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A City of Many Hats

Bologna's reputation for hosting some of Europe's biggest trade fairs is equaled perhaps by its fame for education, the arts and, of course, tortellini.

Bologna’s reputation for hosting some of Europe’s biggest trade fairs is equaled perhaps by its fame for education, the arts and, of course, tortellini.

The celebrated four-day beauty fair Cosmoprof kicks off today, part of trade show organizer BolognaFiere’s 30-event calendar, which features some of Europe’s biggest shows. These include the automotive industry’s Bologna Motor Show and leather fair Lineapelle, as well as expositions in the health care, technology, building materials and machinery industries, among others.

The organizer recently announced its collaboration with Prêt à Porter Paris to bring Link, a Parisian trade show of 80 high-end women’s and men’s wear firms, to Bologna June 19 to 22.

“Bologna accepted Link with enthusiasm,” said Massimiliano Bizzi, president of M.Seventy, Link’s organizer. “It’s a city that has the energy and creativity to support this type of trade show.”

Unlike some of the nation’s other traffic- and tourist-clogged cities, this postcard-pretty medieval town is framed with 25 miles of elegant porticos and can be crossed on foot in half an hour.

Ranked as Italy’s seventh-largest city behind Rome, Milan, Naples, Turin, Palermo and Genoa, Bologna’s population is less than 400,000, but the surrounding province claims one million people, including 95,000 students. The University of Bologna was founded in 1088, was probably the first university in the Western world and crowned the city “La Dotta,” or “The Learned One.”

The city also has a worldwide rep for food. After all, “La Grassa” (“The Fat One,” another of its nicknames) is the birthplace of the rich, meaty Bolognese sauce called ragù that’s served with yellow ribbons of tagliatelle pasta; tortellini in brodo, small meat-stuffed pasta in a clear broth; mortadella ham, and sweet Bolognese ravioli, a version of a soft madeleine cake, traditionally filled with a tart apple and sultana jam.

Many of Bologna’s residents are well-heeled upper-middle class, with summer homes on the Adriatic coast and countryside winter residences. While the student population nurtures the city’s creativity, it includes a seedy backdrop of drug dealers and street drinkers.

“This part of Bologna has dragged down the city’s economic reality,” claimed Elena Molignoni, senior researcher for Nomisma, a research firm founded by Italian ex-president Romano Prodi that follows the city’s retail, economic and cultural trends.

“Bologna is actually a wealthy city. Families here have money and follow the Italian postwar model of working hard and saving,” she added.

But well-off Bolognese aren’t immune to the crisis eroding Italy’s economy, argued Adriano Aere, president of Centergross, a trading district of 650 fashion, pharmaceutical and electrical companies in the Bologna area.

“Families are beginning to have problems buying. Spending potential has dropped because taxes and mortgage interest rates have increased and [because of] the spill-off effect of the dollar,” he contended. Uncertainty plagues Bologna’s real estate market as well, with housing prices and rents as high as in Milan and Rome.

Still, the city council, led by Mayor Sergio Cofferati, is striving to enrich Bologna’s culture-savvy image to keep business and tourist dollars flowing in. The council aims to inject a shot of modernity lacking in many other medium-size Italian cities by investing in transit, the arts and infrastructure.

“Bologna is abundant in the arts, but also technology, fashion and innovative retail,” said Maria Cristina Santandrea, councilor for commerce, tourism and marketing.

The council donated several million euros to Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna, or Mambo, which opened last May. Housed in a former bread factory, the modern stone and iron structure features works by contemporary Italian artists, and has gleaned comparisons with London’s Tate Modern. Mambo’s location in the city’s northwest corner sparked a flurry of gallery openings and is home to art house and film archive Cineteca. A park next to Mambo will open in early summer, updating the industrial quarter once occupied by salt and tobacco factories.

To rejuvenate the center’s grittier student zones, the council plans an investment of 120 million euros, or $175 million at current exchange, to shift the student population to new campuses and housing in areas outside the city within a decade.

Public transportation also is under renovation. A new high- speed train platform is being built at the central station, while Civis, a metro-tram line connecting to the fairgrounds as well as to outer suburbs, should be completed by 2011.

It is hoped transport improvements will alleviate pressures of ferrying the million visitors who annually attend the city’s international trade shows.

Bologna’s retail landscape features a mix of high-end luxury stores such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Giorgio Armani, Bulgari and Dolce & Gabbana coexisting with fast-fashion heavyweights like Hennes & Mauritz, Mango and Zara, and niche, specialty boutiques.

Santandrea admitted the city has had a high turnover of small, independent stores in the past few years, largely due to economic jitters.

“There have been slightly more openings than closures,” she said, “but some of these types of shops have proved they can hold their own against bigger retail stores.”

Keeping niche retailers buoyant is the city’s eclectic fashion sensibility, reckoned Federico Marchetti, who founded e-commerce fashion site Yoox in Bologna in 2000. “On one side, the style here is really bourgeois, but then you’ll see some really avant-garde-dressed young art students walking down the street who look amazing.”

For its part, BolognaFiere is honing its logistical setup and in the fall will open parking for 7,500 cars and a new 215,000-square-foot pavilion, raising exhibition space to just more than 1 million square feet.

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