store for Zegna, an Italian luxury fashion house.

As we reached Milan’s iconic Teatro alla Scala, or Scala as Ghezzi called it, she said that tourists and art enthusiasts often expect the façade of the theatre to be very elaborate or glamourous but end up feeling disappointed at how simple it looks. However, the Scala is grand inside.

Aristocrat families used to meet six nights a week. At the Scala, these families had private boxes, with the opera playing in the background, the families would enjoy meeting each other and their friends, as well as the food and beverages.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s statue and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Across the theater is the Piazza del Scalla, an open plaza where many people sit on benches under a giant statue right at the center. The statue is of none other than Italian Renaissance artist and polymath, Leonardo Da Vinci, who worked and lived from 1482-1499 and 1506-1513 in Milan.

Once you cross that, you get to the “Real heart of Milano” – Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which was created in 1861.

The Galleria features various luxury brands, but two steal the limelight – the first-ever Prada store in the world, which was opened in 1913, and an even older bookstore, which has been running since 1775.

Duomo di Milano

Once you cross the Galleria, you reach the spectacular Duomo di Milano, the third-largest church in the world. With over 3,400 statues, this gothic masterpiece took over 600 years to complete. The church has thousands of intricately carved spires and statues, and its construction began in 1386. A close look of the rooftop is enough to make you feel emotional due to the sheer beauty of its art.

Milano’s Duomo is the largest and most elaborate Gothic building in Italy, made of pink-hued white marble from a dedicated quarry.

At the top of the main spire, rests the glistening golden statue of the Madonnina, or Mary, mother of Jesus. It is also the largest Gothic building in the world whose rooftop you can walk on.

But, if you want to enter the Duomo di Milano, or see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper housed in the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, you must book your tickets weeks in advance.

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