alking into the boutique on Via Savenella, a discreet little street in one of Bologna’s oldest neighborhoods, I immediately feel like I’ve stumbled onto a gem. It’s one of those vintage stores where it’s clear everything around you has been hand-picked and is being displayed with tender loving care — on racks, in hand-painted dressers and inside wicker baskets.
Some of the walls are painted a joyful bright pink. Stylishly mismatched furniture contributes to the country chic décor. Signs dividing the goods — “babies,” “girls,” “boys,” “men’s,” “women’s” — are all hand-written. Ties are neatly folded. Hats peak out from atop a wardrobe. Two baby strollers overflow with soft clothes for newborns. There’s not a price tag in sight.
A big room leads into a second one filled with toys and children’s books. This room opens into a beautiful inner courtyard, kind that so often appears like a sugarcoated surprise at the heart of so many Italian palazzos. There are no price tags here, either.
In fact, you won’t find prices anywhere.
What looks like an elegant and cozy vintage clothing boutique is really the headquarters of “Re-Use with Love,” a foundation started five years ago to repair and recycle used goods. The group, which now numbers some 50 Bologna women, seeks to ensure clothing, books and toys get a second-hand chance, a practice that has struggled to take off in middle class Italy, hindered by a “new-is-good” consumer class that only came into its own some 50 years ago.
“Initially, we just collected clothes, which we’d sell once a year at an outdoor event,” says Veronica Veronesi, who heads the foundation. “These were either clothes our children had outgrown or anything else we had in our closets that we weren’t wearing anymore. We’d sell them at bargain prices and donate the proceeds to a charity of our choice.”
The mother network helped. “Word of mouth made it easy. Mothers started to know that we’d take what they didn’t need. Soon, people started dropping by and opening the trunks. Out came the clothes. It was fun.”
The idea boomed. In 2010, the foundation raised €5,000, donated to help build a school in Brazil. Last year it earned 10 times more: €58,000, applied to the purchase of medical equipment for the pediatric emergency care unit of Bologna’s Sant Orsola Hospital. “We pick a different charity every year, with special attention to the children of Bologna,” continues Veronica. “We now have enough clothing that we thought we could also give some away to families in need. That’s where the idea for our ’boutique’ got started.”
The location is own by the neighborhood — Santo Stefano Quartiere — which will allow the group to use the premises free of charge for two years. Every third Saturday and every second Tuesday, the boutique is open to needy families pointed out by local social services. “They come by appointment and we help them pick what they need.”
Anything they want? I ask.
Veronica smiles. “Well, we tell them a maximum of 15 items, but they somehow always end up leaving with bags full of clothes. The fact is that we have so much we don’t have to be strict.”
As I chat with Veronica, Simona Manzone, Leopolda Sassoli dè Bianchi and Isabella Guizzardi join us. Simona is a consultant, Leopolda a realtor, and Isabella a fashion consultant. “We’re all working mothers,” says Leopolda, dismissing the traditional notion that these are women who have turned to charity because they have time on their hands. “What we could never do alone we can do together,” she says succinctly.
A narrow spiral staircase leads to the basement, where rows of boxes are meticulously stacked and labeled. Some are marked “to wash,” others “to mend.” “Since our aim is to give new life to things, it’s very important that we wash and mend everything beforehand,” says Simona. “Each of us picks a bag, brings it home, washes it, mends it, or more likely asks an aunt to mend it.”
Adds Leopolda: “We get lots of offers of assistance and we take up all them. Each of us contributes in some way. That’s where we put individual creativity to use.”
Though Leopolda looks every bit the no-nonsense, down-to-earth businesswoman, she takes time out to note the butterflies painted on the pink wardrobe. “Butterflies are very important because they symbolize how our foundation moves from cause to cause.”
Fashion consultant Isabella carefully assembles the displays, decors and layouts the group uses during its annual sales event. The women play to their strengths, explains Isabella. “Each of us wants to work on our own things, because we know what to do with them.”
Walking further I see colorful winter coats, sweaters, blouses, jumpsuits, a silk skirt, and even a white winter wedding gown. “Somebody threw it in the trash,” says Veronica of the wedding gown. “An embroiderer found it, cleaned it, repaired it, and here it is”
I can’t help but thinking about the mysterious bride that discarded her own wedding dress. Maybe she’d be happy to know it’ll get a new life.