Italy's northern capital may be all about fashion but there's more to Milan than the glossy boutiques of famous brands. Young couturiers and innovative designers rub shoulders with historic family-run ateliers where generation after generation have been crafting tailored clothes. They create unique garments according to personal taste and needs, with the highest-quality fabrics. These boutiques are hidden, "secret" even -- yet treasured by a global cognoscenti. For those that want to stand out from the crowd, here's our pick of eight of the best.
Stepping inside Mutinelli is like stepping into a museum: marble floors, brass doors, tall glass windows and more than a century of history. Old metal and wooden shapers -- used to measure heads and create hats -- are on display. Opened in 1888, it's one of the last remaining old-school boutiques that hand make hats. There are top hats and berets of all sizes and colors, classic lids and casual headgear for both men and women.
Traditional coppola flat caps, as worn in Sicily and Calabria, can also be picked. The founder Fausto Mutinelli made his hats with precious hare and nutria furs. His descendants have settled for premium leather, felt, straw and tweed. Matteo Mutinelli is the fourth generation to take charge of the atelier and takes his job very seriously. "A hat is much more than a simple accessory, it's a distinctive element of one's personality," he says.
- Fairytale Princesses: Sartoria Principessa
Ornella Boeretto inherited a passion for handmade clothes from a seamstress aunt. Sophisticated cocktail dresses and ballgowns are her trademark, for both women and little "princess" girls. Sheath dresses can be adjusted to fit and taste: more or less tight, puff detailing, deep or light cleavage, or one or two shoulder straps. Pretty much any fabric can be found here, from precious silk brocade to cashmere, velvet and printed cloths. The brightly colored atelier has sofas covered in shiny clutch bags.
Forget teetering heels and sequined ankle-breakers. The classic brogues here are not just for men, even if they might look it. The right shop for women who like to be comfortable and stylish in a pair of ballerina flats or elegant masculine tassel loafers and lace-ups. The most popular are the two-tone 1930s-style cream-brown shoes. Ancient techniques are used. "We adapt shoes to clients' particular feet shapes," says owner Massimiliano Toscano. A quick, on-the-run, shoe-shining service is also available.
- Cute as a Button: Atelier Annarosa Rava
Signature coats have large wraparound collars that close on the back and come in bright orange and red.
There are also delicate wool shirts and handbags inspired by 1950s style. All feature big round vintage buttons collected by designer Annarosa Rava, who loves going on scavenger hunts in flea markets. She believes "buttons are a tool of communication, art objects." Everything is so customized that appointments can even be booked on Sundays.
- Man Temple: N. H Sartoria
It's all in the initials N. H -- Nobil Homo, or "noble man" -- because real elegance is, apparently, unseen and luxury today is being your own designer. Founder Federico Ceschi has aristocratic blood running through his veins which is reflected in his bespoke creations, ranging from exclusive formal suits to monogram belts and personalized cufflinks. He makes sport, morning, dinner and even "summer dinner" jackets for each moment of the day.
An unlined jacket, he says, must be perfect inside, not outside. Cashmere and silk ties are so light you'll never have that annoying choking feeling. Each garment is numbered according to the client. Pockets come in different shapes and are stitched where required. Top creations include a cashmere military green double-breasted coat. There's also a less expensive Red Label line, aimed at a younger male market.
- Eclectic Jewels: Daniela de Marchi
These customized jewels can be matched to personality, outfit and mood. They're also "seasonal," in the shape of fruits and marine plants. The grape rings and entwined coral bracelets are seen as a must-have for chic Milanese women. Young artisan Daniela de Marchi juxtaposes silver, bronze and brass with precious natural stones such as diamonds, onyx, amethysts and pearls. She even has her own patented texture, Dropage, embossed with colored glazes. The atelier is a mix of exotic plants and retro decor.
- Skirt Specialists: Atelier Bergnach
This is a boutique dedicated almost entirely to the skirt. Elena Bergnach plays with different fabrics to make different versions of the garment: circle, tube, godet and asymmetric ones with silver lines and flower motifs. Her designs regularly change and clients can pick their own fabric and color. Twin-sets, tops and accessories complete the look.
- Shirt Heaven: Camiceria Ambrosiana
Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III and actor Cary Grant were clients here. Today lawyers, businessmen and brokers can find here mother-of-pearl buttons for their cotton and linen dress shirts. But it's not all occasion wear. There are also soft pastel-colored shirts and handmade boxers and pyjamas.
Synthetic materials are banned. Alessandro Agostini and his mother take care of everything: They design, stitch, knit. And they're proud of it. "My grandmother opened this boutique in 1900 and since then it's always been family-run," he says. Tiny details make the difference here: white-orange piping, type of collar, shirt cuffs and embroidered initials.