Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in Milan with Christopher Kane

The young British designer tells Avril Groom why this chic city has become a much-loved second home.

September 19 2009
Avril Groom

“I love coming to Milan two or three times a month with my work for Versus, and for quite long periods around Fashion Week. I’ve been doing it for several years because I was lucky enough to get a consultancy with Donatella Versace as my first job. I love everything about the place: the people, the food (especially), the architecture, obviously the fashion and the high-glamour style. Not to mention the shopping – the unique mix of designer brands and interiors shops, such as Kartell or Understate, is a combination that stops me in my tracks. And when you’ve finished, there always seems to be a taxi waiting for you, which is not the case in many cities.

For a luxurious weekend there is nowhere better than the Principe di Savoia hotel, which is where I often stay. It’s old-world, opulent Italian style; very decadent. Every room is different but all of them have OTT marble bathrooms, which I love. It could seem grand yet the staff are lovely and welcoming. When I arrive, after the hassle of the journey, I head first to the spa for a deep-muscle massage, which is also what I like to do after a hard day.

In the evening, the bar is fashion central, and all the models, designers and stylists in town gather there, especially during Fashion Week. Recently, David Beckham walked in and the entire bar seemed to be under his spell. When I’ve had enough I escape to my room discreetly.

My other favourite is the Grand Hotel et de Milan, which is perfectly positioned for shopping the Golden Triangle, the area around Via Montenapoleone. It’s handy for the Versus office, so I get to sleep in that extra half hour and can walk to work. After a long day it’s easiest just to eat in the Grand’s restaurant, the Don Carlos, which serves elegant food and attracts a high-profile crowd. I like the sense that one day I’m sitting near a top politician and the next an Italian pop star. I never know who they are until someone tells me, which makes it all the more fun. And right next door to the hotel is a wonderful jewellery boutique, Pennisi, which is full of precious vintage jewels dating back to the 19th century, all unique pieces. It’s very different from all the big names on Via Montenapoleone.

For some people, shopping is the be-all and end-all of Milan, and even if you’re not buying, window-gazing and just watching the style of the passers-by is an entertainment. This is a city in which people get dressed up to go shopping. The central area has all the big brands and the bourgeois reputation, but a city with so many young people working in the fashion industry inevitably has an edge too.

I especially love the Corso Como area, which has evolved around Carla Sozzani’s wonderful 10 Corso Como. It is a legendary one-stop shop, restaurant and gallery which houses all of the coolest names in fashion. I have been lucky enough to be stocked there since my first collection. The concept has since been copied all over the world but no one does it better than Carla. I really like the interior by Kris Ruhs, with its signature swirls and amazing wrought ironwork, and eating there in the courtyard, little birds land on your table in what I call a “Disney moment”. The bookshop is incredible, all hand-picked by Carla. For me, it’s the one shop with everything you need under one roof. That said, I’m also very fond of Biffi, the designer shop that kick-started another up-and-coming area, towards Porta Genova. It has a very considered buying process and selects some of the hottest names.

If you are in this area at lunchtime or late in the day, carry on until you come to the very dreary-looking Porta Genova station – don’t be put off – and just by it is one of my favourite restaurants, La Scaletta. It’s cool and modern-looking, and does traditional Lombardy cooking in new ways. I love the spaghetti with black olives and caramelised tomatoes, and the saffron ice cream. It also has a pretty garden area so you can eat outside. If you’re shopping in the Golden Triangle, it’s still hard to beat Paper Moon for lunch. It has some of the freshest-ingredient pizzas ever and also classics such as ossobuco, plus glam black-and-white photographs of Hollywood stars and a lot of fashion insiders.

At the end of the day, when you’ve had enough of shopping, cool off in the big Giardini Publicci at the end of Via Manzoni. I get away from all the fashion madness by watching people walk their dogs, and it’s very quiet for a city centre – you can hardly hear traffic. Beyond it, in the coolly rising Buenos Aires district, are two of my favourite cocktail bars for a well-earned drink. Blanco, like its name, is all white and very elegant in a minimalist way and Mono is a 1960s retro and punk bar. It has a huge collection of vinyl 45s and later at night plays indie and electro music, and is a hit with the fashion and film-making gang.

But back to grand Milan. The opera at La Scala is a must (book in advance). It’s a very emotional and dramatic experience, and it gives you a real feel of the history of Milan. Most wealthy local families have boxes, which get passed down the generations, and they come at least once a month. Then there’s the fabulous setting, the dressing up and the costumes. I don’t understand Italian but the singing is magical – you really get consumed and start to appreciate the history and tradition.

After that, dinner has to be somewhere elegant, such as Don Carlos, but later, for a completely different experience, you could try one of the dress-up clubs that a fashion city such as Milan always spawns. Pink is Punk is a crazy night at the big Magazzini Generali club, which some say is the successor to Boombox in London, but this is more designer-label oriented, of course. Then there’s Glitter, a mixed-crowd Saturday-night event – it has the best dancing – at HD, which is otherwise a gay club, and Sunday night’s Match à Paris at Plastic starts and ends seriously late.

Milan has its cultural favourites but I like the less obvious sights. On Sundays I always try to take a wander round the Triennale Design Museum, where you see the city’s amazing interior and product-design heritage and the links between decorative and industrial art. There are always excellent exhibitions. For something different, try the Milan Monumental Cemetery, which has an amazing display of headstones and vaults based on Roman, Byzantine and Gothic styles. Some of the statuary is surprisingly sensual, and it’s a very peaceful place to wander round or just sit down and read a book. It’s not scary in the slightest.

My favourite Sunday wander is in the Navigli (canal) area, especially in summer when the Estate sui Navigli festival takes place and the place is alive with open-air art, poetry readings and music from classical to jazz and folk. There’s even a stage on the canal that they move around for performances. The canals are best known for the antiques markets (on the last Sunday of the month, except in July). There’s a flea-market culture in London, so I feel very at home among the 440 stalls, finding little treasures among the junk. Every weekend there’s a bric-a-brac market at Porta Genova too.

The Navigli area is also the best area for hanging out in bars, enjoying an aperitivo and watching how the cool kids dress. There’s a huge variety of cafés, from El Brellin, which is historic and elegant, to the Caffè Viarenna, which has great snacks with the drinks. For lunch or dinner you can drift on to another favourite of mine, La Voliera near Porta Romana. It is traditional yet modern and very few of the chairs match, but they’re all very pretty. The chef gets most ingredients from the local market and the lunchtime salad is good, as is the special version of tiramisu. A great meal and a walk round the Navigli area make a frenetic city like Milan seem very relaxed.”

See also

People