Italians certainly made a mark in fashion and whilst many consider Milan as a synonym for Italian fashion, nothing could be more wrong. Iconic brands such as Gucci, Cavalli, Pucci and Ferragamo call Florence their home and birthplace.
Fashion is part of Tuscany’s heritage and history. From the medieval villages famous for their traditional fabrics to fashion powerhouses that were born here, the entire region’s history is woven in colorful threads.
It’s often been the foundation for the wealth of Florence and to this day, it plays an essential role in the economy of the region. Furthermore, a large part of the artisanal production is still located here and young people travel from all over the world to learn from Italian maestros.
Umbria is less known for its impact on the fashion world but in the 20th century, new and local enterprises brought the landlocked region to the international front row.
Keep reading to discover more about what ties these beautiful regions to the latest fashion, hundred-year-old traditions and more.
Craftsmanship in Florence – Silk & wool
In the Middle Ages, more than half of the population in Florence worked in the wool trade. It was thanks to this that Florence was able to acquire an enormous wealth, later used for the creation of the masterpieces still admired today by the whole world.
However, the rich soon had the pleasure of adorning themselves with a finer fabric than wool: silk. Legend has it that an Asian princess, who came from the Far East to get married in Europe, brought in dowry not only the most magnificent fabrics, but also silkworms.
It most probably was a missionary priest instead of a princess, but however the Italians got hold of silkworms, historical testimonies state that around 1100 silk began to be woven here.
In medieval Florence, commercial trade was regulated by guilds and both the wool and silk guilds were amongst the most prestigious ones.
The Banchi family alongside that of the Bardi, Antinori or del Giocondo owned the most important silk mills and their fabrics reached Europe’s most influential figures.
Raw silk was imported from abroad, even though preliminary experiments in silkworm farming were already taking place locally.
The raw silk was then washed with a soap made with lard and dyed near today’s Piazza Mentana. The most expensive color being red, which was made with an insect found in oak trees. The threads were then ready for the looms and were woven by expert hands in beautiful fabrics, clothing and accessories.
For a long time however, it wasn’t Florence to be known for its silk craftsmanship but nearby Lucca. Alas, in 1314, the town fell under Pisa and some fled the new government, bringing their families – and knowledge – to Florence.
The greatest coup for Florentine silk, certainly was providing the fabrics for the wedding of Duke Charles the Bald of Burgundy and Margaret of York, sister of King Edward IV, celebrated in 1468.
Related itineraries & museums
The headquarters of the millers’ guild, built in 1336, are still visible today in via di Capaccio 3, near vicolo della Seta, in Florence.
The Palazzo dell’Arte della Lana, the headquarters of wool traders, is instead located in front of the church of Orsanmichele, between via Calimala, via Orsanmichele and via dell’Arte della Lana. It communicates with the Orsanmichele church thanks to an overpass built in 1569.
These can only be admired from outside, but those who want to learn more about the role silk played in Florence’s history can visit the the museum Fondazione Arte della Seta Lisio or the Antico Setificio Fiorentino (advance booking is essential for both).
Where to shop in Florence for silk & wool
Besides the many market stalls throughout the city centre, where silk scarves of various quality are available by the dozen, the shops of Massimo Ravinale and Biva (via dell’Ariento, 8/10R) are a must-stop for sure! Madova is also a great option for those who love gloves. The tiny store overflows with piles of silk- and cashmere-lined kidskin gloves in jewel-like colors. For silk and woolen hosiery, Tuscan designer Emilio Cavallini has just two shops (the other is in New York) that sell his full range of funky tights and stockings in bright prints and intricate weaves.
Craftsmanship in Florence – Leatherwork
With its famous Chianina cows, the Italian region of Tuscany has all that it takes to make fine-quality leather. Since the 13th century, Florence has been traditionally home to water-heavy trades, like hide tanning because of its proximity to the Arno river. Around 1282, the Arte dei Cuoiai or Galilai, united those who worked in the sector in Florence, from leather to tanners (commonly called “pelacani”), from “pezzai” (retailers) to the “orpellai” (leather gilding), in addition to all the leather workers in general. In 1562, the shoemakers (who manufactured belts, buckles and leather shields) also came to join this guild.
Related itineraries & museums
Nowadays, it’s still possible to see the places in Florence where the leather guild worked. From Ponte Vecchio to Santa Croce, this was the area where the tanning of skins took place, as it was close to the River Arno, where the skins were soaked. Later on, because of the strong exhalations, the activity was then relegated near Piazza Santa Croce, where the nearby “Via delle Conce”, “Via dei Conciatori” and “Corso dei Tintori” are still there to tell and remind us of a glorious past.
Where to shop in Florence for artisanal leather goods
Florentine leather handbags (and leather goods in general) are famous worldwide and can be purchased at a variety of shops across the city center, but Florence leather markets are the best shopping destination. Located in piazza San Lorenzo and under the Loggia del porcellino, the stalls abound with products at every price point. There are also many handicraft shops between Piazza Santa Croce and Borgo dei Greci which offer a curated selection of leather accessories.
Traditional Tuscan fabrics
If you ever visit the area near Arezzo and like to wear bright colors, then don’t miss the opportunity to bring a garment made with panno casentino home with you. This traditional woolen fabric is felted to make it waterproof and brushed to get a hairy side. The “coarse cloth”, obtained from the shearing of the sheep of the Casentino valley, was appreciated for its high resistance to wear and tear and was suitable for the needs of those who had to live on the road or spend outside most of the day. The curl, which distinguishes the clothes in panno casentino, has a double function, to keep warm and rainproof, and it was initially obtained with a special finish, which extracted the hair, and later with the rattinatura or the rubbing of the wool with a stone. In the 1890s, horse garments were first produced in panno casentino. The alum of Rocca mixed, due to inexperience, to chemical dyes not exactly apt, resulted in a very resistant cloth with a singular red-orange color. Soon the stall keepers sewed their clothes with it, recycling the capes of their animals. The characteristic color caught the eyes of the ladies of Florence and the wool mill of Stia, in order to meet the new market needs, introduced a more traditional green to the orange-red color. Appreciated by famous personalities such as Baron Bettino Ricasoli, Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, the panno casentino was double-breasted, with a martingale and fox collar, a symbol of elegance and refinement, perfect for hunting or riding a horse .
Tuscany’s contribution doesn’t end here. To this day, Prato, a town near Florence, is known worldwide and is one of the best places where to source fabrics. International fashion brands get here the fabrics for their collections and there are many laboratories and firms trading in this sector in the area.
Related itineraries & museums
The whole Casentino area is a beautiful destination, with castles, medieval villages, forests and breathtaking landscapes. The towns of Anghiari, Poppi and religious sites like La Verna sanctuary and the Camaldoli hermitage all make for fascinating stops with numerous opportunities to learn more about the area at local museums like the Poppi castle or through guided visits.
Prato is often overshadowed by its neighbor Florence, but it’s not because it lacks in history, monuments and charm. Its textiles museum is one of the most high-profile in Italy and linked to the university, constantly attracting high-calibre exhibitions.
From Florence with style: the iconic brands born here
It’s impossible not to have heard about Gucci, Roberto Cavalli, Pucci, Ferragamo – these are all fashion powerhouses and whilst their style are wildly different, they all have one thing in common: they started out in Florence.
Salvatore Ferragamo, although from southern Italy, made Florence his base when he returned from a period in the States. His shoes adorned the feet of divas such as Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and many more. Today, the brand also includes clothes and accessories and his work is continued by his family.
Guccio Gucci worked as a bell porter at the Savoy hotel in London and after having seen first-hand many suitcases and luggage decided to head back home to Italy and set shop in Italy. In 1921, he opened his first leather goods shop in Florence and from there, the rest is history, the double-G brand is amongst the most famous worldwide.
Roberto Cavalli’s daring creations almost always make the red carpet. Loved by Hollywood, the rebel style of this designer, now 77 years old is exotic and bold.
It was his unique style on the slopes that got Emilio Pucci started in fashion, after being sighted in Zermatt wearing colorful skiwear everyone envied him. An Italian aristocrat and Italian Air Force pilot by profession, he was born in Naples to one of Florence’s oldest noble families and made Florence his base when he started his business.
Today’s budding designers can follow in their footsteps by studying at one of Florence’s prestigious fashion schools, such as Istituto Marangoni, Polimoda, IED or Istituto dei Mestieri d’Eccellenza by LVMH.
And every year, brands from all over the world travel to Florence for the most important trade fair, Pitti Uomo, with special events, fashion shows and more taking over the streets.
Related itineraries & museums
The fashion gallery at the Palazzo Pitti museum in Florence is certainly a good start, not only because of its impressive collection but also because it was here that the first Italian fashion week took place.
A second stop can be at Palazzo della Mercanzia, in piazza della Signoria, where one can find the Gucci Garden Galleria exhibition rooms curated by critic Maria Luisa Frisa.
The Ferragamo museum couldn’t be excluded from this list, its vast collection is constantly updated with temporary exhibitions and multimedia displays which are both entertaining and informative.
Lastly, the Capucci foundation pays homage to visionary designer Roberto Capucci, also from Florence, featuring many of his futuristic garments.
Shopping in Florence
Indulging in shopping it’s easy in Florence, with such a vast choice. From handicraft shops to high-end boutiques, it’s hard to resist the temptation. Via Tornabuoni, via dei Calzaiuoli, via Roma, via de’ Sassetti, Piazza Roma, as well as Lungarno Corsini, are all lined with boutiques and jewellery shops.
Designer outlets near Florence
Those looking for the real deal (pun intended!) may want to set aside some time to visit the numerous outlet malls in Tuscany. The Mall in Leccio, just outside of Florence has a great selection of high-end brands including Armani, Fendi, Valentino and Versace. Valdichiana Outlet Village, closer to Cortona, is also a great destination for outlet shopping, including brands such as Nike, Liu Jo and Tommy Hilfiger. There are also several factory outlets, some of which you can find listed here.
Spotlight on Umbria
Tuscany’s neighbor isn’t far behind when it comes to fashion. Luisa Spagnoli, one of the most important names in Italy when it comes to pret-a-porter, was born in Perugia. She definitely had a knack for business, having created Italy’s most recognized chocolate brand, Perugina and shortly before her death set out to revolutionise fashion as well. It was her legacy, which her son Mario continued and built into an empire. This brand’s creations got the attention of many celebrities, including Kate Middleton.
Later in the 20th century, another local entrepreneur gained international acclaim for his garments, Brunello Cucinelli, whose ethical and sustainable business is as fine as his cashmere. He restored the entire town his wife grew up in and offered incredible perks to workers in an effort to re-populate this beautiful village. For the luckiest employees, perks mean an arcadian view from their desks in Solomeo’s frescoed 14th-century defensive castle. For everyone, there’s the subsidized price of a three-course meal, which is $3.80 and cooked by the village nonnas. The pasta is often handmade, the meat wood-grilled, the desserts handmade. There are now several boutiques worldwide and this brand’s growth doesn’t seem to quiver. Bocconi University, in Milan, teaches his business model, with its emphasis on social responsibility, and Brunello himself has lectured on it at Harvard, MIT, and Boston College.
Related itineraries & museums
A newly opened Luisa Spagnoli museum, located Perugia (advance booking is essential), assembles garments, sketches and more archival items from the brand. A short drive from Perugia, the town of Solomeo, the headquarters of Brunello Cucinelli can also be visited freely. During summertime, the open-air theater is the location for many concerts and a nine-day, village-wide medieval street fair is held every July. During the rest of the year, one can indulge in shopping the latest collection at 30% less than retail price as well as sample Umbrian cuisine at the restaurant.