Northern Italy is not just about Big Fashion. Beyond Milan’s glossy boutiques and industry-scale designer brands there’s a Little Fashion world scattered among green valleys and pink mountains. It’s made up of craftsmen and family ateliers that have passed the secrets of handmade goods across generations.
Italians have a saying: le firme omologano tutti come delle pecore (‘brand labels make everyone look like a herd of sheep: identical’). So that’s why there’s a growing trend to venture further into the rich hinterlands of Europe’s fashion workshop.
Last year there was a 30 per cent rise in Chinese tourists visiting northern Italy’s small fashion towns, according to national tourist office ENIT.
But where precisely? Here’s our pick of four locations and their artisan designs.
Val Pusteria: Wool Peaks
Sheep have roamed the foothills of the snow-capped South Tyrol Alps since prehistoric times. The woolmakers here are the local heroes; and felt is their speciality.
In his Orthopant lab, in the town of Rio di Pusteria, Robert Pflanzer makes customised slippers for the harsh winters. But they’re a long way from the cosy patterned things your grandfather might wear: colours range from grey to purple, red and jungle print. The shoes – just as good outdoors as in the house – are known locally as ‘elf shoes’.
But the area’s most celebrated garment is a thick, water-resistant coat known as the Loden. Once a mantle worn by shepherds and monks, it evolved into an emblem of power: the chosen outer wear of emperors and princes. The humble production methods remain unchanged. Workers still press the wool with their bare feet inside water basins. In the Vandoies hamlet, family-run boutique Oberrauch Zitt, opened in 1682, has an atelier where clients can watch the production process, shop, stroll outside among grazing sheep and explore an interactive museum on the Loden’s history.
For the full Loden experience finish a tour of the atelier with a visit to the Lodenwirt restaurant, where you can taste traditional recipes such as hay soup and canederli dumplings.
Novara: Shoe Town
In the Middle Ages shoemakers, who were known as sciavatin, were the most powerful crafts guild in Piedmont. Their art has evolved into a very 21st century science in the courses run by the Università dei Calzolai. The town, which also has a cobbler museum, buzzes with artisan boutiques that line the cobbled alleys. Old-style designers mingle with innovative labs such as Tacco Express, run by two young artisans.
Since 1956 the uncontested king of this shoetown is Adriano Stefanelli, famously the popes’ shoemaker. Remember former Pope Benedict XVI’s bright red shoes sticking out of his white robe? They came from Stefanelli’s boutique, as did those of his predecessor John Paul II (who settled for more understated, plain white ones).
Each day Stefanelli can be found working in his atelier, amid shiny soles and premium leathers that grace the insteps and arches of supercar drivers, football superstars and actors.
A few steps away, the Cannavacciuolo Café and Bistrot, in the historical centre, is perfect for a light lunch after shopping. Nearby lies Resort Villa Crespi, a fashionable 1800s hotel built by a cotton industry pioneer. It overlooks Lake Orta and has an upscale restaurant serving local gorgonzola delicacies.
Carpi: Knitwear Central
Top designers all make the pilgrimage to the medieval town of Carpi in Emilia-Romagna to purchase high-quality fabrics for their catwalk shows: from silk to cotton, wool, brocade, linen and hemp. Carpi is where artisan fashion was born and industry trends are made (this year it’s all puff-sleeve shirts and bolero cocktail dresses).
If you want to show off your new purchases, head to the 19th century Palazzo Foresti where the popular Ristorante Il 25 prepares gourmet dishes like plump meat-filled cappelletti, hat-shaped pasta served in thick chicken broth.
The town flourished as an important trade centre in the Middle Ages thanks to busy merchants who exported their textiles across Europe. It made a further leap forward during the Renaissance, through an emerging cottage industry of country housewives creating artisan knitwear. Seek out Hotel Gabarda, a country house restyled as a cosy retreat, to experience the area’s rustic charm.
Vicenza: cashmere valley
Venetian merchants (including Marco Polo) pioneered the cashmere trade between Asia and Italy. European royals fell in love with this noble fibre. Today, Italy’s Cashmere Valley is a short drive west of Venice in the town of Vicenza.
Maglieria Galvan is a second-generation boutique that decided to replace its machinery with expert seamstresses, allowing jackets, roll-neck jumpers and jumpers to be literally stitched on clients to their exact specifications. Then step even further back in time to the Relais Santa Corona, a charming 18th century palazzo in the historical centre of Vicenza.
The journey ends at nearby Sandrigo village. Anna Viero and her two daughters still use vintage 1960s spinning frames to make pure cashmere clothes. Even wedding dresses, handbags and clutches get the noble fibre treatment.
Viero started working in her family’s farm in the 1950s together with her four sisters. An old lady, a refugee from the war, taught them the art of weaving and with the clothes they made they dressed an entire province. You can visit and tour the factory with Viero, who is more than happy to give advice on a customised suit or gown. It will take time to fashion, of course, but that’s what ‘slow fashion’ is all about. While in Sandrigo, stop for lunch at local trattoria Palmerino for a bowl of chef Antonio Chemello’s signature baccalà alla Vicentina, a soft stockfish stew served with sticks of maize polenta. Just mind you don’t splash any on your cashmere couture.