Inside Italy - Behind the Scenes During a Buying Trip at The Helm

Inside Italy - Behind the Scenes During a Buying Trip at The Helm

April 27th, 2020

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Italy is a hotbed for men’s fashion. Between the abundance of wool mills, Pitti Uomo, and Milan Fashion Week, the country is at the top of the list for anyone interested in menswear. 

From the effortlessly chic street style of the locals to the Pitti Peacocks who arrive wearing their flashiest fashion, there’s no shortage of style inspiration in Italy. More than just inspiration though, this is a country that has been producing the best clothing in the world for ages, and it has ties to fashion that go beyond what you might expect.

This past summer we extended our trip a bit to explore some of the areas in Italy that are so central to the brands we carry at The Helm. Read on to learn a bit about what we experienced.

Florence - Arriving at Pitti Uomo

At 10 a.m., we descend with the masses past the Duomo and across blocks of cobblestone streets to arrive at Fortezza da Basso, the grounds of Pitti Uomo. Pitti is the most important menswear trade show in the world, with 1,200 exhibitors spanning 60,000 square metres. To say that it’s an impressive sight is an understatement. 

Outside at Pitti Uomo

This is where the who’s who of menswear assemble and where trends are born. More than just fashion shows, Pitti tells the narrative of men’s style for the upcoming season. 

We hop from booth to booth (and building to building), connecting with brands we know and learning about ones that were new to us. Pitti is a great chance for retailers like us to learn about all the details about a brand we might choose to buy for the store, like the brand’s history, colour stories, fabrics, sustainability, and production techniques. 

An extravagant booth at Pitti

The booths at Pitti are not typical trade show booths. The production is off-the-charts, from suspended footwear installations to LED floors. It really is a sight to behold.

Selecting the items to bring back to The Helm

Days at Pitti are long, exhilarating, and exhausting. Each evening ends in a meal with friends we meet at the show, recapping our learnings and discussing plans for the season. 

Florence - Interviewing Brunello Cucinelli

Another morning in Florence, and another trek across cobblestone streets to Pitti Uomo, this time with cases of camera gear in tow. Today, we have an extra special appointment: We have arranged a video interview with Brunello Cucinelli himself to get some insights into the motivations behind his iconic brand. 

Chad interviewing Brunello Cucinelli at their booth at Pitti Uomo

Brunello Cucinelli started his business in 1978 producing cashmere knitwear, then moved it to the small hamlet of Solomeo, in Umbria, Italy, where his wife was born. Described often as a “philosopher-designer,” Brunello Cucinelli is now known for not only producing incredible luxury clothing and home goods, but also for his commitment to community.

“I don’t know what will come of me in life, but I want to foster human dignity.” - Brunello Cucinelli

In classic Cucinelli fashion, he arrives wearing a double-breasted pinstripe suit and an open-collared shirt. Pitti Uomo is loud and hectic, but he is calm. Our 5-minute interview turns into a heartfelt conversation that lasts nearly half an hour, covering everything from his humble beginnings to his philosophies about human dignity. You can watch the interview here

Brunello Cucinelli

Brunello Cucinelli at Pitti Uomo after our interview

Brunello Cucinelli speaks with such passion that the time flies by. Even after we’ve given the “times up” signal, he continues to chat casually with us, providing words of wisdom to Chad, ruffling the hair of our videographer Eric, and kissing us all on the cheeks before he takes his leave. 

“I wanted to do something that you never throw away. You pass it on to your children. That has always been a dream for me.” - Brunello Cucinelli

Solomeo - Exploring the Hamlet

What better way to learn more about Brunello Cucinelli than to visit the hamlet that’s home to his brand? On day 4 we pack up our things, hop in the rental car, and drive 2 hours from Florence to Solomeo. 

After winding our way up the road to the very top of the hill that Solomeo is situated on, we are greeted with a smile by a custodian meticulously power washing the cobblestone streets in front of a 14th-century castle. 

Solomeo castle

The castle and views at the top of the hill in Solomeo

We learned an extraordinary amount in our short time in Solomeo, so we have written a separate article to go into more detail. You can read all about that experience here.

Milan - Men’s Fashion Week

Milan is a nearly 5 hour drive from Solomeo, but our anticipation for Men’s Fashion Week makes it worth the drive. For a retailer like us, a trip to Milan typically consists of fashion shows and appointments with brands to select the items to sell next season. It’s fast-paced and full of decisions. Work, eat, work, drink, work, eat, drink, work. 

The Galleria in Milan

As well-suited men zip by on scooters, it’s hard not to feel the contrast between the calmness of Solomeo and the metropolitan vibes of Milan. This is a city that knows how to do business, and it does it looking good. 

A particular highlight is the Ermenegildo Zegna fashion show. These invites are rare, and the details are often secretive. We are shuttled to a secret location, where we are seated on benches among just a couple hundred other attendees. Mahersha Ali, the face of their “What Makes a Man” campaign, is seated just in front of us. As expected, the show is spectacular.

The Zegna fashion show

Biella - An Education On Wool 

Inspired by Ermenegildo Zegna’s runway show, we jump back in our rental car and drive an hour and a half out of Milan to a region that is well-known to connoisseurs of tailored clothing: Beilla. 

Lanificio Ermenegildo Zegna 

Biella is renowned for having some of the best wool mills in the world, including that of Zegna, which we have the opportunity to visit. As we walk through Casa Zegna, the factory, and the archives which date back to 1910, we’re given insight into what really makes Beilla the best place to produce wool.

The archives at the Zegna mill

What sets this region apart is the soft water that runs off the alps and through the Italian mountain ranges, which is used to wash and process the wool. Ermenegildo Zegna knew this, and he built his mill high on the mountain to be as close to the water source as possible. The result is fabric that can’t be reproduced anywhere else. 

Biella from the top of the Zegna mill 

We end our tour with a quick trip to the Zegna rooftop to get one last look at the province responsible for some of the best fabrics in the world. 

We wind our way down the mountain and back to Milan to finish up a few appointments, then we head to one final dinner with the team. There’s no better way to wrap up a trip like this than with good food, good drinks, and great conversation. An adventure to remember! 

Chad and Alana at Pitti Uomo


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