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Milan, the land of the spree

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The upstairs is packed with handbags, but down the marble spiral staircase in the basement is a treasure-trove of shoes and clothing for men and women, as well as the brand’s signature nylon totes and cosmetic bags displayed in antique steamer trunks -- a nod to Prada’s origins in the luggage business.

The shopkeepers rarely smile, even when magazine editors take over the shop during spring and fall previews known as fashion weeks, deliberating with complete strangers the merits of $700 crocodile pumps or a $1,500 feather hat. Champagne is served daily when the buying gets really hot, as in a $3,000 shearling coat with a crystal-studded collar. But even if all you leave with is a $100 keychain, it will be packed and ribbon-tied in one of the stiff, white Fratelli Prada shopping bags that are omnipresent on the streets in this part of the city.

Nearby is La Rinascente, the department store where Armani got his start as a photographer and a buyer. Unlike many shops in Milan, it’s open late and on Sunday and doesn’t close for lunch. This is the place to rub elbows with Italians and to shop for sneakers, stockings (always better in Europe) and lingerie. (Who doesn’t need a leopard-print Dolce & Gabbana undershirt?)

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The home section is full of colorful ceramics, tablecloths and napkins, and the stationery department stocks marbled Il Papiro paper and books from Florence. From the rooftop cafe -- a favorite with local families for Sunday brunch -- you can see the spires and gargoyles of the Duomo. Across the walkway in a separate building, Jam is the section of the store devoted to teens.

Outside La Rinascente, Corso Vittorio Emanuele II is home to Italy’s fast fashion stores such as Max Mara, Sisley and Benetton. A dull roar rises from the pedestrian walkway from morning until night as teens shop after school and families stroll together on the weekends. Vendors sell roasted nuts, soccer shirts and gelati. And it’s not uncommon to stumble upon a street musician, though he’s more likely to be singing an English-language Bob Dylan ballad than anything in Italian.

Fiorucci, one of the first lifestyle boutiques, used to be along this stretch -- a colorful wonderland with an eclectic assortment of vinyl pants, zines, fluorescent fishnets and flower-decorated dustpans. Elio Fiorucci rose to prominence as a retailer in the 1960s, when he brought the miniskirt and other London street fads to Milan.

He opened stores around the world throughout the 1970s and ‘80s -- one formerly on Melrose Avenue in L.A. -- selling his own line of T-shirts emblazoned with his famous twin cherubs and colored jeans.

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But in 2003, claiming disillusionment with the fashion industry, Fiorucci closed the original Milan store (it’s now an H&M;) and opened a smaller outpost around the corner on Corso Europa called Love Therapy. It’s not the same, but it’s still worth the trip for the intriguing assortment of cartoon-print T-shirts, furry handcuffs and gnome-shaped nightlights.

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It’s shopping squared

The city’s luxury shopping district developed around the Golden Quadrangle, bordered by Via Manzoni and Corso Venezia, Via Montenapoleone and Via della Spiga. The desire for the latest thing is palpable here, as tourists and locals dart in and out of the shiny boutiques lining the cobblestoned streets.

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The city’s biggest names are all represented -- Versace, Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, Etro, Fendi, Tod’s, Marni, Gianfranco Ferre, Missoni, Pucci and Gucci -- along with most international brands. (Ralph Lauren and Narciso Rodriguez recently opened here.)

Armani’s three-story lifestyle emporium occupies an entire block on Via Manzoni. This minimalist palace features his main line of impeccably tailored suits and red-carpet gowns, as well as Emporio Armani, Armani Jeans, Armani Casa, an Armani chocolatier, florist, home store and bookshop, as well as Milan’s very own Nobu restaurant. It’s more like a museum than a shopping center. On Via della Spiga, the new Prada accessories boutique is as enticing as a candy store, with the latest keychain charms and square-toe slingbacks in juicy shades. You can even order a custom-made bag in the leather of your choice.

But in today’s global economy, luxury shopping can seem the same whether you’re at South Coast Plaza or in Shanghai. So, for an only-in-Milan experience, I go to Car Shoe for rubber-soled driving moccasins in the $200 range and Sermoneta for deerskin, kidskin and suede gloves in a rainbow of colors.

For a break, Caffe Cova is a turn-of-the-last-century tearoom that’s frequented by models and fashion editors and has delicious tiramisu. Milan’s aperitivo scene heats up after work at the in-store bars at Just Cavalli and Dolce & Gabbana, where thirtysomethings stop in for Campari cocktails and free hors d’oeuvres.

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For a more avant-garde shopping experience, 10 Corso Como is probably Milan’s best-known store -- what Colette is to Paris and Maxfield is to L.A. It was established in 1991 by former Vogue Italia editor Carla Sozzani and is a destination for label mongers, who stomp around in Dior crystal-studded biker boots and Prada crystal-fisherman sweaters, and for label snobs, who prefer which-way-is-up pieces by Martin Margiela and Comme des Garcons. This is curated retail, where clothing is arranged by designer in alcoves, along with corresponding books and accessories of interest.

The white-walled space with mitochondrial tiles and light fixtures also is a reminder that Milan is an interior-design capital. A design-oriented housewares department features Brionvega TVs, Dyson vacuums, Walter Gropius plates and caviar from Maxim’s of Paris. If all else fails, you can pick up a limited-edition 10 Corso Como Swatch watch or canvas tote.

Upstairs is a photography gallery and bookstore with a great selection of fashion and design titles, as well as DVDs of Fellini and Truffaut greats. The Zen-like courtyard cafe serves fusion cuisine and a water of the month (Gleneagles on my last visit). When the hipness becomes too oppressive, Pizzeria di Porta Garibaldi next door is a real-world refuge.

If your wallet is on the light side, as mine always is, the 10 Corso Como outlet offers the odd pair of Prada and Manolo Blahnik shoes, along with clothing from past seasons. But if you thought it was difficult to make sense of the pieces in the main store, it’s 10 times worse here. Is that a shirt, a skirt? Both?

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Not far from the Corso Como outlet, African Oriental Craft (if you can find it) can be fun, like a trip to a souk without leaving Milan. Dusty shelves are packed with bins of bangles, barrettes and earrings. Multi-strand beaded necklaces hang from above, next to tiled ashtrays, lanterns and Moroccan tea glasses (six for about $20).

With global trends this spring, this place, with imports from India, Kenya, Tunisia and beyond, was at the top of my must list on a recent trip. The musty aisles, crammed with handicrafts, always leave me feeling a bit guilty about the people who made these things selling for mere euros.

Across the street is the soft-goods branch of the store, with paisley wall hangings, fringed shawls, Ikat-print scarves and more.

For serious chic on the cheap, I recently discovered Italy’s outlet shopping. Most of it requires a day trip by car or train, but there are a few quick fixes in the city. Like most everything in Milan, the Etro outlet on Via Spartaco -- next to the company offices -- looks like a simple, spare storefront from the outside. But inside, there’s a wide selection of the label’s vivid paisley scarves, bags and shoes, along with the Mexican-stripe jackets and skirts from past women’s collections, colorful pinstripe suits and paisley shirts for men, all discounted at least 50%.

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The Marni outlet, somewhat harder to find, is in a residential area, recognizable only by the smallest of plaques on the gate outside. Ring the bell and the gate will open; then walk down the walkway in the back to the right. Inside the unmarked building are Consuelo Castiglioni’s quirky men’s, women’s and children’s clothes, as well as her chunky platform shoes, at least half off retail.

Farther afield, about a 45-minute car or train ride from Milan and just over the border in Switzerland, are the FoxTown Factory Stores. This indoor outlet mall reminds me of a similar one outside of Las Vegas -- same casino-adjacent, cigarette-smoke-filled setup. All the top labels are represented, with prices at least half off retail. You’ll be dealing in Swiss francs, not euros, so be prepared to change some currency or pay with plastic. Gucci scarves were about $110, last season’s Prada brocade coat $420 and a Venice postcard print bag $230.

At Missoni, I picked up a terrycloth robe in a multicolored weave for about $100 and a sweater that reminds me of a desert sunset for about $125. A $1,100 Dolce & Gabbana jacket was tempting, as were the Valentino evening gowns for less than $1,000. At Yves Saint Laurent, women’s tuxedos were less than $600.

Also worth a look: Salvatore Ferragamo (ties for $50), La Perla (bras for $80) and Superga (classic canvas sneakers for about $28). FoxGrill, the cafeteria upstairs, has a great antipasti bar. If you drive, don’t miss the view of Lake Como on the way and the Alps on the return.

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Just south of Milan in the Piedmont region, McArthurGlen is built around two large piazzas and has the feel of L.A.'s Grove. Many of the outlets are the same as at FoxTown: Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Roberto Cavalli and Versace. But you’ll also find a Bulgari (a $10,000 necklace at 20% off!) and an outpost of French label Cacharel. Another highlight is a store operated by Aeffe, the Italian manufacturer of Moschino, Jean Paul Gaultier and Alberta Ferretti, all of which are represented. I spotted a fuchsia silk floral Ferretti skirt for half the price I paid for it at Neiman-Marcus.

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Where the hipsters hang

To see fashion percolating up from the streets, head back to Milan to Corso di Porta Ticinese, which is marked by a neoclassical arch that was the city gate during medieval times, an important port during the Roman era and the current site of the University of Milan. The street, just north of the Navigli district of canals, is akin to Melrose Avenue; you’ll find head shops, sex shops, boutiques from which hip-hop music spills into the streets, and kids in such creative outfits as a jersey skirt ripped into a rattail fringe, worn with leggings, cowboy boots and a mohawk.

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Diesel, Levi’s and other denim labels have “concept stores” here, where new products are tested. But the more interesting stuff can be found at the independent boutiques, where Southern California’s surf ‘n’ skate aesthetic is alive and well. At Purple, I spotted a great line of purses made from recycled skateboards and checkerboard print slip-on sneakers that looked like Vans except with pointy toes.

Vanilla’s color-blocked mini-dresses suited fashion’s current mod mood; a pair of pink wool houndstooth clogs for about $51 looked retro and cozy. Killah -- a brand extension of the Italian denim line Miss Sixty and targeted at younger customers -- features jeans and T-shirts surrounded by amazing store decor: a Rubik’s Cube-shaped counter, a chair padded with stuffed animals and a cityscape made of TV remotes above the cash desk.

For girlie girls, shoe designer Tania Ercoli’s shop Les Tropeziennes has a boudoir feel, with pink satin cushions and carpets to accent rose print stilettos and satin ballet flats with rosebuds on the toes.

I’ve found that another good neighborhood to stroll is the Brera, especially at night, when galleristas dine outside on the cobblestone streets and counterfeit-bag dealers come out of the walls.

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For inspiration, Dolce & Gabbana, Angela Missoni and other designers head to the Brera’s cheery vintage boutique Cavalli e Nastri, where there’s a masterful mix of high and low: On my recent trip, a boucle Chanel jacket hung near a Banana Republic shirt.

The recently opened Vintage Spirit Multistore gives a new legitimacy to the vintage scene, with a sleek building that houses several well-edited boutiques under one roof. Elizabeth the First specializes in vintage ethnic and tribal pieces made from embroideries from Bulgaria, camel-hair weavings from Sudan and more. A.N.G.E.L.O. stocks vintage Levi’s 501 jeans, some of which have been crafted into throw pillows, and vintage kid’s clothes. DGP Pescetto does the English manor look with vintage saddlebags, hunting jackets and Aquascutum raincoats.

There’s a branch of Miss Ghinting here, but I prefer the original shop on Via Borsieri, in an area some might describe as dodgy and others as up and coming. It’s not easy to find (I called from my cellphone to get step-by-step directions to the door), but it’s worth the trouble. The selection of romantic dirndl skirts, Balmain cocktail suits, Roberta di Camerino purses with trompe l’oeil details and pillbox hats transported me to my own Italian fairy tale. I imagined I was Audrey Hepburn and that Gregory Peck -- no let’s make that an Italian stallion named Giovanni -- was waiting for me on a Vespa outside....

The spell was broken almost as soon as my purchase -- a lowly flower brooch -- had been rung up. The shows in Paris were just a few days away and with them a whole new retail frontier. True shoppers know that the urge can never be satiated because the next best thing could be just around the corner.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) to Milan is offered on Lufthansa, British, Air France, KLM, Delta and Continental. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $720 until May 25, increasing to $1,040 until Sept. 10.

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TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 39 (country code for Italy), 02 (the city code for Milan) and the local number.

TO STAY:

Bulgari Hotel, 7b Via Privata Fratelli Gabba; 805-8051, fax 805-805-222, www.bulgarihotels.com. The Roman jewelry maker’s first hotel, which is not quite a year old and was designed by architects Antonio Citterio and Partners, is the height of luxury, with a tranquil spa and garden. Doubles start at $719.

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The Gray, 6 Via San Raffaele; 720-8951, fax 866-526, www.hotelthegray.com. Boutique hotel near the Duomo has an interior by architect Guido Ciompi that the Economist magazine described as “achingly cool.” Its 21 rooms sport modern furnishings. Doubles begin at $577.

TO EAT:

Da Ilia, 1 Via Lecco; 295-21-895, www.ristorante-ilia.it. A fashion week favorite for members of the media and buyers who gather in Milan in the spring and the fall to preview designers’ collections. Salt-crusted branzino is fantastic; ditto for the sliced beef with mustard sauce and tagliolini with truffles. Dinner for two without wine about $120.

Joia, 18 Via Castaldi; 295-22124, www.joia.it. Imaginative vegetarian cuisine in a serene blond wood setting. Great selection of wine and cheese. Dinner for two without wine runs about $170; cheese plates $19 and $26; fixed-price dinners $72 and $122.

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Caffe Cova, 8 Via Montenapoleone; 760-00578. Turn-of-the-last-century tearoom in the heart of the Golden Quadrangle shopping district. Great salads and tiramisu.

Pizzeria di Porta Garibaldi, 6 Corso Como; 655-1926. A real-world respite with inexpensive Sicilian slices.

Dar El Yacout, 23/25 Via Cadore; 546-2230, www.darelyacout.it. Fabulous mosaics, Moroccan decor, lamb couscous and belly dancers.

10 Corso Como Caffe, 10 Corso Como; 290-13581. Fusion food in Milan’s avant-garde style mecca.

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Tano Passami l’Olio, 32/a Via Vigevano; 839-4139. Translated, this means “Tano, pass me the oil,” which is fitting because this homey restaurant has quite a selection.

TO SNACK:

Luini, 16 Via Santa Radegonda; 8646-1917. You don’t even have to ask for the panzerotti, or tiny folded pastries filled with mozzarella, spinach and other fillings, then fried. Just point. Standing only.

Peck, 9 Via Spadari; 802-3161, www.peck.it. A three-story gourmet emporium with a cafe on the second floor for lunch or gelato. Be sure to pick up some vacuum-packed Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to take home.

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TO LEARN MORE:

Italian Government Tourist Office, (310) 820-1898, vwww.italiantourism.com.

-- Booth Moore

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On second thought, take the bigger wallet

WHERE TO SHOP:

1. Prada, 63-65 Galleria Vittorio

Emanuele II; 876-979.

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2. La Rinascente, 3 Via Santa

Radegonda; 885-21.

3. Love Therapy, Piazza San

Babila at Corso Europa;

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7609-1237.

4. Giorgio Armani,

31 Via Manzoni; 6231-2605.

5. Car Shoe, 50 Via della Spiga; 7602-4027.

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6. Sermoneta Gloves,

46 Via della Spiga; 7631-8303.

7. Prada accessories store,

18 Via della Spiga; 780-465.

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8. 10 Corso Como, 10 Corso Como; 2900-2674.

9. 10 Corso Como outlet, in the courtyard behind 3 Via Tazzoli; 2900-2674.

10. African Oriental Craft, 23/34 Via Confalonieri; 608-1080.

11. Marni outlet, 1 Via Tajani; 7104-0332.

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12. Etro outlet, 3 Via Spartaco; 5502-0218.

13. Les Tropeziennes, 107 Corso di Porta Ticinese; 8942-3109.

14. Vanilla, 103 Corso di Porta

Ticinese; 5810-5041.

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15. Purple, 22 Corso di Porta

Ticinese; 8942-4476.

16. Killah, 58/60 Corso di Porta

Ticinese; 8942-0577.

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17. Cavalli e Nastri, 2 Via Brera; 7200-0449.

18. Vintage Spirit, 3 Piazzale G. Cantore; 837-3814.

19. Miss Ghinting, Via Borsieri opposite No. 16; 668-7112.

OUT OF TOWN:

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Fox Town Factory Stores,

18 Via A. Maspoli, Mendrisio,

Switzerland; www.foxtown.ch. (Note different country and city codes; to call from the U.S., dial 011-41-848-828-888.)

McArthurGlen Serravalle

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Scrivia, take the A7 highway from Milan toward Genoa, exit Serravalle Scrivia; 01-4360-9000 (note 01 rather than 02 city code), serravalle.mcarthurglen.it.


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