I’ve just returned from another wonderful trip to Italy, sampling the delights of Florence, Sienna and the Tuscan countryside. They say travel broadens the mind, and I’m sure it does. It can also be ever so slightly depressing.
If you occasionally cross the ether and visit BespokeMe you’ll know that my major preoccupation is locating London’s independent menswear labels and retailers. It is, I’m sorry to say, a less than easy task; dominated as the landscape is by invidious chain retailers – and increasingly greedy landlords.
This is all a far cry from my experiences in Italy. Indeed, for a man like me who is product and experience focused, when it comes to clothing Italy is my Mecca. For whether it is Rome, Florence, Sienna or any of the smaller towns the independent retailer is the norm not the exception. And it makes such a difference to your outlook and enjoyment of clothing. It makes turning each and every corner of these beautiful cities a world of possibility.
For whatever you’re looking for there will be some small family run outlet ready to provide it, from shoes and cashmere ties, to gloves and pyjamas – and everything in between. The shops are small, intimate even, and it’s all about engaging with the shop owner and experiencing the goods. They want to show you their wares, tell you about them, you’re expected to look, to feel and engage. This attention can be a bit unnerving at first, particularly for an Englishman. But once you get used to it shopping becomes a collaborative and enjoyable experience, not something to be endured.
I remember when I was in Rome last walking down one particular street near my hotel. It seemed entirely populated by sock and underwear retailers. As I was looking for some fine Italian hosiery I went into one of the shops. Aside from a dazzling array of socks I also found a man, his wife and the shop assistant deep in discussion over the merits of various pairs of briefs. Each one was being tugged, pulled and assessed in quite extraordinary detail – I can only imagine what they were actually saying.
I had a very similar experience in Florence when looking for gloves. Again this was a little specialist business that did nothing but gloves. Having picked out the colour of glove I wanted a velvet cushion was then placed on the counter on to which I was instructed to place my elbow with my arm and hand pointing vertically. The charming female shop assistant then proceeded to place the glove on my hand, fitting and checking each finger as she went to ensure I had the perfect size. In London not even Picketts in the Burlington Arcade shows this much dedication and pride.
The funny thing is that such an environment entirely alters your attitude to clothing and that male Kryptonite, shopping! The very act of acquiring clothes in Italy is a pleasure. Little wonder then that so many men in that country take such care and pride in their appearance.
Pound for pound Italians are the world’s best dressed men. One cannot help but wonder whether Anglo Saxon men might not find clothes, style, dress and shopping more enjoyable pursuits if they too lived in such an environment.
When travelling it’s often the little differences that leave the most profound impression.