Fashion Forward Florence

A sartorial-inspired sojourn in Italy’s original fashion capital where a new guard of designers is carving its own niche.

A 20-minute ride through the rolling Tuscan hills outside of Florence delivered me to the dusty driveway of Castello Sonnino, the 16th-century estate and winery of the Baron and Baroness Sonnino. I had no intention of spending the afternoon with Italian nobility when I planned a trip to explore the fashion scene in Florence, but Italy had a way of changing the course of my trip with tempting offers. And really, how could I resist?

On the encouragement of the concierge, I had joined a small group heading to the property by van from our hotel. And soon, there I was standing in the courtyard of a villa once owned by Machiavelli, fringed by wisteria and dappled in afternoon sun, when a woman with sunkissed skin and a thick, blonde braid popped out of a second-story window with an exuberant “Ciao! I’ll be right down!”

Caterina de Renzis Sonnino, the 50-something stylish and charming matriarch of Castello Sonnino, led us around the estate that’s been in her husband’s family for more than 1,200 years, showing off the historic home she has lived in for 30 of them. She shared stories of her ancestors, the 15th-century wine- and olive oil-making processes they maintain and the agriturismo’s simple new guest rooms and plans for a pool. “We are living history. I think if you do not share, you don’t exist. And,” she added with a wink, “I don’t want to be alone with my husband.”

Three hours turned to four, then there was espresso in the parlor, which further delayed my retail aspirations, but I couldn’t complain. The unhurried pace of the afternoon and the colorful storytelling was just what this over-scheduled American needed, and it proved to be the perfect prelude to my foray into the richness of Florence’s fashion legacy.

Florence is not the city commonly associated with Italian fashion today. Milan is home to most of Italy’s fashion industry, but Florence was its birthplace during the Middle Ages, when its fine wool and silks were exported all over Europe. The influence of Italian fashion peaked during the Medici-ruled Renaissance and held sway until the 17th century, when French fashion gained greater prominence during the lavish reign of Louis XIV.

Italian fashion remained eclipsed by French “haute couture” until 1951, when Florentine importer Giovanni Battista Giorgini staged the first “high-fashion” runway show featuring Italian collections. The show was a huge success, bringing Italian ready-to-wear fashion to the international stage and spurring national pride over the Made in Italy label. Gucci, Emilio Pucci, Roberto Cavalli and Salvatore Ferragamo all launched in Florence and remain headquartered there today. Several runway and fashion trade shows (including one for fragrance) continue in Florence each year.

david andre weiss

Today, you can still come into contact with the roots of Italian fashion in the studios of many Florentine craftsmen, including second-generation sandal-maker Francesco da Firenze, who makes traditional, hard-soled Roman style sandals, and others working in leather, gold, paper and fabric in the city’s historic center and “Oltrarno” neighborhood across the river.

You experience Italian fashion riding the high-speed Italo train from Rome, which is owned and designed by Diego Della Valle, the CEO of Italian luxury label Tod’s, or while eating pizza at the Gucci Caffé along Florence’s central square, Piazza della Signoria. It’s everywhere, including two of Florence’s most famous sights: the Uffizi Gallery, where a recent restoration of eight rooms was funded in part by the Ferragamo fashion house; and the new lights on the Ponte Vecchio, a gift from the Stefano Ricci label. Fashion permeates Italian culture.

Like many, I’d first fallen in love with Florence as an exchange student, buying gloves and scarves in the flea markets, discovering gorgonzola and gelato, wandering the streets at night with a table-wine buzz, half-understanding what my Italian “sister” and her friends were saying, but completely mesmerized by this ancient, creative city.

Later, I’d return several times as a young adult. During one of those visits a family friend with an apartment off Florence’s famed shopping street, Via Tornabuoni, led us on a retail survey of the city, streaming in and out of the designer shops, feeling cashmere, double-cheek-air-kissing store managers, introducing us to third-generation jewelers on the Ponte Vecchio bridge with her poodle tucked into her tote. It was a perfect Italian fashion primer, but I knew this big-label, luxury, tourist-accessible version wasn’t the whole story. I wondered about Florence’s hidden fashion gems, its edge and off-the-beaten path boutiques and designers.

In the years since I’d planned a return to find emerging contemporary designers and to discover where the stylish, young Florentines shop. I wanted to find the upstart creative energy I’d learned from bloggers is bubbling up in Florence. Friends there explained that a new, young mayor had brought a wave of optimism, along with a contemporary opera house, 21st-century art museum and tighter standards for the Made in Italy label.

When I finally arrived on a rainy summer day, I found it—a city filled with young shop owner-artisans sprinkled around the historic center, shoulder to shoulder with the entrenched houses, creatively carving their niche.

“Smell this,” said a lean Italian with deep eyes and enigmatic air, as he handed me a small vial. “It contains some of the last natural musk left on earth.” I was sitting in a deep leather club chair at profumeria Aquaflor, beneath a graceful arched-plaster ceiling, surrounded by walls of orderly amber-glass containers that made the place look like a sinister 19th-century pharmacy. The mysterious man taking me on this olfactory journey was perfumer and owner Sileno Cheloni, who crafts custom scents in the five-year-old atelier for individuals, and “scent logos” for corporations, including Lamborghini.

Cheloni studied with a Sufi master in India, and combines the exotic scents of that spiritual practice with European perfumery. He can even analyze a skin sample to match a fragrance to a client’s biological makeup. Out on the streets of Florence, I’d noticed personal fragrance sweeping by like gusts of sweet wind, lending texture and another layer of atmosphere to the city. The level of detail of Cheloni’s craft was even evident in the way the tiny compact of solid perfume (like a tin of lip balm) I purchased was packaged—inside the shopping bag lay a be-ribboned box, inside which sat a tiny Aquaflor fabric bag containing the compact, a final spritz of signature scent and more ribbon sealing it all. Cheloni was one of many young Italians I discovered making his own way with serious care.

For a full fashion immersion, I stayed at the Ferragamo family’s newest hotel, the Portrait Firenze (they own four lovely hotels in the city), which drips with mid-century Italian style. The 36-suite property faces the river, with the Ponte Vecchio seemingly at arm’s length and the Ponte Santa Trinita not far in the other direction. If I rotated my large window open and leaned out I could see the Tuscan hills in the distance glowing pink at dusk. Walls peppered with photos of stylish celebrities like Grace Kelly and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor enjoying Florence reflect the importance of the city’s role in the industry during Italy’s glamorous fashion heyday. (Renowned Florentine interior designer Michele Bönan partnered with several archives for the use of the framed memorabilia such as the invitation to Giorgini’s first fashion show, but I suspect the receipt for Marilyn Monroe’s custom shoes came from Ferragamo’s own troves.)

The property proved a perfect jumping-off spot to explore this walkable city. After waking to the rhythmic “d-o-n-ggg, d-o-n-ggg, d-o-n-ggg” of church bells echoing down the river, I set out early to experience Florence come to life. The bluish morning light and virtually tourist-free cobblestone streets meant I could appreciate the medieval palaces that comprise this city without the crush of toursists more typical of an Italian summer. Many of those villas are now filled with elegant apartments, hotels or luxury fashion houses, like Bottega Veneta, Max Mara, Fendi and Valentino, a simple pane of glass filling each giant, Palladian window, separating me from the dreamy menageries inside each shop.

A window at Tod’s was comprised of a color-wheel of the Italian label’s signature driving moccasin in no fewer than 30 shades from soft peach to deep purple. In a high-tech nod to old-world craftsmanship, I had seen an image of the display on Instagram, taken during early summer’s men’s fashion week, Pitti Uomo. Florence is nothing if not a city ready for its Instagram close-up.

Many tourists come here to pound the cobblestones searching madly for Italian goods, or to make the half-day trek to scour the designer outlets outside of Florence. At first, I found myself succumbing to that fashion-starved, tourist frenzy, but there’s probably nothing more un-Italian. Really, these winding cobblestone roads should be discovered, not hunted. And soon, Florence forced me to slow down. Nothing was open before 9 a.m., not even the cafes. I had to wait to get my cappuccino with chocolate drizzle from the Roberto Cavalli-owned Caffè Giacosa, and once I did, the scene before me was worth it: Italian men in impeccable slim suits and loafers, with elbows perched along the bar, chatted with the barista and their neighbors before taking off on foot or via Vespa for work.

In Italy, everything is slow and purposeful (no surprise, it’s also home to the slow food movement). It is a place meant to be absorbed by all the senses: the echo of hard-leather soles on cobblestone in the morning; the choruses of “ciao ragazzi” (“bye, guys”); the earthy smell of ancient stones; the visions of burnt-orange, terracotta roofs; and, of course, the flavors. Oh, the luxury of the bursting ripeness of cherry tomatoes, the brine of buffalo-milk mozzarella and the tang of a bitter Negroni cocktail in the early evening!

Although Florence is very fashion-forward, the city also has developed a keen appreciation for quality vintage fashion, representing a shift in Italian culture according to Karen Videtic, a professor in the fashion department at Virginia Commonwealth University, who travels with students to Florence each summer. “It’s an effort to revert back to Italy’s slow-fashion roots, the idea of buying really high-quality and owning it for 10 to 15 years.”

Boutique Nadine, along the river on Lungarno Acciaiuoli, pairs vintage clothing and home accessories with Colette—the owner’s personal clothing line, in which a bolt of vintage Prada fabric may be reborn into a relaxed, Chanel-style jacket, mixing two traditions to create something new and exciting. Down the block, the colorful FLO boutique carries vintage and eco-friendly lines along with “social” collaborations, like lovely silk scarves hand-painted by inmates in the south of Italy. “We think we can associate beauty with a better society,” the shopkeeper told me.  

Not far away from Boutique Nadine, tucked back into a hidden courtyard, I found Marie Antoinette, a vintage shop newly opened by a pair of Florentine stylists. Lucite umbrella handles used as hat hooks were inherited from one of the owners’ grandfather, a former head of Gucci’s accessories division. Racks featured second-hand, modern clothing with architectural lines from recent collections by Vivienne Westwood, Chloe and others, but the most interesting items were those made by Florentine designers—like the gilded-gauze-and-fabric statement necklaces by Mereurio Argento Creationi that recall Elizabethan collars.

“Designers were influenced by their surroundings,” Videtic tells me, attempting to categorize Florentine style. “Milan is Prada, it’s darker, a little more somber. When you go south to Rome you have colorful Roberto Cavalli. It’s like comparing New York to Miami. Florence is in the middle, so you see some of the more professional Milano look, and some of the color.”

On the streets, the classic Florentine look coexists with an international art-student edge—they come for fashion schools like the Polimoda International Institute and the Academia Italiana, or the hundreds of semester-abroad programs. “I think that Florence is very on trend with what’s happening in fashion,” says jewelry designer Sara Amhrein, an American ex-pat with a studio in Florence who fell in love with the city (and an Italian man) while studying abroad during college. We talk over aperitivo at Rivalta, a trendy eatery with seating along the Arno River, while a DJ spins Euro lounge music as some of the young and fashionable gather around a spread of complimentary finger sandwiches and barley salads. Others spill out across the road to lean along the stone wall with a drink and watch the sun set on the river.

It is the Italian belief that beauty, art and inspiration are worthy pursuits, essential to everyday life. As I looked around Rivalta at the many young students being changed by this place—as I was at their age—its centuries of creativity, and stunning beauty, I had to toast its magic.

This story originally appeared Nov. 19, 2014.

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