Observations from a part-time foreign correspondant (Part 1)

Well, WAIWers, I’m back from a miniature tour of la bella Italia and I have a confession to make – I’m not that fussed about Italian style. Not designers, you understand. Or even the major fashion houses (in the main) but with the style of actual Italian people. Now, I know this is almost a sacrilegious statement – and I apologise to those readers who are in love with the beauty, history, general ambience etc and, thus, embrace all things sartorial as well – but I cannot be swayed. Having said that, as with all fashion nations, there are some things I just love.
They almost all derive from an abject refusal to compromise on matters of luxury. I have discussed this subject in previous posts and, after seeing the type of clothes on show, I can confirm that (as usual, naturally!) I was totally on the money! To convince you, I have prepared a list of examples:
Firstly, availability: in every tiny mountain village, you can find the type of shop we consider ‘boutique’. Without snotty shopgirls and accompanying up-and-down looks we can all live without. Plus, as I will detail later – the best markets you could hope for. In larger towns and cities, most foreign shoppers would feel over-faced, I think. I congratulate anyone who is capable of identifying a favourite retail outlet. Luckily, I was shopping with an expert (my indomitable mother-in-law, Joan) who is acclimatised to the amazing choice.   
Secondly, the knitwear. Do Italians wear anything other than cashmere? Even their viscose, wool, mohair or angora is a million times better than the stuff we can buy. I’m not sure why but, as Joan pointed out, Italian consumers value the way that increased quality looks. No Tesco £20 v-neck basic cashmere jumpers there – I felt almost ashamed. Also, is it just me, or do they employ more imagination over their woven goods than any other nation? I saw every type of style on sale on market stalls. Market stalls! Not selling scratty, off the back of a lorry, hang threaded, acrylic stuff that bobbles after a couple of washes. I saw cute sweater dresses with Russian Matrioshka decoration on hems and sleeves, pom-pom edged scarves in every colour, gilets, long-line ballerina cardigans with a bang on bubble hem…I could go on and on and on. In short, everything was original and great value. Brilliant – you could dress not just high street/high end but high street/high end & outdoor boutique.
Then, the leather goods – lucky, lucky, lucky Italian ladies! It appears that, once again, nothing qualifies for that elusive (in Italy, anyway) category termed ‘cheap and cheerful’. Shoes do not come in the ‘other’ material which is so common – and luckily, I imagine, unidentified – in the footwear in this country. Then there’s handbags. Handbags seem to be the only other viable religion in Italy (please don’t read this, Vatican people) and shops are dedicated to them. Small business owners feel no need to keep afloat by stocking other leather goods like belts, shoes, bridles, saddles, whatever. All those items seem to have their own retail homes as well. And everything leather is super shiny, bright and well finished – like a grown-up version of the pastries and confectionery stocked by Betty’s in Harrogate.
Lastly, sunglasses. As you might expect in a country which benefits from an average 2538 hours of sunshine per annum (the UK average is 1340 hours), UV protection for the eyes is serious business. The consumer benefits from the high quality which comes as standard – and the eyecare professionals and stockists benefit from a very healthy market. This has resulted in an excellent choice of glasses also – and I’m happy to report that, as in the UK and the US, optical accessorising is popular. Anyway, back on point, the high end brands (that are usually notoriously hard to find and ridiculously expensive) are readily available in any town or city. Even in the market for copies this quality remains and the international retail brands that are easily accessible anywhere (like Zara, for instance) don’t even bother trying to sell their sunglasses. Good news for eyes as, while most high street options provide comfortable vision, they rarely give UV or blue-light protection. Italians are savvy on this subject: their market stall products perform these functions – and are not lazy copies manufactured after a quick glimpse at the glossies. Oh no, these are the result of study – of an actual pair of the sunnies in question. Plagiarists who’ve actually seen the real thing – an unknown in the UK’s low end fashion industry.
In a category that we don’t normally discuss (although I now have a specialist correspondent – shout out for Helen there), there’s cosmetics. Include skincare, haircare, nails – well, the contents of any large Boots. The budget varieties in this country are brilliant. Having lived in a country where cosmetic health is taken seriously (France – where they call diet a ‘regime’) and skincare only comes in mid-range, I can report that Italian equivalents – in terms of quality and performance – come in much appreciated and very reasonable prices. To the point where L’Oreal is sold in luxury beauty stores. Plus, there is a great variety. Skin, hair, manicure and cosmetic heaven. 
So…that’s my list of the highlights. It boils down to things that we all like – availability, knitwear, leather goods, sunglasses and beauty products.
However, in the interests of objectivity, I would add that there are some downsides to Italian style. Both for the consumer and in terms of the style I saw on the Italian high street. Just for you, dear readers, I will stop being enigmatic and explain myself…in the next post. Sorry to keep you hanging but this post is getting out of hand!
So, it’s ‘arrivederci’ from me. Until next time…


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