The Milanese Renaissance: The growth of Italy’s business and fashion powerhouse

This year’s edition of Decoded Fashion took place in Milan with the theme ‘Digital Diversity & The Connected Consumer’. It was the event’s fourth edition in the city, solidifying Milan’s renaissance as a fashion and business hub and drawing in companies, investments and cultural renovations, and helping to set in concrete its position not only in the business world, but also as a hub for fashion, culture and lifestyle.

Of Italy’s major cities, Milan has never been the most loved, neither by Italians nor by tourists. With rainy weather atypical of the Mediterranean region and a grey, business-like cityscape, it lacks the romance and grandeur of Rome and Venice. Within Italy, grudges between Rome and Milan have grown with the former as the political capital, but the latter as its financial and business capital. Many consider it to be more European than Italian in style, clashing with the relaxed culture of the south, and masculine and industrial compared to the art-filled beauty of the rest of the country.

The past few years have marked the beginning of a new period of innovation and rebirth for Milan, which has been most visible in the fashion industry. Milan Fashion Week has become one of the most exciting events on the fashion calendar, especially compared to the years before. As recently as 2014, MFW drew criticisms for being ‘boring’ and ‘grandmotherly’ – until recently, many buyers and members of the press wouldn’t even bother going! Nevertheless, the surge of creativity among Italian luxury labels has been rapidly developing in the past two years, with many Italian heritage brands undergoing overhauls to become fresh, exciting and full of surprises.

The Gucci Hub in Milan is home to offices, showrooms, studios and a runway space

These days you can’t utter the words ‘Milan’ and ‘fashion’ in the same sentence without evoking Gucci and its creative director Alessandro Michele, the keystone of this new wave of Italian fashion. In September, before Milan Fashion Week, the stalwart of the Kering stable unveiled its new headquarters in the historic Caproni aeronautics factory on Via Mecenate, in the city’s eastern border near the international airport. Dubbed ‘Gucci Hub‘ and covering 378,000 square feet, the space brings together the fashion house’s Milan offices, worldwide showrooms, and graphics and photo studios in one location with more than 250 employees. The former aeroplane hangar of the facility will be used to host runway shows starting next year.

Other major players in the city’s fashion industry, such as Valentino, Versace, Prada and Armani, have also made waves in developing Milan’s cultural and social scene. In 2008, Prada began working with local architecture firm OMA to develop the Fondazione Prada museum in a former industrial complex in Largo Isarco in the south of Milan. The Fondazione Prada is a cultural institution which focuses on literature, cinema, music, philosophy, art and science covering a surface of 19,000 square metres. This has been joined by Armani/Silos, a 4,500 square metre museum hosting forty years of the designer’s work, looking at themes and inspiration that have grown the company into a fashion empire. Both facilities are reminiscent of Fondation Louis Vuitton, LVMH’s organisation to promote arts and culture in Paris.

Beyond fashion, Milan is home to a busy private equity scene. Long part of Milan’s thriving business culture, firms such as Permira and Investindustrial have backed businesses throughout Italy and the rest of Europe. They are also behind big leadership changes in the fashion industry. Shortly after Blackstone lured London native Jonathan Akeroyd to helm Versace, his predecessor Gian Giacomo Ferraris was named CEO of Clessidra-owned Roberto Cavalli. Italian private equity and venture capital saw €2.9bn in fundraising in 2015, nearly double the amount raised in 2014. With such a rich source of Italian heritage businesses with succession challenges, private will continue to drive change in Italy from Milan.

The late Zaha Hadid developed the City Life apartment complex in collaboration with Daniel Libeskind

Just as business and industry has been growing, the cityscape has been developing as a sophisticated and modern view, complimented by the view of the Alps in the background. The late Zaha Hadid’s apartment block in the City Life district is one of the many new buildings, rising in town, answering both to the city’s business-oriented rhythm and Italy’s artistic history. Since 2014, under Matteo Renzi’s government, the city has taken on a new status as a gateway for foreign investors into the country. Previously bohemian districts such as Brera have undergone development, bringing to the neighbourhood a variety of retailers alongside its traditional delicatessens and cafes.

But perhaps nothing can quite convey the degree to which the city is changing as last year’s Expo, which started at the beginning of May and stayed open for the following six months. Five years after the last edition of the World’s Fair in Shanghai, the Expo took the theme Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, with sub-themes encompassing seven topics surrounding food, agriculture and biodiversity. It was attended by over 21 million people, of which seven million came from abroad, and the event included participants from 145 countries and boosted local growth by 0.7%, truly signifying the beginning of a new era in Milan’s history – one perhaps best reflected in the second part of the Expo’s title. The success of the event has changed Milan permanently, cementing its status as a culture capital of Europe.

The 2015 Expo marked a changing point for Milan, bringing in millions of visitors, businesses and organisations from overseas

Milan is also home to a wealth of attractions that undoubtedly continue to draw in a stream of sophisticated travellers from around the world. It is home to the world’s only certified seven-star hotel, the Town House Galleria, which was developed in 2007 by Alessandro Rosso who worked with Geneva-based certification company SGS to ensure that the hotel would have the number-one requirement for seven-star certification: location. And it does, located inside the city’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The city also hosts some of the world’s top chefs, with more than ten Michelin-starred locations, including Berton and D’O.

In our work in fashion and luxury, we’ve often found that candidates who might have limited themselves to cities like London, New York and Paris in the past have become more open to relocating to Milan more recently, particularly given the world’s political climate at the moment. And those who have given Milan a chance until now have found that the city has much to offer under its grey layers and solemn outward-facing perspective as its underground scene that locals have flocked to for many years has started to surface. As Milan continues to come into its own and showcase its highlights, it is becoming clear to just about everyone that it is the place to be – and there’s no doubt that even more will come in the future.