Sometimes a song is enough to inspire a retail project. The expansion of the Milan cult store L’Arabesque — replete with a café-restaurant — was triggered by owner Chichi Meroni’s passion for the late singer and composer Lucio Battisti and, in particular, his words “sitting in that cafe, I wasn’t thinking about you.” Meroni quotes the verse from one of her favorite Battisti songs, “September 29,” which coincidentally marked the opening date of the first version of L’Arabesque back in 2010.
However artistic Meroni appears to be, she is also an entrepreneur who knows what her customers are looking for: thorough product research. “Discovering that each object — from a Twenties bijoux to an ostrich feather boa — was researched. Each object has a story and the retailer tells it,” said Meroni during a walk-through of the store, which is located in Milan’s Largo Augusto, a few steps from the luxury design and furniture stores that line Via Durini and the central shopping thoroughfare in Piazza San Babila. And, to be sure, L’Arabesque combines apparel and design — as an extension of those two locations.
The 5,381-square-foot store is nestled under the arches of a 1961 stately building designed by architects Luigi Figini and Gino Pollini and is run by Meroni, whose passion for fashion is contagious. Her goal is to offer an immersive experience at L’Arabesque. Her store, she believes, responds to the changes in consumer behavior. “The Nineties were more dedicated to consumerism, now it’s a bit less [like that]. I believe this is an emotional shift,” she said, noting that her customers seem to have rediscovered quality over quantity.
The store takes up an entire block and is divided into four sections, each offering a different product category: women’s wear; men’s wear; design objects and furniture such as lamps and sofas, and the restaurant. “I want to keep a fil rouge that never discontinues, to keep a focus on every choice that I make, on every piece included in this space,” observed Meroni of the narrative connecting the products.
The women’s area includes a selection of the label designed by Meroni. Under the same moniker, the L’Arabesque brand offers two collections a year, mixing little black dresses, shirts in classic colors such as navy, white and black, as well as a modern reinterpretation of vintage gear. This is in fact one of Meroni’s strongest passions, deriving from her fondness for memory. “This gave an imprinting to my whole life. It’s part of what I saw during my youth and adolescence, that has remained, things that I loved back then and still love now,” she said.
In fact, in addition to the L’Arabesque brand products, the store also offers some vintage items including jewelry from the Twenties to the Seventies and the minaudières from the Thirties. The bags tell a story, she said, because “ladies couldn’t even put their keys in [them] since those were kept by their husbands or their doors would be opened by a doorman — something that doesn’t happen today,” she giggled.
The store also displays selected new products such as the Opéra National de Paris ballet flats and Robert Clergerie shoes, to name a few.
Exploring the store with its owner gives the space a more precise resonance. The men’s shop, L’Arabesque Pour Homme, is injected with Far East inspirations; Asian tapestry covers the walls featuring Japanese ideograms. Inside, a selection of men’s wear staples including Tricker’s and Rivolta shoes, vintage Hermès ties from the Sixties and enameled cufflinks are juxtaposed to the in-house men’s collection, completed with a hint of other brands’ apparel including Drumohr cashmere crewnecks.
Produced by in-house tailors, both the L’Arabesque women’s and men’s ready-to-wear collections are available exclusively in the store and Meroni is not considering selling online for the time being. “Personally, it’s hard for me to buy a pair of shoes online, for example. Maybe we’ll get to that point — it’s the nature of time to change things and evolve. After all, my own adjusting to things is not that important, I have to follow the customers’ adjustments,” she remarked. On the contrary, offering a bespoke or “Prêt-à-couture” service is core, something that is “extinct or at least not so approachable,” added Meroni, who offers a made-to-measure experience, as well.
The store’s Design Gallery is part showroom, part selling space that offers vintage furniture pieces from the Fifties and Sixties. A couple of peacock-blue velvet chairs by Robin Day stand out against the grayish, carpeted floor. They match a wooden tea table.
Among the latest installments is the Librairie, or bookstore, which reflects another of the owner’s passion, as she is also an avid book reader and collector. Accordingly, she included a corner where magazines and books are displayed as if they were in a private home library. It also includes a selection of rare, out-of-print titles.
The same space also houses L’Arabesque Café and Restaurant. “It was conceived thinking about a customer who comes here quite often and likes to find a cuisine he knows and loves, with high-quality ingredients,” declared Meroni who published the book “C’era una volta a tavola” [“Once upon a time at the dining table”] in 1999. L’Arabesque Café and Restaurant’s menu delivers typical Italian dishes reinvented such as a hazelnut, mushrooms and coffee risotto or rack of lamb in a herb crust with foie gras. While not disclosing sales figures, the owner stressed the importance of the restaurant as a significant booster in revenues.
“Our customers are usually very loyal, we rarely lose them,” said Meroni, pointing to the effectiveness of the experience at the store. “They like to stay at the restaurant, to come to the bookshop, where our expert bookseller pays them special attention,“ pointed out Meroni.
While Italian customers account for around 60 percent of the total, during the city’s events such as Salone del Mobile or Fashion Week, foreign customers grow in number, “because they find [L’Arabesque] an unexpected place for Milan,” explained Meroni.
Last September, L’Arabesque opened a second shop in the artsy Brera district. The 645-square-foot space located in Largo Treves 1, mimics the parent store. The shop matches Asian-inspired lacquered pieces and bamboo panels with industrial steel displays. It offers only women’s wear and some furniture items. “The idea is that a person can get in and discover that world and maybe get closer [to the parent store]. Basically it’s to explore another neighborhood of Milan and offer L’Arabesque there, too,” explained Meroni.