For romance and allure, Italy’s troika of museum cities, Venice, Rome, and Florence, has always reigned supreme. Milan might be the country’s most cosmopolitan city, but with postwar facades as gray as its skies, it’s long been considered a place of drudgery: good for the luxury business—Prada, Giorgio Armani, and Kartell are just a few of the megafirms based there—but stunted by a corporate, hidebound, and hierarchical culture. Sure, the Fondazione Prada has facilitated a worthy dialogue with contemporary art since 1993, and the Salone del Mobile furniture fair has become as glamorous as Art Basel, with nearly 10 times as many visitors. But compared to cities like New York or London, Milan has traditionally been seen as unwelcoming to upstart creativity. In one of the world’s most important fashion capitals, new brands didn’t catch on much, and young talent was largely absorbed by big houses or set up shop abroad. Traveling editors and buyers on the lookout for indie designers knew they could sleep in a little late during Milan Fashion Week.
But now, for what seems like the first time in decades, they are setting their alarms. Young fashion companies are thriving. Up-and-coming design firms and architects are cutting through Italian traditionalism with eclectic spaces like Luca Cipelletti’s massive, ongoing overhaul of the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, which layers new builds and contemporary renovation on top of historical structures from the 16th to 20th centuries. Brutalist and Fascist-style architecture have made a comeback, bringing international taste around to where Milan has been for decades. “Milan has the best architecture of the 20th century,” Cipelletti says. “It was so forward-looking at the time that it wasn’t really understood. Now it’s considered, like, wow.”
Tourism has increased so much that Milan now outclasses even Rome in the number of yearly visitors and, crucially, how much they spend. “In Milan, the thing used to be to complain,” says Marta Ferri, the daughter of the photographer Fabrizio Ferri, whose made-to-measure dresses in wild upholstery fabrics have become de rigueur for the Italian aristocracy’s wedding season. “But things are happening here. There’s a different energy. People are actually happy now!” Ferri was thinking of moving to Buenos Aires in 2010, when some gowns she designed and had made by her mother-in-law’s dressmaker started getting traction among the women in the titled circles she moves in. “People were like, ‘Wow, you made that? Why don’t you do one for me?’ ” Ferri decided to wing it. “I had to pretend I had an atelier,” she says, laughing. She covered a stately mid-century apartment in loud Manuel Canovas wallpaper, tossed in a thousand and one mismatched cushions, and opened up shop. For the past couple of years, Ferri has also designed for the furniture company Molteni & C.
As the city broadens its horizons, once off-limits palazzi and apartments are also opening up. Gilda Ambrosio and Giorgia Tordini, who launched Attico, a relaxed line inspired by kimonos and slip dresses, in 2016, held their most recent show in a Renzo Mongiardino–designed flat. In fact, Ambrosio and Tordini have staged all of their presentations in private residences. “We found our first places to show on Airbnb,” Tordini explains. She is partly based in New York, and collaborates with Ambrosio via Skype and shared Pinterest folders. (Now they can afford a location scout; Attico currently has 200 stockists worldwide.) The Milan-based Austrian designer Arthur Arbesser, who was recently named creative director of Fay, the heritage outerwear company owned by Diego Della Valle, has also used private, intimate locations for his own shows—including Cipelletti’s apartment.
This familiar, informal register would have felt voyeuristic and distasteful to the old Milan, whose upper-crust culture was secretive and “always a bit uptight,” says Maria Mantero, of the Mantero textile dynasty. Known for her extravagant head wraps, in 2016 she launched Dee di Vita, a line of silk turbans, which she sells in limited editions to small boutiques, to benefit a well-being center for women with cancer at Milan’s San Raffaele Hospital. “Milanese society was always polite, of course, but now it’s confident. And social!”
Case in point: The atelier of Matteo Perego di Cremnago, who a few years ago relaunched Cambiaghi, his family’s hatmaking business, is in the same ground-floor space on Via Borgonuovo where his family has lived since the 1600s, though it had to be rebuilt after the Second World War. (He, his wife, and their three young kids live in an apartment upstairs.) In its heyday, Cambiaghi was one of the leading hatmakers in Italy, cranking out 33,000 hand-felted lids a day until Mussolini came to power. “The regime took half the garden and made it public, which became the Via dei Giardini, and the factory shut down soon after the war,” Perego di Cremnago says. Where it once supplied the army and heads of state, Cambiaghi now turns out acid-colored cashmere and rabbit-felt fedoras and top hats, and bright, whimsical handbags by a former designer at Etro. A capsule collection with the artist Vincenzo Viscione and the jewelry designer Anna Maga Visconti includes the Young Pope model, in white cashmere, with a wide, floppy brim and a bronze pot-leaf pin.
“What happened is the Internet changed everything,” says J.J. Martin, who grew up in Los Angeles and moved to Milan in 2001 to work as a journalist before starting her fashion company, La DoubleJ, nearly three years ago, and later expanding the business to include home decor. Martin partnered with Mantero to plumb its massive 116-year-old archives, and started making vintage-inspired dresses, skirts, and blouses in riotously colored, mix-and-don’t-match prints. “That belief that you can do anything is a very American thing, but for young people in Italy, traditionally, there was a sense of oppression and a lack of upward mobility. But then they started seeing YouTube stars in their garages making millions, and so, like everywhere else, it filled them with new ideas.”
Indeed, one of the first blogger-influencers to really monetize street style is Milanese: the former law student Chiara Ferragni, of the Blonde Salad. Today, based in L.A. and in Milan—where she keeps an apartment with her boyfriend, the rapper Fedez, in Studio Libeskind’s new CityLife Residences—Ferragni sits atop a multimillion-dollar shoe and clothing business. Her success has spawned a whole new generation of digital-savvy creatives like Design by Gemini, an interiors, product design, and social media marketing firm founded by the 28-year-old twin sisters Elena and Giulia Sella. The Attico girls were street-style stars before they started designing, too. And then there’s Blazé Milano, the 4-year-old company specializing in classically tailored blazers in whimsical woolens, velvets, and silks. “We owe our success to Instagram,” admits Delfina Pinardi, one of a trio of ex–Italian Elle editors who started the line. Social media is the perfect advertising vehicle for a company that sells, as Pinardi puts it, “one thing, well made, in Italy.”
Specializing in just one thing is a strategy that many newcomers are successfully adopting. “Italy isn’t a country that believes very much in venture capital, and the previous generation hasn’t always been so good at making room for the next one,” says Emanuele Farneti, the recently appointed editor in chief of Vogue Italia, who is eager to increase support for local independent designers. “When you have difficulties, sometimes creativity can take over.” Take the Les Petits Joueurs’ pocketbooks, trimmed in bright fur, eye-catching embroideries, and even plastic bricks that Maria Sole Cecchi and her brother Andrea design. Or the statement-making, oversize costume jewelry of Madina Visconti di Modrone, who worked with her mother, Osanna, the jeweler turned furniture designer, before going out on her own. Or the quirky and colorful shoe brand Giannico, the brainchild of a self-taught 22-year-old, Nicolò Beretta, who skipped school and convinced his parents to pony up his college fund to get him started. Beretta works out of his modernist apartment, selling 6,000 pairs of Giannico pointy mules, pumps, and flats a year.
Even food, Italy’s most rigidly conservative pursuit, is loosening up. Remember when Milanese trattorias all looked the same? Garage Italia, Lapo Elkann’s haute car-customization outpost built in an old gas station and remodeled by the architect Michele De Lucchi, put in a sleek restaurant and bar by the local celebrity chef Carlo Cracco. “As a business capital, Milan will always have dignified power-lunch spots, but now you need to be more international,” says Vogue’s Farneti. The latest trend is all-day flower-shop cafés like you might find in Copenhagen or Berlin, but serving light, casual Italian food. Fioraio Bianchi, in the charming Brera neighborhood, was transformed into a restaurant. The young design firm Quincoces-Dragò’s Six Gallery, a furniture store with a similar florist cum laid-back bistro, has made every tip sheet this year. And Potafiori, which combines sleek, raw concrete and picnic benches with William Morris textiles and buckets and buckets of lush blooms, has become a place to be seen near Bocconi University. (Potafiori’s owner, the flame-haired Rosalba Piccinni, is also a singer, and is known to break out into impromptu renditions of so-unhip-they’re-hip Italian classics like “Volare.”)
But perhaps the hangout that best embodies the new Milan is LùBar, helmed by the designer Luisa Beccaria’s kids, Lucrezia and Ludovico Bonaccorsi, with an assist from their older sister, Lucilla. It started as a beachside snack bar near their father’s Sicilian farm, then morphed into a Milanese food truck, and is now an all-day café in a greenhouse-style patio in the Villa Reale, near the entrance of Milan’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna, where the city’s young creatives linger over Sicilian arancini and cannoli. “Now everyone has a taste for independence, and an idea for his or her own brand,” says Lucrezia of her and her siblings’ do-it-yourself spirit.
Historically the hardest workers in Italy, the Milanese are being well served by this emphasis on creative entrepreneurship. “In the ’80s, cash flew around here, and Milan was booming,” says Annamaria Sbisà, the journalist behind Il Giardino Segreto (“The Secret Garden”), Italian Vanity Fair’s Proustian back page. “Today, it’s booming again, but it’s more about the mind, so it’s even better. We’re not having an economic rebirth as much as a cultural one. For years I was desperate to get out of here, but I couldn’t because of my kids. Well, now my kids are old enough for me to leave, but I can’t imagine leaving anymore.”