THE BUZZ ON MADISON’S ‘ITALIAN MILE’
Byline: Peter Braunstein
NEW YORK — Chicago boasts a “Magnificent Mile” of retail stores lining Michigan Avenue, Manhasset, N.Y. is known to shoppers for its “Miracle Mile,” and if the Italian Trade Commission has its way, a segment of New York’s Madison Avenue may one day be known as “the Italian Mile.”
The reason? According to the Madison Avenue Business Improvement District, Madison Avenue between 57th and 86th Streets now boasts more than 45 Italian-based fashion and accessories retailers collectively occupying more than 350,000 square feet of retail frontage. The retail nexus includes Bottega Veneta, Bulgari, Dolce & Gabbana, Emilio Pucci, Krizia, La Perla, Luca Luca, Malo, Missoni, Moschino, Prada and Versace, to name only a few.
Sergio La Verghetta, deputy trade commissioner of the ITC, recounted the gradual process by which Italian fashion and accessories retailers came to dominate Madison Avenue. “I would say that the whole trend started back in the early Eighties, when many Italian companies first tried to make it in America,” said Verghetta. “At that time, Madison was actually more affordable than Fifth Avenue, on through the recession of the early Nineties.” What Verghetta called the “second wave” of Italian influx into Madison began in 1993, kicked off by the opening of Barneys New York in September of that year. Seeking to capitalize on the fashionista traffic drawn by Barneys, by 1995, prestige boutiques such as Krizia, Max Mara, Armani and Prada had staked their claim on the avenue.
But is anyone actually calling it “The Italian Mile”? In fact, the term “Italian Mile” does appear in a 1999 coffee-table book titled “Volare: The Icon of Italy in Global Pop Culture.” The photo-driven folio features a pull-out map of “the Italian Mile” that demarcates Italian retail territory as “the stretch of Manhattan between Fiftieth Street and Seventieth Street, along Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue,” as well as “downtown, between Houston Street and West Broadway.” That, however, seems to play fast-and-loose with the concept of “mile” as it’s traditionally defined — i.e. a continuous strip — rather than a few blocks here and a few there. “Maybe we should call it ‘the Mile according to the Italians,”‘ mused Verghetta.
Because of the upscale nature of Madison’s boutiques, the so-called Italian Mile doesn’t evoke comparison to Italy so much as to high-end retail stradas in other world capitals, such as the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore in Paris or the Via Monte Napoleone in Milan. The global brand image of most of the avenue’s stores encourage another title, maybe “the Luxe Mile” or, at the very least, “the Milanese Mile.”
“A lot of customers remark on how Italian the avenue is, and often compare it to Via della Spiga in Milan,” said Alexandra Lapegna, store manager of Les Copains, a six-year-old Italian retail shop on Madison whose name belies its Italian origins. “Sometimes the only way you can tell an Italian business on Madison is by its name, but other stores make more of an effort to preserve an Italian mentality. For instance, Les Copains is Bolognese, which is reflected in the fact that we are more down-to-earth than some of the other retailers and have a more relaxed environment.”
Davide Cenci, whose apparel shop Davide Cenci has been on Madison since 1982, believes that keeping Madison both Italian and global is a delicate balancing act. “Most of the Italian boutiques on Madison represent global brands, and the Landmark Commission is keen on keeping the look of the storefronts consistent, but it is still definitely an Italian Mile — although the French consul would probably not agree with me,” said Cenci. “It is a challenge to us to maintain our Italian heritage, but it’s in our blood, you don’t lose it. What distinguishes an Italian product is its elegance and intrinsic design. It has a certain flair. And you don’t lose that, regardless of whether the store happens to be in Paris, Tokyo or on Madison Avenue.”
As the owner of a smaller company with a dedicated following, Cenci credited the ITC with giving lesser-known Italian retailers a fighting chance. “It’s not easy making it on Madison — every time a smaller retailer goes out of business, they raise the rent,” he said. “The Italian Trade Commission, specifically through their Moda Made in Italy campaign, helped create consumer awareness of Italian fashion, wine, design. They helped small companies enter and survive in this highly competitive neighborhood.”
Launched in the U.S. and Japan in 1993 to heighten consumer and retail awareness of Italian textiles, menswear, womenswear, footwear and leather goods, the ITC’s “Moda Made in Italy” campaign has generally helped increase business opportunities for Italian companies throughout the U.S. According to the Department of Commerce, U.S. imports of Italian fashion goods — including textiles, apparel, leather accessories and shoes — have increased from $2.9 billion in 1994 to $4.3 billion in 2000.
“Twenty years ago, you didn’t have Italian stores, you had private labels sold through non-Italian stores,” said Verghetta. “Now, there is a bigger commitment among Italian companies to stake their own claim here in the United States, which is a major part of the modern Italian entrepreneurial vision.” Symbolically, the ITC’s influence on the development of the Italian Mile is reinforced by its new choice of location: it recently moved its New York headquarters to 33 East 67th Street, just off Madison.
Other retailers point out that the gentility and upscale feel of the Italian Mile is enhanced by the fact that rival Fifth Avenue has, in recent years, been attracting a different type of customer. “On Fifth you get a lot of tourists, while here on Madison you get the serious fashion shopper,” said Heidi Meissner, store manager of Krizia, whose flagship is located on Madison. “It’s a more sophisticated, educated crowd.”