Impressions from Italy, a crucible of change


Impressions from Italy, a crucible of change

ANNELIESE BURGESS and LAUREEN ROSSOUW report from the world's fashion capital — a canarino in the coalmine for the profound changes taking place in Europe (and the world).


NUMBER 10 Corso Como is a concept store and gallery in Milan. It was opened 24 years ago by Carla Sozzani, a prominent figure in the fashion industry who edited Italian Vogue's special editions before becoming the editor-at-large of American Vogue and the editor of Italian Elle

For Laureen, a stylist and former editor of Elle Decoration, it has always been her first stop on regular pilgrimages to the city she calls “her university" because it is the place where she can feel the pulse of developing international trends, the place where ideas are born that will filter into the rest of the world.

“10 Corso Como has always been a place where I can see a snapshot of what is happening in the world."

I wanted to go to Milan with Laureen. It is home to some of the world's leading design brands, including Armani, Prada, Versace, Moschino, Valentino and Zegna. This gritty, industrialised northern Italian city is also known for its architecture and industrial design. It hosts Salone del Mobile — the world's largest and most prestigious furniture and design fair. It is a place of ideas, a hub of modernity.

I wanted to learn from Laureen, see the design through her eyes and immerse myself in a world I know little about. She said 10 Corso Como was the place to start.

It is an extraordinary space. You enter a plant-covered garden cafe. To the left is a gallery with some of the biggest names in international fashion. The presentation is minimalist. There is a perfumery. Sneakers, shoes, furniture.

On the first floor is The Project Room, filled with handpicked objects, ceramics and books. It is also an exhibition space, now housing a collection by the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto titled “Letter to the Future".

Shop assistants outnumber customers. They stand around like watchful crows. I feel surveilled and slightly uncomfortable but I put it down to my lack of sophistication in the rarefied world of high fashion. Laureen points out the perfect pleat, an interesting cut, and the sober and restrained silhouettes of the top designers.

We wander through the exquisite architectural Yamamoto exhibit and sit in the courtyard, drinking in the green. But as we return to the metro, Laureen turns to me and says, “Something has changed. I didn't feel as moved as I have been in the past. It's more like a museum with beautiful installations than an active engagement."

It took us a few more days of wandering the city and admiring  landmarks for Laureen to conclude that something had shifted in the landscape of her favourite city and that it was a harbinger of a broader, more global shift.

“It is as if the needs of the public have changed. The way people consume has changed. There is a new type of consumer, and what they feel comfortable with is different."

Sustainable second-hand

We started delving into the city's thriving thrifting and vintage scene, from the cheap and cheerful shops frequented by youngsters to the curated stores with hand-selected collections.

Humana Vintage is a chain selling second-hand clothing across Europe. Its clothes are donated by people who place unwanted garments in yellow collection bins in the streets. There are three outlets in Milan.

We enter a store on a popular shopping street. It is buzzing with locals. You buy clothes by the bag at a fixed price — small, medium or large. 

The shop assistants are young and friendly, a very different vibe from the silent watchfulness of the black-and-white-clad assistants in the galleries of 10 Corso Como. We happen upon the Fiera di Sinigaglia market on the banks of the Pavese Canal in the Navigli district, with more than 400 stalls, most selling vintage clothing. I find a perfectly fitting 100% “Made in Italy" wool jacket.

It is not cheap.

We will conclude that this is the shift — that it's not about buying cheap clothes. In fact, a realisation of the environmental impact of fast fashion has nudged people towards sustainable fashion and conscious consumerism, with more people recognising the necessity of buying used items.

It manifests in buying less and investing in quality and is driven by millennials and Gen Z — the Europeans whose climate change sensors are on red alert.

Fast fashion vs eco-friendly shopping

Dino Longo Sabanovic owns Don't Waste (D.W.), one of Milan's best vintage stores, according to Icon Magazine. The sign on the shopfront says: “Not vint-age. But new-age."

Dino is a film director, actor and model (he tells us of closing a Vivien Westwood show and mentions that his agent is South African). He grew up in the Balkans and his passion for vintage clothing began after the war between Serbia and Croatia when second-hand clothing flooded the region.

D.W. is a beautifully appointed space with salvaged shelves and mid-century light fixtures. Every piece has been handpicked from fleamarkets worldwide, then washed and perfected before being sold in his shop.

A whole section is dedicated to French workwear — chore shirts and trousers dyed in the traditional benzoate-blue to hide marks from manual labour. They are made from high-quality cotton cloth, woven to last. Some items are patched, which may illustrate his philosophy more than anything in his shop. The shop is less about clothing than it is about an idea. “These clothes are a homage to my father," says Dino.

“Reusing and rewearing and reimagining and repurposing clothes that have already been made is as close to zero-carbon as we can come," he says. “It's not a trend. It's the present and it's the future.

Dark side

“Global clothing production has doubled in the past 15 years, and it is estimated that of the 100 billion garments produced each year, 92 million tonnes end up in landfills. This translates into a rubbish truck of clothes going into landfill every second of the day," says Sabanovic.

While there is an increasing commitment to the so-called circular economy in Europe, the thrifting scene has a dark side: charity shipments of used garments from the West to Africa are framed as aid but they are often a way to dump unwanted clothing.

An environmental catastrophe is unfolding as global clothing consumption skyrockets, fuelled by ruthless “fast fashion” brands.

This report, for instance, says 15 million used garments flood Accra, Ghana, every week. Most will be dispersed within the Kantamanto market, West Africa’s biggest second-hand clothing exchange. It is a bustling labyrinth of 5,000 retailers and timber stalls, many overflowing with the West’s unwanted fashion. An estimated 40% of the garments are of such poor quality that they are deemed worthless on arrival and end up in landfills.


Another clear shift in Milan is Europe's changing demographic. One in four residents of the city was born in another country. Egyptians constitute the largest foreign community, followed by Romanians, Filipinos and Peruvians.

Immigration to Italy — and Europe — has increased steadily over the past three decades. In Milan, the first migratory wave from Africa arrived in the 1980s and involved hundreds of young people, especially Senegalese, for whom the term “vu cumprà” (wanna buy) was invented.

War, displacement and poverty have since driven further migratory waves from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Gambia and the Maghreb countries towards Italy. 

Milan is far from Sicily and Lampedusa (a small Italian island between Malta and Tunisia that has become a flashpoint of Europe’s migrant crisis), the main landing grounds for immigrants arriving by boat from Africa. Once on Italian soil, many make their way to the more industrialised northern part of Italy, of which Milan is the epicentre. Lombardy, the region where Milan is the capital, hosts the largest share of immigrants in the country. 

Outside of obtaining legal visas, legislation allows for only one other way to immigrate to Italy — through family reunification — but irregular migration has many different paths. More and more people arrive as tourists and remain illegally; others come by boat or via the Balkan route. There are now 800,000 Albanians living in Europe and more than a million Romanians. In Italy, Romanians are the biggest foreign group, followed by Albanians and Moroccans.

Two years ago, the then deputy mayor of Milan, Lamberto Bertolé, said immigration was no longer an emergency or temporary situation but a “structural phenomenon of our time". 

An alarming aspect to the immigration crisis is the high number of unaccompanied minors, or as Bertolé puts it, “children without parents" arriving in Italy: 47% of the unaccompanied minors in Milan's shelters are Egyptians, some are from Bangladesh, others from north Africa. 

In a footnote, Laureen and I noticed how many tobacconists, a feature of the urban landscape in Italy, as well as the small convenience stores dotted across neighbourhoods (the Italian version of what we would call a corner cafe), are run by foreigners. As in South Africa, many of these owners are of Asian origin.


The magnificent Gothic cathedral, the Duomo, is on Milan's main piazza. The Duomo is flanked by the gorgeous glass-domed Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the city's oldest active shopping arcade.

These extraordinary centuries-old treasures are filled by thick, slow-moving tourist crowds (and flocks of pigeons). The sidewalk cafes are stuffed with people photographing their drinks with their cellphones. There are two KFC outlets. One end of the Galleria (where the oldest coffee shop dates back to 1867) is dominated by a view of McDonald's.

I find the tourist throngs deeply disturbing (and Milan is not a tourist hotspot like Rome or Venice).

We brave the crowds to visit the Prada flagship store in the city centre. I watch in morbid fascination as young people preen, pose and strut, creating “content" for social media against the backdrop of the exquisite shopfront.

Inside the store, with its refined designs, I see a woman in a hijab taking selfies in an ornate mirror. Later that day, a young woman asked me to take pictures of her on the Pavese Canal. I am astounded at the completely unselfconscious show she puts on — kicking her leg, thrusting her hips out, sweeping her hair up and sticking out her tongue (yes, really).

It strikes me that this TikTok tourism is, in essence, the exact opposite of Dino Sabanovic's anti-consumerist philosophy — the movement he says is taking root in Europe. It is a display of crass materialism and performative consumerism.

Tourism is a significant contributor to the Italian economy (it accounts for 10% of GDP and one out of every nine jobs); the country, like many others in Europe, is battered and bruised by the sheer number of visitors cramming the streets of its major cities. 

In 2022, nearly 50 million people visited Italy, a nearly one-for-one match for the population. And 70% of those foreign tourists concentrate on only 1% of the territory — mainly the big cities — making over-tourism an increasingly unmanageable problem.

Italy has started taking steps to manage what one local I spoke to in Bologna calls the “scourge". This pushback against tourists is sharply echoed by a sticker I see on an electricity box in a lane in Bologna's university quarter: “Fuck Tourists. I don't have a home because of you."

Short-term rentals are now heavily regulated all over Italy, including in Florence. To free up housing for locals, new short-term licences have been banned in that city's centre. This could ease overtourism, as people will have fewer places to stay. 

In Venice, tour groups are now capped. Tour leaders are no longer allowed to use loudspeakers and new rules are in place to prevent tourists from thronging bridges to take selfies. Similar measures are being taken across the country in tourism hotspots.

♦ VWB ♦

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