This afternoon, after visiting the Duomo of Milan, we walked a considerable distance to several small shops. These two shops, though they both sold similar products, could not have been more different in their styles. The first was a traditional manufacturer who promoted authentic and high quality handbags built to the customer’s needs. The second was a new-age, chic vendor, only several years old, whose bags were all customizable in color and assembled from pieces right in the storefront. Though both businesses acted as manufacturers to an extent as well as retailers, each differed in their styles, suppliers, and direct customers.
The first business we visited, called Gravi, was so small it could only fit half our party in the store at a time. It was owned and run by a single man who started his learning the trade at the age of fourteen (he is now around 55). His store was dark and handbags were hanging haphazardly, covering each other, but each was made with beautiful leather in a traditional style. He showed us the back room and explained that all the manufacturing was done in that room: designing, cutting, gluing, pressing, all the steps to the process. He showed us the rolls of leather that become the handbags, some made from veal skin, others exotic as snake or ostrich. His suppliers are based all around the world to guarantee the highest quality bag made to last decades. The bags’ prices reflect this; as we looked around the shop he sold a customer a bag for nearly 200 euros. He was proud of his work, and though his client base does not extend around the world, he is one of the few remaining traditionalist artisans, so said our tour guide. Many small businesses like Gravi are moving out of the city because the rent prices are rising quickly. While large handbag chains can afford this, his business can only afford to remain in the city because he owns the space himself. Customers come to him because he represents what foreigners know as the Italian quality handbag, made from durable yet soft leather and assembled by someone who has studied the trade extensively.
The second business we visited was called IF Bags, and was started in 2013 by two young Italian women who worked in a fashion boutique. The bags are colorful drawstring backpacks, but the company also sells wallets and small money pouches. The woman who worked in this store explained that each customer chooses a model of bag, a color of leather, and a color of the drawstring rope. The backpack is then assembled in several minutes in front of the customer’s eyes and cost around 79 euros. In a sense, the shop reminded me of an assembly line where the only elements that were customizable were the color of the bag. However, the saleswoman explained the bags were very popular and several stores have opened in the United States as well as other places around Europe. Their online shop sells to many customers abroad, particularly in Japan. The customers appreciate that the bags are trendy and colorful, tailored to the evolving tastes of fashionistas around the world. The bags are especially notable because the suppliers are all based in Italy. The leather, the rope, the buttons all come from Italy, and the parts are prepared not a kilometer away from this shop. From IF Bags, customers expect a sleek bag that comes in their favorite bright colors, but may not necessarily last years. It caters to a younger generation that is looking to break away from the traditional style found in Gravi but also away from the runway styles of Gucci, Prada, or Louis Vuitton.
The businesses IF Bags and Gravi may have been right down the street from each other both selling handbags, but their style and niches could not be more different. The older craftsman who owned and operated Gravi is one of the last makers of traditional Italian handbags, made to last decades, and mature in their appearance. The IF Bags store sold to younger customer base who appreciate the color and vibrancy of the bags. The success of each business shows that diverse styles are sustainable in the fashion capital of the world because there is a customer for every taste.