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by Stuart Haggas

While the rest of Italy is living La Dolce Vita, Milan prefers La Moda Vita, taking its role as the country’s fashion, design, and finance capital rather seriously. This studiousness has paid dividends; while Milan may not be Italy’s prettiest or most popular city, it is the richest, with a sense of style that’s beyond reproach. Determined not to upset this equilibrium, the well-heeled Milanese have neither the time nor the inclination to dance exuberantly in fountains, Fellini-style, especially as such frivolity would ruin their $400 Cesare Paciotti sandals!

Although the magnificent Duomo, the world’s third largest church, and the magical allure of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, attract scores of tourists, trade fairs like Milan Fashion Week and designer furniture show Salone Internazionale del Mobile are more crucial to Milan’s economy. It’s during these fairs that hotels are full and room rates are at their highest. They’re at their lowest in August, when much of the city closes as the Milanese head for the beach, so despite the bargain rates, you should avoid August too.

Due to the influence of fashion and design, run-down neighborhoods are showing signs of rejuvenation. For example Zona Tortona, once characterized by graffiti and abandoned factories, now boasts the cutting-edge Nhow Hotel and a happening arts scene—a transformation spurred by the fact that headquarters of several major fashion houses, including Giorgio Armani and Diesel, have recently relocated there.

For those who’ve chosen to visit Milan over and above gems like Rome, Florence, or Venice, their priority list is likely to put shopping before sightseeing. In Milan, brands like Prada, Gucci, and Dolce & Gabbana are primary tourist attractions; the most popular souvenir to take home is probably an impeccably crafted designer bag.

Those eager to shop will find the major designers are represented within an area delineated by Via Montenapoleone, Via Sant’Andrea, Via della Spiga, and Borgospesso. Known as Quadrilatero d’oro, this golden rectangle is as legendary as the Bermuda Triangle, except the main thing that’ll vanish here is the contents of your bank account.

This area has been described as the Las Vegas of fashion, and once you’ve explored this pretty cobblestoned neighborhood, you’ll appreciate what this means. For in the same way that each new casino on the Las Vegas strip is bigger, bolder, and better than its predecessors, here every luxury designer store strives to outdo its rivals with sheer grandeur and audacity.

The Dolce & Gabbana flagship menswear store occupies a gorgeous 18th Century palazzo on Corso Venezia, and beyond the store, within the palazzo’s citrus tree filled courtyard, Dominico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have created their own miniature fashion universe. Here you’ll discover Barbiere, a traditional barbershop where hot towels, fragrant oils, and straight razors transform hirsute Latin males into smooth-jawed supermodels; Beauty Farm, a white marble oasis offering a full range of treatments to buff and beautify you; and Martini Bar, a sexy black bolthole with leather banquettes, lacquered surfaces, and a dramatic dragon mosaic blazing a trail across the floor.

For visitors who enjoy champagne while they shop, there’s another bar within the Just Cavalli store on Via della Spiga. Accessible via an elevator upholstered with faux white leather and mink and surrounded by a gigantic 7,000-liter seawater aquarium full of tropical fish, it’s as outrageous as one of Roberto Cavalli’s dress designs.

On nearby Via Manzoni, Giorgio Armani’s monumental fashion multiplex occupies an entire block, and carries mainline men’s and ladieswear, diffusion lines Emporio Armani and Armani Jeans, minimalist Armani Casa furniture, flowers from Armani Fiori, chocolates from Armani Dolci, and glossy coffee table books from Armani Libri. For a quick espresso fix there’s Emporio Armani Caffe, or for more upscale dining try a signature dish like black cod in miso sauce at Armani/Nobu. Within the basement, there’s even an exclusive nightclub, Armani Privé.

Alongside all of this showmanship, the elegant neoclassical store of quirky Dutch design duo Viktor & Rolf would appear to be remarkably restrained, if it weren’t for the fact that everything is upside down! Here, antique chairs are attached to the oak parquet-covered ceiling, while chandeliers spring from the floor like geysers. It’s like shopping with Alice in Wonderland.

While making your fashion pilgrimage in Milan, make sure to visit Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. This regal belle époque arcade, built in 1865, was one of the world’s first shopping centers. Tragically, its architect Giuseppe Mengoni fell to his death while inspecting the ornate iron and glass dome just days before King Vittorio Emanuele led the inauguration. Arranged in the shape of a Latin cross, its floor is adorned with exquisite mosaics representing Rome, Florence, Turin, and Milan. Taurus the Bull, representing Turin, is the most famous; it’s a Milanese tradition to turn three times on your heel over the bulls genitals to wish for better luck than poor Giuseppe!

It’s also here, in 1913, that two brothers opened a fine leather goods emporium named Fratelli Prada. The checkered marble floor and mahogany display cabinets are the original fixtures. Today, Fratelli Prada is part of one of the world’s most coveted fashion empires, overseen since 1978 by its founder’s youngest granddaughter, Miuccia Prada. Alongside exquisite Prada bags and accessories you’ll find, in the basement, a display of precious objects from the Prada family archive that date back to the 1900’s.

The floors above Prada host the exclusive new Town House Galleria hotel, with 26 butler-serviced suites, a chauffeur-driven Bentley, and other opulent amenities.

Modern Milan has evolved into a place where you can do more than shop for your favorite designer brands—you can eat, drink, dance, and sleep with them too!

For lunch with a logo, Gucci provides a chic pavement café. Within Milan’s multi-brand fashion and lifestyle boutique, 10 Corso Como, is a stylish courtyard café, restaurant, and three-room hotel decorated with iconic 20th Century furniture.

Meanwhile, luxury jewelry and leather goods brand Bulgari collaborated with Ritz Carlton in 2004 to open the five-star Bulgari Hotel, and there are rumors that an Armani hotel will join this retail, dining, and nightclub empire on Via Manzoni.

Building on the success of their in-store Martini Bar, Dolce & Gabbana have just put their Midas touch to the test again with the appropriately named Gold. Resembling the lair of James Bond’s nemesis Auric Goldfinger, this luminous all-gold restaurant, bistro, and bar complex has already attracted bling-loving golden girls like Paris Hilton, Monica Bellucci, Gisele Bündchen, and Kylie Minogue. The bar is lots of fun (prices are as high as D&G hemlines, so remember your platinum credit cards), but in my experience, the upstairs fine-dining restaurant is tarnished by the fact that the only beautiful people I spied here were the model-handsome waiters. I guess most Dolce & Gabbana fans prefer to sacrifice food in order to look good in their figure-hugging clothes.

With numerous designers, fashion magazines, and model agencies having their headquarters here, you might expect Milan to have a thriving gay scene, with dozens of chic gay venues packed to the rafters with style queens and male models. Alas, this is not the case. The queer fashion elite favor straight bars with fashionable endorsements, like aperitivos on the Bulgari Hotel terrace, cocktails at Dolce & Gabbana Gold or Martini Bar, or offbeat gay-friendly venues like Cuore.

At one time it seemed that G Lounge might fill the void. This plush lounge bar had the potential to become the Milan equivalent of New York’s G Lounge, even hosting a gay night on Thursdays. Alas it failed to live up to expectations. Although it’s stylish enough to attract the DSquared2-clad gay fraternity, they’re rarely there in sufficient numbers to make it feel like a full-fledged gay space. However, with fiber-optic chandeliers, lavish mosaic staircase, and a multitude of mirrors, it’s worth dropping by to see and be seen.

Parallel to Milan’s Stazione Centrale is Via Sammartini, promoted as the only “gay street” in Italy. The reality falls short of any expectation this might imply. Instead of being the core of Milan’s gay community, it’s a somewhat dubious street where gay guys just about outnumber the hookers and down-and-outs. It’s here you’ll find Afterline, Milan’s queer mainstay since 1993. There’s a small dance floor, a separate bar reserved for smokers, and an enclave with a couple of sofas ambitiously described as a lounge. With regular karaoke evenings, singles nights, and go-go boys on weekends, it’s reliably packed with a refreshingly unpretentious and eclectic crowd. Hang onto your entry card, as this will be “clipped” whenever you buy a drink; present this card to the cashier upon exit.

For a raunchier remix, strut into XClub, the neighboring music and cruising bar with strippers, shower boys, and erotic shows. You’ll need an ARCI membership card to gain entry, but this can be issued at the door. Ladies will also need ARCI membership to get into the women-only bar Cicip e Ciciap.

Like the bar scene, Milan’s club scene is dominated by venues so glamorous and grown-up that they favor crystal chandeliers over lasers. Their target customers tend to be affluent, well-groomed Tom Ford look-a-likes, hence many clubs have very strict “door selection” policies. In fact, Milan’s iconic club Plastic, once popular with the likes of Grace Jones, Andy Warhol, and Keith Haring, proudly claims to have started door selection in Milan. Should you want to visit such a club, it’s best to reserve a table, though you’ll then be obliged to consume expensive vodka, gin, or Campari by the bottle.

It’s for this reason that Mauro Galligari got together with some friends to start a new gay club. Although Milan leads the way in fashion and design, in terms of clubbing, Mauro felt it was stuck in 1980. His aim was for Milan to have something more in common with European gay superclubs, and so when Mauro started Billy in 2000, he would regularly bring famous club nights like London’s Crash and Barcelona’s Matinee over to Billy, alongside guest artists like Boy George and Marc Almond. Evidently, this was a formula for success. Today, Billy is regarded as one of Europe’s leading gay clubs. The hunky go-go boys, often seen dancing in nothing more than an Italian flag, are infamous. Resident DJ Francesco Belais has just mixed the first Billy compilation CD, and its White Party, held during Milan Fashion Week, throbs with barely dressed male models. I asked Mauro what the key was to Billy’s success: “Someone once wore a t-shirt with the slogan Italians Do It Better. I don’t remember her name,” he laughs, “but she was right!”

If Billy isn’t your scene, how about Nueva Idea? Here, commercial house is ousted in favor of the waltz, polka, and fox-trot. As you’d expect, this place draws the most eclectic queer crowd in Milan, and has since 1975. On Saturday nights try Binario 1, where edgy sounds like trance and soul rule.

There are also several gay saunas in the city, the most popular being the Thermas Club. For those with a shoe fetish even more extreme than Imelda Marcos’, Thursday night at the raunchy Depot is devoted to lovers of the training shoe—a theme night they claim is unique in Europe.

It’s not only the gay scene in Milan that’s been evolving in recent years. To the south of the center, Zona Tortona is a neighborhood in transition. This former industrial zone is characterized by vast warehouses, most of which are currently used as concrete canvases for countless graffiti artists.

During April’s prestigious design fair, Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the fuori salone strand would regularly transform many of these warehouses into spectacular showrooms, displaying new furniture from world-renowned companies like Cappellini and B&B Italia. Some of that designer gold dust has begun to have a more permanent effect on this neighborhood. A former Nestlé factory has recently been overhauled by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, and is now corporate headquarters for Giorgio Armani. HQs of other fashion brands, including Diesel, Tod’s, and Ermenegildo Zegna, have also arrived, paving the way for the area’s first design hotel, Nhow Milan.

When Spanish hotel group NH Hotels decided to experiment with a new upscale brand, they hired Milanese architect Daneile Beretta and designer Matteo Thun to transform a former General Electric factory, built in 1935, into a luxurious, contemporary hotel. Matteo Thun’s credentials are impeccable: international style bible Wallpaper* Magazine recently dedicated two pages to the new strategic center he’s just designed for Hugo Boss in Switzerland. Daneile Beretta is well-known as the architect responsible for some of Milan’s best nightclubs.

Nhow Milan stays true to its industrial heritage: concrete floors and steel girders remain as features, and there’s an amazing sense of volume in the public areas—all illuminated by spectacular light installations made of jewel-colored plastic. In a city that favors traditional-style luxury hotels (the gracious Four Seasons, set in what was a 15th Century convent, is regarded as Milan’s best hotel), Nhow is an audaciously unique statement.

What’s also unique about this hotel is its concept of fluid design. All the art and furniture in the public areas is replaced every few months, thus making Nhow a forever-changing mix of hotel, showroom, and gallery. Thanks to a partnership with Milan’s prestigious contemporary art museum, La Triennale di Milano, Nhow exhibits art that correlates with the current exhibition at La Triennale.

Guestrooms are luxuriously proportioned, some with loft-style double-height ceilings, and boast vast walk-in showers, free-standing Boffi bathtubs, and chairs designed exclusively for the hotel by Poltrona Frau. Although graffiti might have been abolished from the hotel’s exterior, the doors to each of the 249 rooms and suites bear glossy graffiti motifs. But perhaps the one detail that’ll remind guests they’re in Milan is the wardrobe: a gauzy muslin tent with spotlights that transforms hanging clothes into a display worthy of a designer store window.

The adjacent Navigli is an area of picturesque streets alongside what remains of Milan’s historic canal system. Work on the canals began in 1177. Although initially used for irrigation purposes, Leonardo da Vinci was among those who saw the potential of these waterways as a method of transportation, and so the network continued to be expanded. When work began on Milan’s Duomo in 1386, the canals were invaluable for ferrying vast quantities of marble from the quarries of Candoglia to the Duomo site. By the 20th Century, when barges had been superseded by road transportation, many of the canals were filled in to make way for more roads; only two canals remain.

Today this is one of Milan’s most charming neighborhoods. Its streets are lined with unique shops selling everything from freshly baked foccacia bread to comicbooks to vintage furniture. Old barges moored along the canal act as over-spill for the canal-side bars and restaurants. On the last Sunday of each month, the area plays host to the delightful Mercatone dell’Antiquariato street market selling antiques, collectibles, and bric-a-brac.

Nearby Corso di Porta Ticinese is the stomping-ground for the youth of Milan—reflected by the fact that this street contains urban fashion brands like Diesel, Energie, 55Dsl, and Fornarina stores that wouldn’t pass muster amongst the luxury brands of Quadrilatero d’oro, but are essential to fashion mad young Milanese.

Should you tire of shopping, one must-see in Milan is da Vinci’s The Last Supper, painted on the refectory wall of 15th Century convent Santa Maria delle Grazie. Not only did da Vinci leave the Christ figure unfinished, apparently considering himself unworthy to complete it, he also rejected the traditional fresco technique of painting onto wet plaster. Instead he applied tempera directly onto the dry wall, thus giving him freedom to paint and repaint, but the long-term result is that his exquisite work is terribly deteriorated—not helped by the fact that World War II bombing left it dangerously exposed. Some of the flaking and fading has been tackled, and it’s now UNESCO protected and preserved within two airlocks. Sadly, a maximum of 25 people can see it for just 15 minutes at a time. Hence booking months in advance, either online or via a travel agent, is recommended. If you haven’t booked, the wait-list can be longer than the one for this season’s must-have Fendi handbag, so you might want to tour the Duomo instead.

With 135 intricate marble spires, thousands of statues and gargoyles, and space for a congregation of 40,000, it took more than 500 years to complete—though nowadays you’re practically guaranteed to find sections of the exterior obscured by scaffolding as part of ongoing cleaning and restoration work. The panoramic view from the roof, with the Alps in the distance, is awe-inspiring. As it’s not a parish church, the Duomo is used for weddings and funerals only during exceptional circumstances, the last time being in 1997 for the funeral of designer Gianni Versace. You see, even within the Duomo, fashion is impossible to avoid. The history of Milan, and the story of fashion, are forever intertwined.

[Published: June, 2007]

To call Milan from the US dial 00-39 then remove the first 0 from the listed number

Bulgari Hotel, Via Privata Fratelli Gabba 7/B. Tel: 02-805-8051. Antonio Citterio-designed five-star hotel in a 1950’s Bauhaus-style building near quadrilatero d’oro. With 58 rooms and suites, contemporary B&B Italia furnishings, and luxurious spa, gym and pool, it’s a fashionista favorite. Doubles start at US$1,038. http://www.bulgarihotels.com

Four Seasons, Via Gesu 6. Tel: 02-770-88. Set in what was a 15th Century convent, this is the numero uno hotel in Milan. The 118 rooms and suites are always full during Fashion Week, when you never know which celebrity or supermodel you’ll spy taking coffee in the lobby. Rooms from US$833. http://www.fourseasons.com/milan

Nhow Milan, Via Tortona 35. Tel: 02-7780-7229. Located in Zona Tortona, this large and spacious 249 room hotel occupies a former General Electric factory. Its edgy, contemporary warehouse vibe is unique in Milan. Standard room US$269. http://www.nhow-hotels.com

Town House Galleria, Via Silvio Pellico 8, Intimate boutique hotel, graciously situated above the Prada store in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Rooms start at US$1,038. http://www.townhouse.it

Armani/Nobu, Via Manzoni 31. Tel: 02-7231-8645. Milan branch of the fashionable Japanese restaurant with a Californian vibe is suitably located within the chic Giorgio Armani store. http://www.armaninobu.it

Cuore, Via G G Mora 3. Tel: 02-5810-5126. Gay-friendly lounge bar, with funky decor and an offbeat vibe. http://www.cuore.it

Dolce & Gabbana Gold, Via Carlo Poero 2/A. Tel: 02-7577-71. Upscale restaurant and bar with a glossy golden theme from fashion designers Dominico Dolce & Stefano Gabbana. http://www.dolcegabbanagold.it

Gasoline, Via Bonnet 11/A. Edgy club with psychedelic decor, until recently the home of the Sunday Gay Tea Dance. http://www.discogasoline.it

G Lounge, Via Largo 8. Tel: 02-805-3042. Stylish bar that used to host a gay night, but is now just fashionably gay-friendly. http://www.glounge.it

Plastic, Viale Umbria 120. Tel:02-733-996. A favorite with pop icons in the 80’s like Grace Jones, Andy Warhol, and Keith Haring, this remains one of Milan’s most celebrated clubs-dress to impress. http://www.thisisplastic.com

Afterline, Sammartini 25. Tel: 02-669-4476. Popular bar with small dance floor open 9 P.M.–2 A.M.. Wed: karaoke; Thur: singles party; Fri: strippers. http://www.afterlinemilano.com

Visit http://www.archigaymilano.org/milano.asp for updates on Milan’s gay scene, including a map showing the whereabouts of key gay venues, or visit the Italian-language website of national gay listings magazine http://www.gayclubbing.it

Billy Club @ Amnesia Milano, Via Gatto. Milan’s premiere gay club night, with commercial house courtesy of resident DJ Francesco Belais, and infamous sexy go-go boys. Saturdays from midnight. Look out for Billy’s famous White Parties during Milan Fashion Week, and Red Party for World AIDS Day. http://www.billyclub.it.

Binario 1, Via Plezzo 16. Tel: 02-2159-7436. Saturday night venue featuring trance and soul.

Cicip e Ciciap, Via Gorani 9. Tel: 02-8699-5410. Women-only space. Open 9 P.M.–2 A.M. Wed-Sun. ARCI membership card required (issued at the door).

Depot, Via dei Valtorta. Tel: 02-289-2920. Raunchy gay club with theme nights including underwear night on Wed, trainer fetish on Thur, and nude party Sun. http://www.depotmilano.com

Nuova Idea, Via de Castillia 30. If you’ve been inspired by ABC’s Dancing With The Stars, this is the queerest place to waltz, polka, and fox-trot. http://www.dinet.it/nuovaidea

Thermas Club, Via Bezzecca 9. Tel: 02-545-0355. Gay sauna. Open 12 A.M.–12 P.M. (till 2 A.M. Fri/Sat) http://www.thermasclub.com

XClub, Sammartini 23. Tel: 02-6707-0683. Cruise bar with stripper, shower boys, and erotic shows. Open 9 P.M.–5 A.M. Wed-Sun. ARCI card required (issued at the door)). http://www.xclubmilano.com


10 Corso Como, Corso Como 10. Tel: 02-2900-2674. Named after its street address, this is Milan’s most important multi-brand boutique. Alongside designer fashion there’s upscale accessories and homewares, plus café, restaurant, and three-room boutique hotel. http://www.10corsocomo.com

55Dsl, Corso di Porta Ticinese 60. Hip jeanswear for men and women. http://www.55dsl.com

Diesel, Corso di Porta Ticinese 44. Tel: 02-8942-0916. Cult Italian jeanswear for men and women. http://www.diesel.com

Dolce & Gabbana Uomo, Corso Venezia 15. Tel: 02-7640-8888. Flagship menswear emporium, incorporating barbershop, spa, and martini bar. http://www.dolcegabbana.it

Energie, Corso di Porta Ticinese 53. Tel: 02-8324-1735. Young Italian streetwear for men. http://www.energie.it

Fornarina, Corso di Porta Ticinese 78. Funky urban ladieswear brand. http://www.fornarina.com

Giorgio Armani, Via Manzoni 31. Tel: 02-7231-8600. This vast flagship store incorporates the numerous Armani brands, as well as a café, a branch of Nobu, and even a VIP nightclub. http://www.giorgioarmani.it

Gucci, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Tel: 02-859-7991. Luxury Italian brand, with a fashionable instore café. http://www.gucci.com

Just Cavalli, Via della Spiga 42. Tel: 02-7602-0900. Flagship store for Roberto Cavalli’s jeanswear line, incorporating a fashionable bar and a 7,000 litre seawater aquarium. http://www.robertocavalli.it

Louis Vuitton, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Tel:02-777-1711. Luxury French luggage and accessories, plus clothing line designed by Marc Jacobs. http://www.vuitton.com

Prada, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Tel: 02-876-979. There are six Prada stores in Milan but this, dating back to 1913, is the original. http://www.prada.com

Tod’s, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Tel: 02-877-997. Milan-based luxury leather brand, renowned for its bags and carshoes. http://www.todsgroup.com

Viktor & Rolf, Via Sant’Andrea 14. Tel: 02-796-091. Milan flagship of quirky Dutch design duo. http://www.viktor-rolf.com