Monday, March 04, 2024|
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FLORENCE, Italy — The small, tan taxi hurtled down a Florentine side street too narrow for baton twirling. My driver sliced over the Arno River on one of the city’s short stone bridges, arriving quickly below the Fortezza da Basso — a 14th century fortress spliced into the former city walls and now looming over the opposite bank like a hibernating bear blocking the road.
Above the tall Gothic arch at the entrance, a large Italian flag pirouetted in the winter breeze. An oversized, white-faced clock within said PITTI in black letters. This was Pitti Uomo, the semiannual fashion trade show that is almost as much theater as it is business.
Menswear brands, both famous and emerging, take booths in spreading pavilions or in freestanding glass houses in the courtyard. They serve espresso, Prosecco and treats, and otherwise work to lure buyers from retailers around the world. The keynote is luxury, but variety is the byword, with booths selling everything from new trends in athleisure to masterwork examples of the not-yet-dead necktie and business suit. As a German myself, I was proud of the Neudeutsch (New German) “special project”: a pavilion in which noteworthy young German brands were given the chance to showcase themselves.
The theatrical bit comes from the fact that Pitti Uomo is perhaps the largest gathering of the world’s best-dressed men. In an age when a man can feel he has overdone it with a collared shirt and new sneakers, here was a small city (of 20,000 attendees) populated with men in handmade suits, bicolored leather shoes and long, regal overcoats. Many are elegant, some are downright flamboyant, but all are consciously aware that they are there as much to be seen as to see.
I had access to the secluded press room, where journalists worked at long tables with the collective intensity of the NASA control center crew during a launch. Everyone at Pitti, however, becomes part of the show, and I was no exception. Paparazzi popped off at us like snipers, which I had not expected. In the Borsalino hat I had purchased in Rome, a bespoke blue Henry Poole three-piece suit, my tan Knot Standard overcoat and an assemblage from my collection of Ferragamo shoes and accessories, I had unintentionally made myself fair game. It was a strange turnabout – the journalist come to do his job made the object of the reporting by others. As a photographer, I also had to ask myself: Are we really that intrusive?
Florence is one of those European cities that is small in size but enormous in importance. It is the birthplace of the Renaissance, that reflowering of the glory of Western Civilization after a millennium of troubled quiescence. I often say that art follows commerce; Florence brought on the Renaissance in large measure by reinventing European trade and finance. This may be a beautiful place, but it is often overlooked that, to this day, if you want to know how to run a business, ask a Florentine.
Florence has as many major works by Old Masters as other Italian cities have types of pasta. And throughout Italy, an expansive definition of art includes the applied arts. As a devoted museum goer, it was therefore natural that I visited not just the Uffizi Gallery (for Leonardi da Vinci paintings) and the Galleria dell’Accadamia (for Michelangelo sculptures) but the Museo Ferragamo, which had recently opened an exhibition about the personal history and masterworks of its founder, the shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo. As the exhibition shows, genius operates by its own rules. While still in his teens, and with World War I causing much damage and heartache in Italy, Ferragamo arrived alone in the U.S. He brought talent, determination and a net worth of perhaps $5. He soon grew wealthy making shoes for movie stars and studios. He enrolled as an evening student at the University of California, Los Angeles, to study the anatomy of the foot, changing the trade forever by discovering that, for both comfort and good podiatry, shoes must be constructed to maximize support at the arch.
After an auto accident in which he lost a brother, he invented the traction machine that saved his badly injured leg.
He returned to Italy in 1927. Settling in Florence, he eventually bought the Palazzo Spini Feroni, the most magnificent palace in the area, which the Ferragamo company (now publicly traded) still owns and which serves as home to the museum. The exhibition is a homage to inventiveness. Ferragamo could make elegant shoes with uppers formed of fishing wire or with wine corks for heels. When materials were short during World War II, he worked paper to stand in for leather.
Given that I was now hobbling around Florence on a foot injury caused by poorly made cowboy boots I had strangely bought in Texas, I was grateful that, for Pitti, I had packed only comfortable Ferragamos.
FUN AND LUXE
Whenever I’m in Florence, I prefer to stay at one of the luxury hotels on its rim, with the low, articulated panorama of the city on one side and the lush and hilly Tuscan countryside on the other. There are many good choices but, as in Rome days before, I arrived as an unrepentant loyalty-point mooch. I used my membership in the Leaders Club of the Leading Hotels of the World to snag a serious upgrade at the Villa Cora. It is really that — a former private villa of a financier. Below the windows of my suite, steam rose into the winter mornings from an azure, heated pool.
At the gourmet Restaurant Le Bistrot, the chef improvised an off-the-menu spaghetti dish to satisfy my now-daily pasta craving. It took three days for me to figure out the spa lighting and numerous showerheads in my Carrera marble bathroom. (I know, I could have asked, but that would have been cheating.) I extended my stay by one night, then another, only to leave when told that the hotel was closing the day after next for its annual one-month hiatus.
Feel free to experience a city as old and complex as Florence in multiple and even contradictory ways. On the Ponte Vecchio, the medieval shop-lined bridge that is one of the postcard sights of Italy, commerce and the applied arts mixed as I bought gifts at one of the small jewelry stores that line both sides of the central walkway. At the Galleria dell’Accadamia, Michelangelo’s colossal male nude of the biblical hero David rises with insouciant majesty under the central dome. As surely happens regularly with this famous masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture, a young American woman giddily raised her hand in a cupping motion while a friend photographed her on a phone; the finished image would be an optical illusion of the woman grabbing the slingshot-bearing warrior by his circumcised personal best.
Few seemed to notice that four unfinished Michelangelo statues from the series known as the Slaves or Prisoners were lining the nave-like entry of the same gallery.
That illustrates why here, as in so many other cities, the best way to see a place about which you know something is to stop, breathe, look around and then seek out something you knew nothing about at all.
I come from New Orleans, which knows how to have fun, and I live in New York City, which knows how to do business. Florence was a reminder that you really can splice that together if you make the effort; that style, elegance and grace are truly timeless; and that the grounding point for the essential reinvigoration of Western Civilization is a treasure for all the world to visit and to savor.
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