I had less than 24 hours to spend in Milan – Italy’s second most populous city behind Rome. In order to maximize my time and experience, I took advice from the famed Italian tourism company IC Bellagio, which facilitates custom arrangements for visitors to Italy for whatever their particular needs, interests, constraints or circumstances may be.
Shopping in Milan
Milan is best known for fashion – and fashion means shopping. Andrea Grisdale, who founded IC Bellagio, for reasons of comfort and proximity, suggested I stay at the Park Hyatt Milan. Her colleague, Nicole Bellatti, arranged the booking and when I arrived at the snazzy city hotel – itself a former palazzo – around noon I immediately understood why: the hotel is adjacent to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II – Italy’s oldest active shopping mall. But to refer to it as a “mall” is like referring to Sophia Loren as a Plain Jane actress. The Galleria is housed within a four-story double arcade in the center of town, which itself is stirring to view.
Fashion on the Fly
My knowledge of fashion was limited to awareness of the mass-produced, highly-desired Italian luxury brands such as Gucci, Ferragamo, Versaci, Armani, and Dolce and Gabbana. And I vaguely remembered something about the fashionable Pope Benedict being referred to as the “Prada Pope.”
But IC Bellagio’s team of travel experts wanted my Milan fashion experience to be more than simply window shopping shoes and belts. Grisdale and Bellatti, therefore, arranged a personal, private tour at the studio of an actual designer – something they can do for those who contact their tour company at ICBellagio.com.
Meet Federico Sangalli
Federico Sangalli grew up in Milan’s fashion world – it was his aunt’s business and a passion he brings to the next generation. Sangalli believes that fashion is art, and his works, including the use of unusual materials such as metallic nets and marquisette, fit to bodies and turn heads.
Sangalli’s flagship store and atelier (designer workshop) are on Via San Primo, which is where Barbara Ginnasi, the showroom director, greeted me and showed me around the two-story boutique operation – the only one in Italy with working seamstresses who still use antique, pedal swing sewing machines (which allows them to carefully and elaborately stitch and embroider expensive fabrics and beadworks at their own, varying speeds).
It was fun to speak with some of the proud, smiling artisans as they were whirring away sewing Sangalli’s intricate, custom women’s high fashion and ready to wear items. Most spoke only Italian, but I managed to show my appreciation for their skill and precision.
Menswear Means Style in Sangalli’s Studio
When I learned the Sangalli boutique displayed and offered bespoke, made to measure, and leisure wear for men also, I decided not to reveal the label in the shirt I was wearing read “Amazon Essentials.”
I did, however, ask the Italian prêt a porter prodigy, to critique an outfit I’d recently worn by showing Sangalli a photo taken on me on my smart phone. In the photo I was wearing white pants with an ivory, paisley, satin jacket over a white shirt with a yellow bow tie.
“Be honest with me,” I insisted. “Give me your professional opinion of this, since you are an acclaimed designer and artist.”
“Ooo-kay,” he said tentatively while squinting at the photo. “I would have to work on this.”
I laughed and asked him to elaborate.
“Everybody has to have their own style. This is your style,” he said.
“Would you wear that?”
“Ah…no. I would not wear that.”
The room was filled with laughter.
My point is I walked in knowing very little about fashion, but Sangalli and Ginnasi made the tour personal and interesting without scoffing at my ignorant lack of couth in couture. Until, that is, I asked Sangalli what he thought of the four costume change dresses Lady Gaga stripped out of as she made her red carpet entrance at the Met Gala.
“Next question,” he said, dismissing me in broken English.
They didn’t need to tolerate my silliness for much longer because the dress they presented next, the grand finale of the tour, left me speechless. But first I was sightless when Sangalli and Ginnasi led me down a stairway into a darkened room. I then heard Ginnasi say, “Sangalli presents to you: ‘Light My Night.’”
With that a gown in the center of the room illuminated and began to glow like a white, angelic ghost.
“Fiber optic silk clothing and accessories,” she pronounced. “This is our technology. It’s an example of tradition and innovation together. All the fabric is made in Italy.”
Sangalli explained he’d found the fiber optic fabric when it was being used for the interior of a luxury boat.
“I thought to myself ‘Oh I have to dress a woman like this…now! Today! For me, as a designer, to create something with light is fantastic.”
Creating and Revealing Magic
Ginnasi boasted that the women in the atelier worked for a year-and-a-half to realize Sangalli’s idea and make it a reality – a reality she said they initially unveiled at Milano Fashion Week in 2014.
“The exhibition was dedicated to luxury. It started with the kings of the past – and we represented the future. The dress was exposed at the Royal Palace in Milan near the cathedral in a black area without light. Everybody said ‘wow’ and there was a big commotion in the press.”
The dress is elegant, though, and does not look like a costume. It bathes it wearer in brilliance and magic. Ginnasi explained to there is a battery inside which feeds the light through all the fibers of the dress.
“It has a USB charger which, after an hour-and-a-half, will provide 12 hours of light…for a long party!”
Sangalli, who was dressed in all black, said he’d also created a men’s jacket – black with lapels – in the fiber optic fabric. He also produces and sells illuminated handbags. I asked him if the dress could change color throughout the evening.
“I can create it but I don’t like it. I don’t want to. I tried to make something special. It must be in light but also stylish.”
For that moment, it was Milan which deserved to be called the “City of Light.”