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MILAN — The newly remodeled 19th-century palazzo that houses Valextra’s headquarters and store is proof that the upscale brand’s turnaround that began in 2003 is starting to take off.

Housed in a five-story palazzo on Via Manzoni, a tram stop from La Scala, the 23,330-square-foot space is a matter of pride for Massimo Suppancig, Valextra’s chief executive officer, who braved Milan’s August heat to supervise the work.

“To me, this building sums up the concept of a maison, an accessories house and lifestyle,” Suppancig said as workers scrambled to and fro adding the finishing touches to the store, which opened Monday. “It represents the products’ ever-green design and workmanship. It is sober but not sad, simple but warm and the expression of Italian style and luxury.”

Founded in 1937 by Giovanni Fontana, Valextra in its heyday in the Sixties and Seventies contended with Gucci for A-list clients such as Maria Callas, Grace Kelly, Jacqueline Kennedy and Gianni Agnelli, who coveted its luxurious, made-to-order travel suitcases and handbags. Emanuele Carminati Molina, Valextra’s majority shareholder through its holding company, Carfin, acquired the Via Manzoni building, formerly the base of the Banco de Italia y Rio de la Plata, in 2000.

Valextra’s new headquarters includes offices, an airy showroom with an 865-square-foot teak paneled terrace, the design studios and a 5,400-square-foot store that carries the brand’s bags, bundles of ties printed in 140 different motifs, wispy silk scarves, crocheted and leather gloves and a plethora of small leather goods.

As next spring’s collection arrives, the store will make room for Valextra’s newest project: seven styles of handcrafted shoes, from two-tone ballerinas to high-heeled slingbacks, priced at about $480 retail.

The store, which cost $3.6 million to build, is expected to have sales of about $4.8 million in its first year.

Designed by architect Pierluigi Cerri, the store reflects Valextra’s less-is-more philosophy. The renovation also returned the building’s original facade to its erstwhile neoclassical splendor, including limestone contours, pink granite columns and white Apuan marble lunettes. To convey a sense of intimacy, the storefront features five small windows that look out onto the cobblestoned Via Manzoni.

This story first appeared in the September 9, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“We want people to discover the products gradually and intimately,” explained Suppancig.

Inside, that concept is represented by a central flagstone aisle that branches out in a succession of tiny portals and rooms, replete with Valextra’s candy-colored products. Cerri made changes to the previous structure by turning the old marble-framed, steel bank vault into a hallway with annexed VIP rooms, where customized orders are taken. Suppancig likes to compare the layout to a Renaissance village center.

But what at first glance looks like a no-frills, linear environment is instead a lesson in behind-the-scenes intricacy, quality materials and firm attention to detail. All these elements are intrinsic to the bags, which are in the works for a year each since they are made by hand by artisans in Valextra’s facilities in Capriate, Italy.

Proof of the obsession with detail are the crystal showcases that delineate each area and are crafted to give the optical illusion that the bags shelved inside are afloat. There also are counters of monolithic, hand-etched blocks of desert stone from Portugal with pear wood fixtures.

“We want the product to speak and to do so in a environment that won’t be outmoded any time soon,” Suppancig said.

Suppancig, a fashion veteran whose résumé includes top jobs at Escada and Hugo Boss, acquired a stake in Valextra in June 2003 and began the program of restoring the company to its former glory.

“We are looking at the company’s historical tradition and quality craftsmanship, while adding modern and practical touches,” said Suppancig at the time.

His strategy is to have Valextra focus on timeless items rather than trendier products, designed by an in-house team. “This company has built its reputation on handcrafted, nonseasonal leather accessories in classic style and is renowned for sleek shapes, functionality and impeccable, long-lasting quality — this is what we want Valextra to be about. Real luxury is timeless,” said Suppancig when he became ceo.

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