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Decoding Secret Florence

Decoding Secret Florence

Friday, 21 June, 2019 - 07:15
Beatrice Albrici at her home in Florence, Italy. Her antique store next door, which opened in 1961, features home furnishings to fashion.CreditClara Vannucci for The New York Times
Florence - Guy Trebay
Brick-and-mortar retail is alive and well in the Renaissance city, a true wonderland for shoppers. But to find the best addresses, you need insider tips.

Florence is accustomed to invaders. The French, the Spanish, the Austrians, the British on the Grand Tour and the international tourist hordes in their cargo shorts and Crocs have flowed over this city in waves and yet somehow left its character and soul largely untouched.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that when an influx of nearly 30,000 visitors arrives each June for Pitti Uomo, the world’s largest men's wear trade fair, locals react with a collective shrug.

Those buyers and sellers from 50 countries are in town to trawl the stalls of the more than 1,200 exhibitors in the historic Fortezza da Basso for the hottest, finest and latest in men’s wear. The savviest among them also know to look for finds outside the exhibition halls. That’s because in Florence, unusual in an age of point-and-click shopping, the pleasures of brick-and-mortar are alive and well.

Ask Cristiano Magni, a public relations executive in New York who represents popular Pitti Uomo labels like Pantaloni Torino and L.B.M.1911. On arriving in Florence, Mr. Magni said, he drops his bag at a hotel and sprints to a tiny unnamed shop operated by Domenico Di Mascolo and Paola Pruscini, master barbers who practice their craft in a two-chair shop at the heart of the city. Tidied up and refreshed by a traditional hot-towel shave, he makes his way to Giusto Bespoke, a shop where Luca Giusto makes fine custom shirts in a style the tailor characterizes as a fusion of jaunty Neapolitan taste with the more conservative one of the Florentines.

“In Florence, often what is most extraordinary is the ordinary,’’ Mr. Magni said, referring to the proliferation of shops scattered throughout the city offering not just marbled paper and the artisanal wares for which Florence is justly renowned but also the notions, trimmings, fabric and housewares that have all but vanished in many major Italian cities.

Seemingly only in Florence can you find not one but a competing selection of perfumeries (or “pharmacies’’), each laying claim to being the largest, the oldest, the most esoteric.

“Everybody knows Santa Maria Novella,’’ Mr. Magni said of the centuries-old establishment whose redolent wood-paneled flagship, just steps from the church of the same name, has become a standard stop on tourist itineraries. “But I prefer a newer place called Aquaflor.’’ At that artisanal perfumery customers can consult on customized scents or choose from a selection of ready-made fragrances, tinctures, candles, soaps and colognes with evocative names like Hussar, Belladonna and Zagaria — or, unaccountably, Spleen.

“They also have these perfumes hidden in what they call an armadio dei veleni, or cabinet of poisons, that are inebriating and dangerous,’’ Mr. Magni said.

Wealth has always concentrated in this birthplace of both modern capitalism and the Italian Renaissance, and Pitti Uomo substantially bolsters the coffers in the city, generating nearly $300 million for the local economy over just four days last year, according to a study by Bocconi University in Milan. Yet despite the seasonal migration of large flocks of moneyed peacocks to the city, Florence holds true to its conservative character, shunning most forms of ostentatious display.

“The city is quite subtle and tends to keep itself hidden,’’ said Simon Crompton, a men’s wear blogger and the author of “The Sartorial Travel Guide.’’ And this may account for the serendipitous pleasures to be found in wandering the winding streets of the ancient city.

True, multinational chains, with their garish lighting, generic signage and often monotonous wares, have begun to supplant traditional retailers, including the jewelers whose shops line the Ponte Vecchio, home for centuries to Florence’s goldsmiths. Still, holdouts remain, and it is easy to find places as singular as the Scuola del Cuoio, a leather-working atelier set in a monastic complex in the Santa Croce neighborhood. It was founded after World War II by Franciscan friars, in concert with several local aristocratic families, to teach orphans a practical trade.

“It’s an amazing place to go, this leather school in the middle of a huge basilica,’’ Mr. Crompton said of the academy, where handsome and sturdy hand-sewn leather backpacks, valises, wallets and belts are made and sold beneath the vaults of a structure adorned with frescoes from the 15th-century school of Domenico Ghirlandaio and the Medici coat of arms.

As visitors eventually learn to do, Florentines create mental maps for themselves of shops that are scattered throughout the mazelike center city, places that hew to artisanal traditions or stock products seldom found in any other place.

“If you think of innovation, Florence is not that exciting,’’ said Laudomia Pucci, the deputy chairman and image director of the company founded by her father Emilio, a Florentine marquis. “But if you think of traditions that don’t change rapidly,” she added, her hometown is a wonderland of anachronism and eccentricity.

Among her favorites, she cited the quirky silversmith Pampaloni, the semi-secret jeweler Matassini, the glassmaking workshop of the artisan Paola Locchi and, of course, a farmacia, this one named Farmacia Santissima Annunziata, a storied establishment not far from the Duomo and from her family’s Renaissance palace.

“They have these just incredible, sophisticated products, perfumes, soaps, creams, condensed oils,’’ Ms. Pucci said of a small shop whose sign dates its founding to 1561. “They also have a fragrance I adore that is made with Egyptian geranium leaf.”

“In the end it’s a very unaffected town and one that is not yet dominated by mass-market chains,’’ said Mr. Magni, the public relations executive. “What is rarer, even for Italy, is that you can still find the best quality things there in the most unexpected corners. Honestly, some of the most amazing spots I found just by walking around.’’

The New York Times

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