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My Italian obsession

As we run our Milano coverage, Beauty Editor M. K. Johnson says she has her own Italian obsession—and tells you where to satiate yours

‘Stendhal Syndrome—While travelling to Florence [Henri Beyle (a.k.a. Stendhal)] found himself unable to control the emotions welled up in him in anticipation of the city's cultural pleasures … His racing heart and an increasing sense of confusion robbed him of his composure when his thoughts turned to Dante, Michelangelo, and Leonardo. Completely incapable of formulating his thoughts lucidly, he finally capitulated and gave himself up to his “delusions” which made him feel as though he were “at the side of a beautiful woman.”’ This, according to Rolf C. Wirtz's Art and Architecture: Florence, published by Barnes and Noble.

EAR READERS, I must warn you that a strain of Stendhal syndrome may not be limited to Florence! I myself experienced this, just as I was entering Saks Fifth Avenue! I was not, however, thinking of Dante, Michelangelo and Leonardo. Armani, Gucci, and Ferragamo, I must admit, were at the forefront of my mind. But I assure you that the experience was much the same. I was simply overwhelmed by the glory of Italian luxury goods this season! All things bright, beautiful and blue, from Armani's evening collection. Gucci shoes with heels so high who could blame you for feeling faint—though it would probably be from the effects of altitude. Handbags, scarves and shoes from Ferragamo that would make anyone have delusions (of grandeur and an unlimited credit line!).
   Sometime over the last year, I fell in love with all things Italian. Italian luxury goods, in particular, never cease to impress me: leather handbags, jewellery, scarves. I have books on Tuscany, Venice and Milan. I think Giorgio Armani is a god. And I dream of staying in that little Italian village (and palace) that the Ferragamo family bought and restored. I mustered the courage to watch the chilling movie Hannibal, because a good portion was filmed in Florence. To steel myself through the horrifying ending I kept thinking to myself, those are the most beautiful Gucci sandals I've ever seen! Otherwise, I'd have been too much of a coward to see it. And, of course, my favourite fragrance—Acqua di Parma.
   So if you're game, let me show you how to embark on an Italian adventure of your own.
   First, get in the mood. Would you like a little Italian romance—try Laura Fraser's travelogue and memoir An Italian Affair. Apparently everything we've heard about finding romance in Italy is true! If suspenseful thrillers are more your style, try Valerie Martin's Italian Fever—a murder, a missing manuscript and an Italian villa that harbours dangerous secrets—what could be more fun than that? SummertimeNext, I would pop in one of my favourite Katharine Hepburn movies, Summertime (1953, available in VHS or DVD)—the story of a spinster's holiday in Venice, where she learns about herself, love, Italian men and Renaissance glass. That should do for a start, anyway.

Now on to the luxury!
Y AFFAIR with Italian leather goods began when I realized that how scarce it was becoming here in American stores. Many companies that were famous for making their handbags in Italy have since switched to countries with far cheaper labour, especially China and Mexico. It is important note that even long-standing, traditionally American companies have switched—like Coach, Brahmin (based in Massachusetts) and the occasional Dooney & Bourke. None of this would matter nearly so much if the silly things didn't still cost over US$200! At this price, one is forced to ask what on earth am I paying for?
   High-end companies like Gucci, Prada, Furla, and Ferragamo can still be counted on. These beautiful bags are still made in those regions of Italy famous for leather goods. Also look in mid-range boutique chains like Harold's, and Talbots for the occasional Italian handbag. Thankfully Italian shoes are still fairly easy to find. Traditionally, Italian shoes make a wise investment simply because they can be repaired and reconditioned. The more cheaply a shoe is made, the less likely it is to be salvageable when it gets damaged. Italian shoes, and other leather goods, are known to wear and age well.
   Now to scarves and apparel: such beautiful fabrics come out of Italy! The patterns and weaves have intricate designs and usually don't have an unattractive reverse side. This holds true for the clothing as well—fabrics with rich textures, subtly woven patters, and glorious colours. The cut also makes a tremendous difference. Even when a garment is cut to an extreme style—one usually finds that her hips still fit in the skirt, and the top isn't cut for a boy.
   ‘So where do I find these goodies?’ I hear you cry. First there are the usual sources—large luxury department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, etc. (all of which have serviceable online counterparts) can be counted on for a steady, consistent supply of jewellery, fragrances and accessories from Italy. There are also the wide array of luxury suppliers online like, and of course, It's worth noting that Talbots, a chain of boutique clothing stores all over the US, has a large selection of Italian-made apparel, shoes and accessories for fall. features many of these items, but look for those items labelled Talbots Collection line, not the main line offered. Harolds is another chain of clothing stores that carry a large selection of Italian accessories. I have even found garments and leather goods in T. J. Maxx. Just be careful to look beyond the maker’s name—to the label listing where the item was made.
   If you're looking for broader selections, more unique pieces and more traditional Italian designs—why not go to the source? Here are a few favourite online resources that ship from Italy to destinations all over the world.

  • Firenze.net
    Here you can find clothes, housewares, jewellery, accessories—nearly anything you could want.
  • Forzieri.com
    The largest online retailer of luxury Italian accessories. Need I say more?
  • Made in Firenze
  • Frette Luxury Italian Linens

       For jewellery, look for:

  • L’oca Bianca—fabulous jewellery.
  • Florenceshop.com
    This site features Banco dell'Oro (literally ‘the gold counter’) a shop that showcases jewellery made using traditional Florentine gold-smiting.

       General sites of interest:

  • Italian Industry Portal
  • Firenze.net
  • Il Borro—remember that village I told you about, that the Ferragamo familiy bought? Here's the site—
  • Visiting Florence? Check this out—

    M. K. Johnson is Lucire's Beauty Editor.

  • Above and below: Gucci's shoes and handbags, still Italian-made, are to die for, as are the clothes for autumn 2001

    I was not thinking of Dante, Michelangelo and Leonardo. Armani, Gucci, and Ferragamo, I must admit, were at the forefront of my mind. But I assure you that the experience was much the same.

    Below: Giorgio Armani mightn't be a god, but some may think his clothes worthy of worship (from the autumn–winter 2001 range, images courtesy Giorgio Armani)

    Below: sells a range of handbags from Adrienne Vittadini, Francesco Biasia and others

    Adrienne Vittadini Handbags V383216
    Adrienne Vittadini handbag V383216

    Francesco Biasia Handbags A11305NERO-NOCC
    Francesco Biasia handbag A11305NERO-NOCC

    Isabella Fiore Handbags HB706
    Isabella Fiore handbag HB706

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