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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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Things began to look up, however, when Giuliano Pisapia—a mayoral candidate who enjoyed the support of the city’s cultural elite but remained a veritable underdog as a member of the opposition party—won the city’s election in 2011. The victory, which pundits dubbed “the miracle of Milan,” infused a new sense of hope for Expo Milano and the city at large. “From the day he was elected, you could feel the energy flowing through the city,” Porro recalls. “Here was our chance to present a new face to the world.”

Galvanized by the prospect of worldwide attention—and stung by the snickering of naysayers—the city’s new leader set his sights on creating a new Milan that would give the world confidence once again. Everywhere in the city, it seemed, new roads were being built, trees and shrubs planted, new boutiques and cafés opened, and graffiti and grime scrubbed away. 

Today, in the CityLife district—on the site where the first Milan Trade Fair was held in 1920—a multipurpose district has emerged, speckled with futuristic towers designed by such major architects as Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind. The once-decaying Porta Nuova district, where  Milan’s medieval city gates still stand, has also been revitalized with more than a dozen skyscrapers, including César Pelli’s sweeping UniCredit Tower, currently the tallest in Italy. Farther north, the Bicocca district has become the city’s biggest urban renewal project since the end of World War II, anchored by the University of Milano–Bicocca and the prestigious contemporary art museum HangarBicocca. And in May, just after the opening of the Expo, Prada debuted the Prada Fondazione, a world-class arts complex designed by the renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

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Perhaps the clearest sign of Milan’s newfound confidence—and broadening appeal—is the clutch of luxury hotels rising or reinventing themselves throughout the city. At the opulent Excelsior Hotel Gallia, a 235-room Starwood Luxury Collection property that reopened in April, a bevy of Milan’s most beautiful people have gathered on the top-floor penthouse to toast the hotel’s rebirth. First opened in 1932 as the Palace Gallia Hotel, the property underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation by the local architect Marco Piva, who transformed it into a flashy art deco monument to Milan’s fashion consciousness with sleek Fendi Casa and B&B Italia furnishings and modernist light installations that include a 98-foot-long Murano chandelier. 

Viewed from the top of the opulent belle epoque structure, Milan too has a way of sparkling as if brand new. Across the street sits the Milano Centrale railway station, a vast structure no less impressive than the Gallia with its muscular marble sculptures and iron-and-glass canopies. “Paris is the past. Milan is about the future,” says Bruno Steenhault, a prêt-à-porter manufacturer sipping Champagne and sporting the Full Milan: slicked-back hair, a bearded jawline, and a scarf tossed lightly around his shoulders. “Things are going so fast, it is hard to keep up. There are no more distinct seasons. A few years ago, people used to change their collections once or twice a year. Now they do it three or four times a year.”  

To be sure, the crowd around us is nothing if not on trend, strutting through the strobe-lit party as if they were on a catwalk. Flashes pop all around while the style setters stroll in front of a hotel banner, strike a pose, and move on to admire the hotel’s Katara Suite. 

“At 10,000 square feet, it is one of the biggest in the city,” says the Gallia’s general manager, Marco Olivieri. “And at about $20,000 a night, it is also one of the most expensive. It is important for our guests to know that.” Of course, that $20,000 promises guests more than a mint on their pillow. The suite comes with two rooftop terraces, a hot tub with space for 10, and bulletproof windows. 

By contrast, the most distinctive aspect at Palazzo Parigi, an opulent hotel in the Brera arts district, is its quiet refinement. The 17th-century palace became one of Milan’s most fashionable hideaways in 2013 when it debuted with sleek interiors by the French designer Pierre-Yves Rochon. (Rochon’s other major hospitality projects include the Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris, and the Peninsula Shanghai.) Intimate rather than overwhelming, the Palazzo comprises 65 guest rooms and 33 suites—each with terraces overlooking a private garden or the cityscape—as well as ornate public spaces adorned with Venetian parquet floors and oil paintings in the style of the old masters. Eager to retain her hotel’s of-the-moment status, the owner and architect Paola Giambelli debuted in July a 2,690-square-foot presidential suite that, though several thousand square feet shy of the Katara Suite, offers plenty of its own brio with expansive terraces and a magnificent collection of art and antiques. 

The Bulgari Hotel Milan, a longtime refuge for locals, also updated its look for the Expo, completing an extensive renovation last year that refreshed its trademark streamlined style with new furnishings by Antonio Citterio and artworks including original sketches of Bulgari jewelry that date to the 1950s. In June, the hotel added a Dom Pérignon lounge and raw bar where the fashion and Expo crowds regularly gather.

At the new Mandarin Oriental, Milan, the general manager, Luca Finardi, says he also took care to keep local sensitivities in mind. “The people of Milan are like their homes,” Finardi says. “They are not very inviting at first, but when you get to know them, they can be quite warm.”

Opened in August, the Mandarin Oriental is indeed tailored to a decidedly Milanese disposition. Four elegant 19th-century palazzi on Via Monte di Pietà house 73 guest rooms and 31 suites adorned with Citterio’s subdued beiges and contemporary furnishings. At the hotel’s restaurant Seta, Antonio Guida—the Pugliese chef formerly of Tuscany’s Michelin-starred Il Pellicano—has crafted a menu that blends traditional Milanese cuisine with refined international techniques. Even the way locals arrive for a meal was carefully considered. “The Milanese don’t like to go to hotels for dinner or lunch,” Finardi says. “So we designed our hotel with two entrances, one from the sidewalk and another from an elegant interior court.”

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Of all of Milan’s pre-Expo reclamation projects, the most vibrant may be its harbor, La Darsena. Built in 1603 to connect a series of canals running through the city, the historic harbor had by the late 20th century become a dull and featureless parking lot with as much curb appeal as, well, a parking lot. The frenzy of urban renewal, however, morphed the waterfront into what the fashion designer Massimo Alba tells me is “the hottest place in all Milan.”

Alba waves to passersby and shop owners as we move along the Naviglio Grande canal, then darts into a tiny takeout kitchen to toss kisses to the woman behind the stove. “This is where you come to get the best pasta,” he says. Next he pops into a small one-person art gallery whose proprietor has just returned from a show in the States: “Here you find the most interesting art.” And as we enter Maison Borella, a four-star boutique hotel overlooking the canal, Alba assures me we have arrived at the city’s “hippest hotel.” We plop down on a couch and order two glasses of local vino rosso. “It’s underground culture,” Alba continues. “Musicians. Artists. Writers. Models. Musicians. It is what Milan is all about.”

In other words, sprezzatura.

“It is an ancient word that dates back to the Renaissance,” Alba explains. “It means the subtle skill of making whatever you’re doing or wearing appear to be effortlessly stylish.” It follows then that Alba’s designs—sold at his boutique in the Brera district  as well as at Barneys New York and Mr Porter online—are steeped in sprezzatura. “Italian style really hasn’t changed that much over 500 years,” he says, as a waiter arrives with a tray of prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano. “It’s always recognizable. My textures are always soft and colored with the hues of the Renaissance landscape. My cashmere is chemical free and dyed in natural pigments with colors exclusive to me. It’s not a fashion statement, it’s more an attitude.” 

To understand Milan, it is true that one must understand the Milanese attitude. Since the Middle Ages, a penchant for privacy has imbued the city in both its streetscapes—marked by high walls and locked gates—and the demeanor of its patrons. In the new millennium, however, these traditional yet stodgy ways have been lost in translation when competing with rival fashion capitals as a venue for showcasing cutting-edge style. In the revitalized Milan, sprezzatura has once again become a way of life, where the piazza has replaced the runway and fashion is less about haute couture and more about the way people live.

This laid-back ideology extends to the way Alba puts on fashion shows. An hour after leaving La Darsena and driving through the city, he pulls his Mercedes into a private courtyard across the street from the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. We move into an open grassy space about the size of a football field. “I don’t usually use runways and catwalks,” he says. “I like to present my work here in my garden, and people seem to like being there. It’s sort of a landmark, and I allow visitors to visit during Expo. It’s where da Vinci painted The Last Supper.”

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In Milan, supper—or at the very least, a round of cocktails—demands a dash of sprezzatura as well. “In Italy, you can’t separate food and fashion,” Porro tells me as we circle the Piazza Affari. “Another way to bask in the real Milanese style is to visit the cafés, restaurants, and bars created by some of the best fashion minds in the world.” 

A walk through the city reveals that fashion has indeed begun to penetrate the culinary experience. At the Armani/Bamboo Bar, set within the fashion house’s sleek hotel in the center of town, patrons whisper in an ambience of dark, muted hues and louvered windows. A few blocks away, opposite the Piazza della Scala and a stone’s throw from the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Café Trussardi—a sidewalk venue by the Italian brand famed for their perfumes and accessories—serves up cocktails and cuisine with views of Via San Dalmazio. Here Porro introduces me to a drink called the Beer Americano, a strange concoction of Campari and red vermouth with beer foam floating on top. It tastes terrible, but the street scenes on the other side of the café’s floor-to-ceiling windows remain utterly satisfying.

Across town, the scene is more playful at Prada’s second food-and-beverage foray, the Prada Fondazione’s Bar Luce. Opened in May, the Wes Anderson–designed café is reminiscent of the film director’s whimsical movie sets, adorned with jukeboxes, pinball machines, and a pastel palette. All in all, the new space is flush with sprezzatura. According to Porro, more is on the way. “We see cranes on the horizon lifting new skyscrapers into place every day,” she says. “The miracle of Milan is still going on.” 

Bulgari Hotel Milan, bulgarihotels.com; Excelsior Hotel Gallia, a Luxury Collection Hotel, excelsiorhotelgallia.com; Mandarin Oriental, Milan, mandarinoriental.com; Palazzo Parigi, palazzoparigi.com 

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