Often derided as Rome’s ugly sister, Milan is getting a facelift equal to its fashionable reputation.

The city may lack crumbling ruins and scenic vistas the Italian capital boasts, but it is experiencing an urban renaissance, partly inspired by its recent winning bid to host the Expo world’s fair in 2015.

There’s no doubting the importance of fashion to Milan. Italy’s fashion powerhouses — Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Ferré, Missoni and Versace — are all headquartered here, in an industry boasting income of 6.6 billion euros ($9.6 billion at current exchange) and 22,500 employees last year.

“Milan is a small city but integral to the fashion industry. Italian fashion is the bread and butter of the industry,” observed Mario Boselli, president of the Italian Chamber of Fashion.

Fashion is the fulcrum of Milan’s vibrant trade-show calendar as well, featuring the biannual textile fair Unica, Micam shoe fair and Mipel leather goods expo, and the four-day annual eyewear event Mido, which kicks off on May 9. Next year Micam, Mipel and Mido will be held the same week in March, with the trio expected to attract 100,000 visitors.

“By anticipating the dates, we are further linking eyewear and the fashion system,” said Dan Emanuele Levi, vice president of Anfao, organizer of Mido. Unica will move to new fairgrounds Rho in 2009, where the other trade shows are held, and a fast train connecting the Rho fairgrounds to Malpensa airport is under construction. Another key attraction is Milan’s design week in April, which nets 300,000 visitors.

New architectural works in progress include development of the old fairgrounds site east of Milan’s center. Dubbed CityLife, the area will have a trio of skyscrapers designed by Zaha Hadid, Arata Isozaki and Daniel Libeskind. The 40 million euro ($58.5 million) project, expected to finish in 2012, features a new museum of contemporary art, also designed by Libeskind.

In the same neighborhood and near Corso Como, home to multibrand boutique 10 Corso Como, the much-anticipated Città Della Moda is expected to open by 2011. The “Fashion City” complex of showrooms, educational facilities, catwalk spaces and stores is primarily aimed to foster Italy’s young up-and-coming fashion designers.

This story first appeared in the May 1, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Not surprisingly, Milan is Italy’s shopping mecca, too. Spearheading the city’s retail panorama is the fabled “Golden Triangle,” three streets — Via Montenapoleone, Via Della Spiga and Via Sant’Andrea — packed with luxury boutiques.

According to Mark Lee, Gucci’s chief executive officer, its 18,000-square-foot store on Via Montenapoleone is among its top three owned and operated stores in terms of revenues.

“Milan is a long-standing successful location for Gucci,” said Lee. The Florence-based brand has another two stores in the city, “making Milan one of the most important cities in the world for Gucci.”

Other retailers in the city are revamping. Italy’s historic luxury department store La Rinascente spruced up its flagship opposite the Duomo in 2006; upgraded its merchandise to include brands like Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Gucci and Bulgari, and recently added a food emporium on the top floor. “Tourists are responding very well — it’s natural for them to shop in a city’s department store and find these brands — but so are the Milanese customers,” said Vittorio Radice, ceo of La Rinascente.

This year, another Italian department store chain, Coin, overhauled its Milan flagship, and its glass exterior twinkles with LED lights and a video wall, and design pieces by Jasper Morrison and Arne Jacobsen decorate some of its nine new-look floors.

Counterbalancing the luxury offerings, Hennes & Mauritz and Zara are rapidly multiplying in Milan’s prime central retail spaces.

Last month, H&M redesigned the interior of its first Italian store in Milan’s Piazza San Babila, opened in 2003. The brighter space sports playful illustrations on the walls. In the same week, the Swedish fast-fashion chain opened another 14,000-square-foot centrally located Milanese store. “We’ve filled a gap in terms of price point here,” said Margareta Van Den Bosch, creative advisor of H&M, adding the San Babila location carried H&M’s “trend concept” — exclusively selling fashion-focused smaller lines. “We definitely want to expand in Milan, it’s a fashion-centric city so it’s a good way to gauge our success.”

While Milan’s center carries retail clout, a Goliath 1.9 billion euro ($2.8 billion) project by private Italian firm Risanamento to build a second city, dubbed Milano Santa Giulia, on the site of a former steel mill southeast of the center is attracting big names. Architect Lord Norman Foster planned the city, expected to open in 2012. Apart from office and residential buildings, there will be 1 million square feet of retail space, including a 5,000-foot promenade of restaurants and shops, including La Rinascente and Zara.

A piazza connected to the promenade, reportedly codesigned by Jean Nouvel, will be home to 60 luxury shops. Dolce & Gabbana will occupy two stores. Dino Bottari, retail director of the project, divulged three high-end French ready-to-wear brands and a five-star hotel recently signed leases in the square. “This will be a new frontier for shopping in Milan,” said Bottari.

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