The Best Fashion Deals in Italy

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During Milan's January and July sales, and at outlets in nearby Como throughout the year, you can cut a bella figura without cutting up your credit cards after you return home

Perhaps more than any other in the world, couture all'italiana means understated elegance and timeless masterpieces of exquisite tailoring. And in its nerve center, Milan, prices on streets like Via della Spiga and Via Montenapoleone are exquisitely out of sight - $300 isn't considered outrageous for a man's shirt, nor $1,000 for a woman's skirt. So what's a budgeteer to do? Depends on when you're there. From around January 15 to February 15, and again from July 15 to August 15, the pricey clothing boutiques of Milan hold their semiannual sales, and it's also possible in these periods to find lodgings values - even in the fashionable heart of the city (see box).

January, which is also an excellent month for enjoying low airfares, and July are the only months when such sales can be held under Italian law - to prevent fraud and unfair competition. They usually begin midmonth and last about four weeks; get further details, in English, from the Milan Chamber of Commerce at mi.camcom.it.

Throughout the rest of the year, another effective course (this time, primarily for the purchase of silk fabrics, "squares," silk scarves, and silk neckties) is simply to visit one of many discount outlets that froth like foam on a latte just outside of Milan. While finding some of these outlying locations requires navigating twisted byways, others are molto user-friendly. Just follow the tourist buses, amici miei.

The twice-yearly sales of Milan's chic boutiques

During the sale months, the glittering Milan boutiques of Montenapoleone and Spiga streets discount their merchandise by as much as half. Window-shopping along Spiga and Montenapoleone during the sales of this past January, I found the following examples of discounts, up to 50 percent: a Ferragamo scarf E50 ($43) and shoes E85 ($74); Bally shoes E80 ($70) and wallet E56 ($49); an Etro sweater E83.92 ($73) and tie E38.73 ($34); a Prada wallet/change purse E93 ($81) and shoes E92 ($81); a Dolce & Gabbana skirt E108 ($95), shirt E104 ($91), and pants E53 ($46); Krizia shirts E30 ($26) and handbags E120 ($105); and Armani shoes E95 ($83), and sweater E87 ($76). And don't forget, these (and the following) prices are before the refund you can get on Italy's 20-percent VAT!

For both men and women, four shops worth investigating-some in the Spiga/Montenapoleone shopping district, others not far off-during the July and January sales include Il Salvagente (Via Fratelli Bronzetti 16, 011-39-02/7611-0328) for the younger at heart; the labyrinthine but productive Diffusione Firme (Corso Buenos Aires 77, 011-39-02/6698-3113); Vestistock (Via Ramazzini 11, 011-39-02/2951-4497, vestistock.it), with a particularly notable designer selection; and Etro (Via Spartaco 3, 011-39-02/5502-0218), with an atmosphere worthy of a lavish production at Milan's famous La Scala opera house.

Outlets outside Milan (especially in Como)

For centuries, the Lake Como area a short distance from Milan has been famed for, among other things, silk (seta) production. Although 90 percent of the seta on the world market originates in China these days, Como's legacy endures, and budget travelers/shoppers will find the real deal here at polyester prices. Manufacturers create fabrics on order for designers, and the surplus is fashioned into scarves or neckties and sold under the manufacturer's (or designer's) label.

The charming town of Como is just an hour by rail from Milan. Take the train from Milan's Stazione Nord, then a bus (7 or 4) to Como's Piazza Cavour. Here, at No. 16, the tourist office provides brochures on Como's silk museum, budget hotels, and a free booklet entitled Gli Spacci Tessili (Textile Outlets). This guide, complete with English translation and map, includes listings and contact information for Como's outlets. Following are simply several representative examples:

Seta (Piazza Cavour 11, 011-39-031/271-386) Because it's extremely central and caters to the tourist trade, prices here are comparatively high, but they're still not unreasonable. Good finds included Basile scarves at E10 ($9) and vests at E51 ($45).

Binda (Viale Geno 6, 011-39-031/303-440; bus 4 or 7). Lakeside north of Piazza Cavour and walkable from there, it's an enterprise that creates fabrics for Ralph Lauren, Armani, Versace, and Lanvin (to name-drop a few), and sells remnants as scarves, ties, or on the bolt. Binda doesn't run sales, but prices are low anyway. It's a fairly small space, and customers are just as apt to be Italians as to be tourists. Top buys include pashminas at E52 ($46) and Lanvin oblongs at E10 ($9).

Frey Emporio della Seta (Via Canturina 190, 011-39-031/591-420; bus 50). In a suburb south of town, the famous Frey factory store offers fabrics, clothing, and accessories. Best bets include 36-inch silk squares for E28 ($25) and silk purses for E31 ($27). And it's not all silk, either; I liked the wool vests trimmed with fur at E69 ($61). In-town shops: Via Boldoni 36, Via Garibaldi 10.

Seterie Martinetti (Via Torriani 41, 011-39-031/269-053; bus 4 or 7) is a ten- minute walk from Piazza Cavour. Though there's a small selection of well-priced scarves (YSL wool and silk E21/$18), as well as ties, bathrobes, and vests, Martinetti primarily sells fabrics and supplies Armani, Versace, and Cavalli. Remnants are sold at about E18 ($16) per square 1 1/2 meters (1.8 square yards). Sew your own imitation Giorgio and Gianni, at a fraction of the cost!

The new megamalls

Yes, outlet malls have hit Europe, too. And a top example, with excellent prices for high fashion, is found just outside Milan:

McArthurGlen Designer Outlets Serravalle (Serravalle Scrivia, 011-39-0143/609-000, mcarthurglen.com/centres) From Milan's Stazione Centrale, take the train to Novare or Serravalle Scrivia, then a bus outside the station direct to the mall; train E8.55/$7.50, bus E1/87:. Forty-five minutes from Milan (and accessible by car via the A7 highway), Serravalle is a new complex of over 100 stores such as Trussardi, Versace, and Dolce & Gabbana, all offering discounts of up to 50 percent - and an additional 30-75 percent off during July/January sales. There are restaurants, too. (We do not recommend another mall, FoxTown Mendrisio, found just over the Swiss border from Milan.)

For dolce shopping

Getting there

Direct flights from New York to Milan on Alitalia (800/223-5730, alitaliausa.com) and Continental (800/525-0280, continental.com) can be found through consolidators for $800-$1,000 for July (but don't book till June) and $400 for January. Lodging Leads If they're in the mood, the folks at the Italian tourist office in New York (212/245-5618, fax 212/586-9249) can provide you with Milan hotel listings, as can hellomilano.it and rcs.it. Two good bets include Speronari (Via Speronari 4, 011-39-02/8646-1125, fax /7200-3178), family-owned, with 32 nicely renovated rooms with private baths and good amenities, near the Duomo (cathedral); singles from E44 ($39), doubles from E68 ($60). Near some good shopping on Corso Buenos Aires, consider Aurora (Corso Buenos Aires 18, 011-39-02/204-7960, fax /204-9285), with 16 comfortable rooms with private baths and good amenities; singles from E57 ($50), doubles from E87 ($76). For complete immersion in Italian culture worth every euro, consider Cascina Malcotta (Stroppiana, Vercelli, 011-39-016/177-413, robertpalmieri@tiscalinet.it), a charming seventeenth-century countryside bed-and-breakfast with 12 rooms, operated by an Italian-American owner and Italian chef, good access to Milan by train via Vercelli; E42 ($45) per night per person.

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