The Miracle of Milan
In the wake of Expo Milano 2015, Italy’s epicenter of style is finally becoming a fashionable destination.
It is morning in Milan, and the place to be is Pasticceria Marchesi, the venerable pastry shop on the Corso Magenta. As usual, it is standing room only at the café, packed with attractive men and women—at least a handful of whom I assume are models in this perennially fashionable city—sipping espressos, cappuccinos, and lattes between bites of biscotti and chocolates.
Not long ago, this chic clientele was on edge when another local purveyor of pastries, Cova, fell into the hands of Italy’s cultural archrivals, the French, with the luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton purchasing the café in 2013. Panic ensued nine months later when Pasticceria Marchesi—a cornerstone of Milanese society since it opened in 1824—went up for sale. Local patrons heaved a collective sigh of relief, however, when their homegrown fashion house Prada purchased the shop, thus ensuring that pastry preeminence would remain, at least in part, with the Italians.
The topic of conversation at Marchesi on this spring morning is trending toward another local triumph: Expo Milano 2015. The six-month extravaganza—set across 272 tented acres on the northwest edge of the city—has brought together nearly 150 countries with performances, concerts, workshops, and exhibitions running day and night. Expected to welcome more than 20 million visitors before coming to a close at the end of October, the fair—and its blend of global architecture, cuisine, and art—appears to be holding the attention of the entire world.
Despite the fanfare surrounding Expo Milano, the event’s road to success was a bumpy one. Since 2008, when the Bureau International des Expositions awarded the cultural jamboree to Milan, the city has been embroiled in controversy. There were protest marches and riots, and allegations of corruption and bribery. The event’s top procurement executive was arrested, along with six others, in a bid-rigging investigation. Soon after, the streets turned into something out of a Fellini film, with strident violin music broadcast over boom boxes carried by bands of demonstrators chanting “No Expo!”
Local politics were hardly more scrupulous. After all, Milan was a stronghold of Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing party, and though the prime minister had become the butt of jokes for his litany of shocking scandals, his opponents had failed to dislodge him from office. Indeed, as the city’s 2011 mayoral election approached, it appeared that the ruling party would stay in power. Surely, the Expo was destined to remain mired in negative stereotypes of Italian ineptitude and venality.
“The city was depressed,” says Sara Porro, a stylish young Milanese writer who, after finishing her cappuccino at Pasticceria Marchesi, leads me to Piazza Affari. At its center, a 36-foot-high sculpture shaped like a fist with its middle finger defiantly raised faces the Palazzo Mezzanotte, the Fascist-era structure that houses the national stock market. “[The sculpture] was erected in 2010 and was quite controversial,” Porro says. “The CEO of the city’s stock market relocated his office so he wouldn’t have to look at it. But it summed up the city’s antagonistic mood.”
Amid the political turmoil, Milan’s fashion industry was in danger of slipping out of fashion. In 2009, locals were alarmed when the British house Burberry announced plans to move its annual women’s prêt-à-porter runway show to London. The company’s menswear collection soon followed. In 2013, the Italian designer Miuccia Prada also jumped ship, moving a number of her Miu Miu departments from Milan to Paris and complaining that Milan had lost its glamour. Despite being the breeding ground of some of the world’s preeminent designers, Milan, it seemed, was no fun.
“Coming to Milan you were reminded that the fashion industry was, above all, an industry,” says the former model Taylor Hendrich, whose career included stints with the legendary photographer Bruce Weber for Versace and Gap, among others. “It was a nice enough place, but it was kind of somber. The city seemed weighed down by traditional values. We didn’t really look forward to working there.”
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