iorgio Armani once said his muse was the anonymous but elegant Milanese woman who — like the best of Italian design — combines high aesthetic and functional standards. She’s between 20 and 70 but you can’t tell from her clothes. She rides a bicycle in terrifying traffic, pushes a pram over cobblestones and wears the latest trend without looking like a tart or fashion victim.
Chances are that she doesn’t buy from Armani or the single-brand shops in the Quadrilatero around Via Montenapoleone. Those are for visitors and Russian babes whose escorts carry their cash — cold, hard and preferably green — in rubber-banded bundles.
Armani’s muse will visit the Quadrilatero’s stores, but only as part of a larger strategy. With less closet space than her New York or London counterparts, the first step in the Milan woman’s strategy is a rigorous semi-annual rite — the cambio di stagione — or rotating clothes from higher to lower closet bars. It is fashion triage: Anything not worth hoisting back up goes out.
Second step in the strategy is a visit to Prada or Gucci to get the season’s pulse and pick up a good bag or some hot shoes (non-babe models). Prada is good for basics; not Gap-type commodities, but wardrobe building blocks that stand alone or need only modest complements (Zara for example). Prada’s pants fit reliably and — God bless Miuccia, who never forgets that women have waists and hips — its striking and versatile skirts pay for themselves.
The big ally in the wardrobe strategy are small neighborhood shops where savvy owners and buyers edit international and Italian collections according to their clients’ taste and lifestyles. Pupi Solari and Corso Como 10 are well known outside Milan. Pupi Solari pioneered the high-fashion store outside the center and is now almost better known for its smocked dresses and Start-Rites — de rigueur at Milan birthday parties. Foreign fashionistas love Corso Como 10, though the clothes are somewhat conceptual for Armani’s muse, who may be inventive but not weird.
There are the women’s annexes of venerable men’s shops: Tincati and Neglia near Porta Venezia and Bardelli in Corso Magenta. Traditionally, the well-dressed Italian man has Anglo-Saxon tastes and heads for Burberry, Ralph Lauren and Tod’s. Nevertheless, the look here is zippier than on the Upper East Side or around Sloane Square.
Other shops aspire to being ahead of trends. Marisa has a (Quadrilatero) mini-empire of three stores, which sell Miyake and Zoran. She has an assortment of Aspesi jackets, the Milan woman’s preferred defense against Lombard damp. Marisa also sells craft-show quirky hats and accessories perfect for the radical chic types. Once a cult shoe store, La Vetrina di Beryl near Brera, stocks an edgy mix of ethnic, vintage and funky clothes that the arty sister of Armani’s muse appreciates.
This writer’s own favorite is Imarika. Owned by three sisters — both Bardelli and Pupi Solari veterans — it serves up an anti-fashion recipe of avant garde, bluestocking and romantic. They sell Gaultier along with Jil Sander and Miyake as well as Megan Park and Ballantyne and Italians such as Roberto Musso and Daniela Gerini. Though an expensive store, its clients are not conspicuously wealthy. Imarika cult members know their purchases will amortize well.
Armani’s muse’s last stops are at street markets in nicer neighborhoods. Here among fruit and vegetables, salamis and cheeses arranged as carefully as Quadrilatero shop windows, remaining gaps are filled. After the school drop off and household shopping, and on the way to work (and before the best things go), she will hit select stands for a knock-off of the season’s must-have sweater or accessory, more cashmere, or Prada and Tod’s overstocks. And if these purchases overflow shopping cart or Vespa basket, her obliging fruit and vegetable vendor will deliver them at home in the same crate as her arugula and artichokes.
Bardelli Corso Magenta 13; tel. 02.8645.0734
Neglia Via Noè 1; tel. 02.2940.6642
Tincati Donna Via Malpighi 1; tel. 02.2951.8349
Marisa Via S. Andrea 10/A; tel. 02.7600.1363. Via S. Andrea, 1; tel. 02.7600.1416. Via Spiga 52; tel. 02.7600.2082
Imarika Via G. Morelli 1; tel. 02.7600.5268.
La Vetrina di Beryl Via Statuto 4; tel. 02.654.278
Street Markets (mornings only): Via San Marco (Monday and Thursday); Via Kramer (Monday); Via Calvi (Thursday). Viale Papiniano (Tuesday and Saturday).
Bear in mind that shops generally close between 12:30 and 3:30, evenings at 7:30. Markets 9 a.m.-1 p.m.