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The seven briefcases laid out in front of me were six too many. Beyond minor variations in color, pocket placement, shoulder straps, and hardware, they all looked the same. And the fact that the suave salesman was wearing a deeper tan, a nicer watch, a more sophisticated suit, and much, much better shoes than I didn't help matters. I was out of my depth, and we both knew it. So when Signor Suave said, "Would the signora like to see more," I parried.

"No," I said, then pointed firmly to the briefcase I liked best, a cognac-colored number with off-white stitching and brushed nickel hardware. "Tell me about this one."

Signor Suave's smile flashed, and his slightly superior manner came down a notch. "Ah, the signora has a very good taste," he purred.

We'd moved from intimidation to seduction, and I had unwittingly played right into the script by choosing the most expensive bag by far. Of course, I didn't know why—so I decided this was the moment for the Helpless Foreigner Gambit, admitting ignorance to try and turn the tables.

"I'm flattered that you like my taste," I replied. "Could you possibly explain it to me?"

He looked up surprised, laughed when he saw that I was serious, and then, without missing a beat, launched into a detailed explanation of top-grain versus split leather, cotton versus nylon thread, vegetable versus chrome tanning, and gold-plated versus brass hardware.

Well, he knew his stuff. The trouble was that at the end of his soliloquy I still didn't know if the bag was really worth $900. And the fact that this was one of the many stores in Florence that sell quality leather goods made me even less confident. I said I would be back after I thought it over. "Prego, Signora," said Mr. Suave with a slight bow.

In Florence, everybody's an expert when the subject is leather. Even the desk clerk at my hotel gave me a 10-minute tutorial when I mentioned that I was here on a one-week leather-goods shopping expedition. My object was less to acquire a bag than to acquire the knowledge necessary to be a smart buyer of leather goods in this, its Italian capital. My encounter with Mr. Suave was the first of many such tutorials I let myself in for. Most were like his—confusing, contradictory, overtechnical. There were days when I felt like a nose that's sniffed too many perfumes. But in a week of scouting every fine leather store in town—and talking to their owners, the factories that supply them, tanners, master artisans, exporters, sales clerks, hotel clerks, and a stylish woman sitting next to me in the Café Gilli—I learned plenty. Here are my Cliff's Notes to buying leather in Florence. (Note: All prices are given in dollars based on the one-dollar-to-1,700-lira exchange rate at the time of publication.)

Lesson Number One: Buy quality or don't buy at all.
Mediocre goods are, as a general rule, considerably more expensive in Italy than they are in the United States and Canada—this despite the fact that there are prolific quantities of every imaginable leather product. A poorly constructed cowhide wallet costs $35 to $40 at the San Lorenzo market, and a standard-issue, woven-leather belt in a Florentine mom-and-pop shop runs almost double what it does on this side of the Atlantic at the Banana Republic or the Gap.

At the very high end, however, the opposite is true. The best stores have superb selection, impressive workmanship, and, in many cases, greater value, especially if you are paying in U.S. currency, which has been strong against the lira.

The reason for such extraordinary quality is centuries of tradition. "The Medicis helped craftspeople as well as painters and sculptors," says Laura Gori, who runs the Scuola del Cuoio (the Leather School of Florence in Piazza Santa Croce), begun by her father 50 years ago. "They were parallel—it was arts and crafts."

Giuseppe Tardini, CEO of his eponymous company specializing in alligator and crocodile leather goods, adds, "Tuscany was much more developed than other European countries or even the rest of Italy. There were lots of rich people, and lots of artists and artisans to meet their needs. In the 15th century, the best artisans started to make products in leather. And the major producers are still in Tuscany." He's right: Although there are other leather-production centers in Italy, Tuscany is still the largest by far.

That historical legacy is embodied in the great names of Italian, not only Tuscan, leather—Testoni, Trussardi, Ferragamo, Fendi, Cellerini, Bojola, and Ugolini among them—in that these companies are still owned and run by the families that started them. "The passion that these people put into their products and companies transcends the immediate gratification of profit—because they all could retire now," says Luciano Moresco, president of the U.S. division of A. Testoni, now being run by the third generation of the Testoni family. Personal commitment and the long-term relationships these companies have with their artisans and suppliers—these are what make Italian leather goods, as a group, the best in the world.

Lesson Number Two: You're buying Italian craftsmanship, not necessarily Italian leather.
Which is fine.The leather used by some of the finest Italian manufacturers comes from France, and sometimes Germany. Testoni, Trussardi, and Cellerini all import most of their leather. But the craftsmanship is purely Italian.

Lesson Number Three: Learning to judge good leather is not as difficult as it sounds.
Sure, you could drown in the fine points of leather connoisseurship. And I almost did. But as I sifted through everything I'd read and learned firsthand near the end of my week—in preparation for making a purchase, my final exam—I realized that there are just a few key points to remember.

• Buy only full-grain leather, the outermost layer of the hide. Also known as top-grain, it is the strongest, most flexible, most accommodating to staining or coloring, not to mention the most beautiful of all leathers. This advice came from Alessandra Cellerini, store manager of Cellerini, the only remaining leather workshop in the historic center of Florence. The workshop, under the guidance of her father, Silvano (see Master Craftsman), produces elegant, formal, conservative bags that reminded me of the style of Hermès. Full-grain leather also makes the lightest bag. Nowhere was that more evident than at Bojola (pronounced "boy-oh-la") on the Via de' Rondinelli, started by Felice Bojola in 1892. When I picked up a briefcase that had multiple pockets, flaps, and compartments, I expected it to feel as substantial as it looked. Instead, it weighed little more than a handbag. The Bojola store sometimes carries bags by other manufacturers, but the ones it manufactures in Santa Croce sull'Arno, about 40 miles from Florence, a town almost entirely devoted to tanning and manufacturing, are natural-looking, saddle-bag-style pieces discreetly stamped with its logo. (The company also makes leather goods for Liberty of London, Elizabeth Arden, and Joan & David, although the last named applies its own logo.)

• Be ever vigilant for split leather, which is often dressed up to look like full-grain. The name comes from the way split leather is made—by slicing it away from the bottom of the hide so it is thin and supple enough to work with. As a result it has no grain, which means it isn't as handsome and is very fragile. This is truer than ever now that most animals are farmed, which results in a thinner skin overall. Some manufacturers make a point of disguising the inferior quality. "People put a film of plastic on split leather and stamp it to simulate top-grain, but embossing usually means that the leather isn't good," says Tardini. "When leather is fine quality, with a good finish, nobody wants to cover it with something that's not natural." Gori agrees: "Nowadays, crocodile made from the split is being passed off for first-grade crocodile by disreputable dealers. The same is happening with calf. They'll even take the little scraps of leather, add chemicals to create a new "sheet" of leather, then write "Real Crocodile" or "Real Leather" on the label. Technically, it's true," she laments. "But it's not good leather."

"Run your finger over it," advises Tardini. "Top-grain should be warm and soft, with a little grain, like your skin. When it feels cold, that means there's a film over it." Also look at the label inside the bag. If it says "vero cuoio," walk away. The term means real leather, but it's no guarantee that it's not split leather. Articles made of top-grain leather carry a label that says "pelle di alta qualità."

• Expect that exotic leathers such as ostrich, crocodile, and python will be wildly expensive—always. Making a bag in crocodile instead of calfskin increases the price about fivefold, says Alessandra Cellerini; using ostrich quadruples it.

• Ask about the tanning process used on the bag. Tanning—the process that cleans the hide of fat particles and other impurities, and conditions the leather—"can either enrich a leather's beauty and increase its quality or can ruin a skin," Barbara Bojola, Felice's great-granddaughter, told me. The hallmark of Bojo bags is what the company calls selvaggio, a "wild" leather look. It also exemplifies how vegetable tanning (called vegetale in Italian) is preferable to chemical, or chrome, tanning for some leather goods (otherwise it's a matter of the look you want). In both tanning methods, hides are put into a large wooden drum filled with water. In vegetable tanning, tree bark is added for its tannin; in chemical tanning, a mixture of minerals—but predominantly chromium—is added, which produces a more regular, finished surface.

"Vegetable tanning tends not to cover all the defects of the leather—it shows the veins, for example," explains Moresco. "You have to have a higher quality leather for it to look good." In fact, Testoni uses only vegetable-tanned leathers. "For two reasons," Moresco says. "One, because it doesn't pollute like chrome tanning. And two, because in chrome tanning, you tend to plug all the pores of the leather, so it can't breathe. It's especially bad for shoes, because feet perspire. The sealed environment creates a higher temperature and more humidity, and the leather tends to crack much faster because of the expanding/contracting action that comes from being very moist (when feet are in shoes) and then dry (when feet are out)."

Sometimes the method of tanning is obvious, but not always. I asked when I was unsure, which usually took salesmen by surprise—they don't expect you to come armed with such technical knowledge. It also often got me better service because I had shown I knew something about leather.

Lesson Number Four: Match the type of leather to the product.
Leather comes in four basic varieties.

• Cowhide, the best being box calf, often used for handbags and belts.

• Lambskin, thinner and softer, used for gloves, wallets, and small handbags because it is flexible.

• Kidskin, also thinner and softer but stronger and less flexible than lambskin because it keeps its shape and grain, used for women's shoes, small boxes, and frames. (Says Laura Gori of the Scuola del Cuoio, "To cover wooden forms, it has to be like cloth.")

• Pigskin, the least expensive, used mainly for linings, casual-looking items, and articles that get heavy use, such as briefcases, because it doesn't scratch.

Lesson Number Five: Buy from a reputable company, especially if the item is expensive.
Now that I knew the basics, I headed for the big time: Via de' Tornabuoni, where Italy's top leather and fashion houses—along with Hermès, Louis Vuitton, and other exclusive stores—stand shoulder to shoulder in a three-block stretch of chic. My first stop: Trussardi, outpost of the stylish and venerable Milanese leather empire, founded in 1910 by master glove-maker Dante Trussardi.

The first thing a newly minted connoisseur wants to do is find fault. But the real hallmark of an educated eye is an ability to see excellence when it is before you—and that was the case here. The leather, workmanship, and design of the collection were stunningly good, and a tour de force of the Trussardi hallmark that less is more. A banana-colored handbag, so soft it felt it would slip through my fingers and flow into a puddle on the floor, had no hardware at all—just perfect triple stitching around the seams and details. A briefcase combined highly polished, stiff black leather with matte black neoprene (which the company calls Tecnico) to create a simple, sophisticated take on a doctor's bag. It weighed almost nothing and looked like a million bucks, which made the 895,000 lire price ($527) seem very reasonable indeed. And there was a line of leather-trimmed luggage made of neoprene that was as hip and chic as it was lightweight and practical. If Emma Peel were still dressing in that sexy-but-intelligent way she managed on The Avengers, Trussardi is where she would shop for accessories.

There was a crowd streaming in and out of Gucci just across the street. I learned that the "classic bit" loafers, those with the horse-bit buckle across the vamp, has been the most popular women's shoe since 1952. After dawdling over a pair of Gatsby-era evening slippers, I fingered the leather jackets and watched a woman reverentially called Contessa by the sales clerk choose a large leather tote, then headed to the room in the back, which houses men's accessories.

The belts were impressive: all lengths, all types of leather, some stitched along the outside, others polished to a thin, sharp edge. I zeroed in on the buckles, from discreet brushed-silver to gold-plated brass, not only because it's the most visible element but because it gets the most wear. The former was more my taste, but the latter would have been the smarter buy. "Brass is best because it's strongest," Alessandra Cellerini had explained, "but it tarnishes, and doesn't look good by itself, so it's coated with nickel or gold." Even so, after two or three years the plating tends to come off brass, no matter how carefully it's been applied. And in this department, the French have it over the Italians. "They use an acid to etch the brass. It helps the gold to adhere better," Cellerini said, "but it's outlawed in Italy because of health risk."

It took me a few minutes to find House of Florence, which hides in an old courtyard-fronted palazzo. The store was opened three years ago by Roberto Gucci,the only Gucci who has remained in the leather business since the family sold the company and the name in 1991, and his wife Drusilla, who designs the collection. Thirteen House of Florence stores have opened since 1994 from Florence to Tokyo, although there are none yet in the United States. Here I found a particularly ingenious women's briefcase that also functions as a lap-desk (see Why It's Worth the Money).

Not much farther down Via de' Tornabuoni I made my discovery of the day, Gianfranco Lotti, whose store opened in 1995. Because his is the least-well-known name on the street, logo-hunting shoppers tend to pass the store by. But anyone looking at merchandise closely couldn't resist walking in to examine the fresh, modern designs. On cream-colored shelves, boldly colored, pillbox-, cube-, and lozenge-shaped purses stood singly, like oversized pieces of hard candy. Clasps, inventive and minimal, echoed or complemented the shapes of the bags. It was a look unlike any other I had seen in Florence. This shop, the only one in Italy (there are plans to open a boutique in Milan), specializes in handbags, but it also carries a handsome selection of sleekly designed briefcases in subtle colors.

Via de' Tornabuoni culminates in the Piazza Santa Trinita, dominated by the Palazzo Spini Feroni. It houses the flagship store of Ferragamo and the Ferragamo Shoe Museum. Everything—shoes, of course, but also bags, briefcases, belts, and clothing—is beautifully displayed. But what caught my eye, and took my time, was the substantial collection of wallets and other small leather goods. In the men's collection, there are four design categories employing various colors, leathers (boxcalf, goatskin, pigskin, lizard, crocodile), and finishes. The most popular line, Angelini, has a tiny gold-plated or nickel "F" at one corner. I remembered what I had been told to look for in a wallet—well-turned edges, tiny stitches, precisely turned corners, stacked pockets that have been added singly and are lined individually (less expensive wallets just have slits for charge cards). The Ferragamo wallet that caught my eye was a rich black-brown, met every criteria, and was but $195. I succumbed.

I rounded off the day on the Via della Vigna Nuova, which branches off Via de' Tornabuoni, at two leather stores not to be missed: Cole-Haan, much of whose merchandise is manufactured nearby and costs between a quarter and a third less than it does in the States; and Desmo, a trendy store that carries sophisticated, mostly unstructured handbags and totes in beautiful colors. The store also has a line of handsome, classic woven-leather bags, wallets, and belts, as well as umbrellas and walking sticks with woven-leather handles.

Finally, I headed to Il Bisonte, on the nearby Via del Parione. The store made its name by reviving the doctor's bag (now widely imitated), and by popularizing vachetta, an untanned natural cowhide. The store, a cavernous space decorated as an old theater, has fringed velvet drapes, rough-hewn wood columns, and the strong smell of vachetta. I liked the style and color of many of the designs, and I chatted amiably with the sales clerk about Wanny di Filippo, the larger-than-life designer who began Il Bisonte 31 years ago and built it into an international success.

But as I began to examine the bags—testing the clasps, looking at linings, stitching, and finishing details—it was impossible to ignore the large gap in workmanship between these and the ones I had looked at earlier in the day. The hardware was unplated brass; the linings, in the bags that were lined at all, were cotton canvas, not the tightly woven grosgrain silk or supple leather I now knew meant quality. Only some straps had buffed or stained edges; stitching was often too large and uneven. They were decent, appealingly designed bags, but ridiculously overpriced ($688 for the doctor's bag, for instance)—a statement I couldn't have made confidently at the beginning of the week.

And on that note of confidence I headed back to meet Signor Suave again and buy that most-expensive briefcase with the contrasting stitching and the nickel-plated hardware. Now that I knew why I had picked it out of the lineup, I had to have it.

Handbag Hallmarks

Construction Should be smooth and strong: No puckers in the seams or bindings; lined straps, substantial enough to support the weight of the bag when full.

Stitching "Machine stitching is okay—it's the care you take with the stitching, whether by machine or by hand," says Luciano Moresco of Testoni. "Stitches should be small and straight, corners crisp."

Lining Should be supple leather or tightly woven fine fabric (e.g., grosgrain silk), perfectly fit with no wrinkles or pulls. Edges should be turned under, with small stitches.

Hardware Gold-plated (0.5 microns) and nickel-plated brass are best. (Unplated brass tarnishes quickly.) Look for multiple-dip plating, three dips being best. Zippers should be plated, run smoothly, and—like all hardware—be suited to the weight of the bag.

Edges Should be smooth. Look for bound or piped edges on the sides of straps and flaps and around the zipper. If they aren't bound or piped, the leather should be thinner—a sign of proper gluing and compression. Pass on raw edges; they wear poorly.

Finishes Largely depends on personal taste. Common options include capreto vernacia (patent leather); camoscio (suede); napa, an extremely soft, matte finish that can be used on calf, goat, or lambskin; spazzolato (literally "brushed"), a smooth, polished satin bordering on shiny; vitello a chroma, chrome-finished baby calf, which has a soft, satin feel; and vitello grasso (literally "fat calf"), a satiny finish that is thicker and richer-looking than vitello a chroma, and often used for briefcases and more casual bags.

Sinply Suede

The Valstar jacket ($853), made by the Valstar company in Milan and sold at the Ugolini store in Florence, comes in meltingly soft brown suede lambskin. It has horn buttons, a muted plaid wool lining (an unlined version also exists), and two front patch pockets that open from the side. The most important thing to look for in a suede jacket, says Gabriele Ugolini, is the quality of the skin. "It should be very soft, and seem like velvet. It should also be able to resist water. Valstar's suede is excellent, the jackets classic."

Nine Bags To Lust After

Testoni Plum pebble-grained caribou, 0.5 microns gold-plated handles, interior zippered compartment ($870, style 2219)

Bottega Veneta Chocolate brown woven napa lambskin, solid-nickel hardware, hand-waxed edges, hand-stitched ($1,030, style 3013)

Fendi Part of the Selleria collection. Saddlebag-style, bronze calfskin, lined in pigskin suede, hand-stitched ($995, style 033)

Cellerini Hardside beauty case in yellow and butterscotch calfskin, with places inside for cosmetic brushes and makeup ($650, style 2658)

Tardini American alligator skin, Italian pigskin suede lining, brass clasp on front pocket, one interior zipper pocket ($3,445, style C1B115)

Gianfranco Lotti The "Elsa" bag in imperial green box calfskin, chrome tanned, with 24-karat 0.5 microns gold-plated hardware ($403, style 035340)

Trussardi Black "hard" calfskin briefcase with polished aluminum handles and Tecnico neoprene interior ($765, style V5335)

Desmo Woven, cognac "Tropicana" calfskin, straight invisible stitching, cloth lining, one zippered pocket inside ($306, style 1128)

Bojola Light-brown calfskin briefcase, with eight compartments (four zippered) and mixed brass hardware ($505, no style number)

Leather in Translation

Italian: agnellino; English: lambskin
Italian: capreto; English: kidskin
Italian: cervo; English: deer
Italian: cinghiale; English: pigskin
Italian: coccodrillo; English: crocodile
Italian: serpente; English: snake
Italian: struzzo; English: ostrich

Box Steps

"I haven't yet the hands of my father," says Simone Taddei ruefully, looking down at his stubby fingers roughened by years of hammering and burnishing leather. "It takes twelve to fourteen years to learn the craft." Like his father and grandfather before him, Taddei, 36, is a master artisan. In his tiny workshop—on a street so small it doesn't appear even on detailed maps of Florence—he builds beautiful leather boxes, frames, desk sets, and other small accessories which are snatched up by customers and imported by both Asprey and Paul Stuart. In fact, Taddei has so much business, he says, that "it's not the selling that's the problem, it's the making." He uses rough-hewn tools (some of which even belonged to his great-grandfather, a shoemaker for Ferragamo) and follows 32 painstaking steps to make even the smallest, simplest box for men's jewelry. It requires several weeks to fabricate; more complex pieces often take months. Often made of a rich, brown leather resembling tortoiseshell, the boxes cost from $19 to more than $765. And they are devoid of ornamentation. "When it's plain, it has to be perfect," he explains. And so it is.

Handy Advice

There are two top sources for gloves in Florence, and they couldn't be more opposite in approach or presentation. Madova, a friendly hole-in-the-wall just across the Ponte Vecchio, is stocked floor-to-ceiling with thousands of pairs of gloves, in every possible combination of leather, color, lining, and length. Ugolini, on Via de' Tornabuoni, is hushed and formal, a grand, old-style haberdasher that began in 1904 as a gloveseller and still sheaths the hands of royalty and aristocrats.

While Ugolini's selection of styles and colors is less extensive than Madova's, the workmanship is superb. Most Ugolini gloves have hand-finished cuffs—a more formal look than the sportier, finely machine-stitched cuffs on the majority of the gloves sold at Madova. But the value at both stores, particularly Madova, which exports to Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Kenneth Cole, and Burberry, among others, is excellent; gloves of similar quality sold in the United States or Canada will cost a third to two times more. You can also order directly from the catalog or have the company custom-make gloves for you by sending an outline of your hand with fingers spread for sizing. When shopping at either store, here's what to look for.

Construction There are two basic types: internal single-stitch, or French stitch, and external double-stitch. The former has a smooth seam along the fingers and no topstitching, giving it a dressier look. The latter has two seams instead of one (but only the topstitching is visible), making it stronger, more durable, and more casual looking. Most Ugolini gloves are internal single-stitched; most Madova gloves are external double-stitched.

Length Measured in buttons to indicate how far above the wrist the glove falls (one button equals one inch). Two-button gloves, the shortest, extend two inches above; 16-button, the longest, cover a woman's arm.

Fit "It's the length you have to look at—the width will give," explains Andrea Donnini, who, with his brother and cousins, is the third generation to run the Madova store and factory. Try on the glove using the hand you write with since it's slightly larger. The leather between the fingers should slide all the way down, and the lining should touch the hollow between them.

Lining If you're between sizes, go up rather than down: A slightly looser fit will allow more air to be trapped inside, keeping your hands warmer. Silk-lined gloves should be very fitted; cashmere-lined gloves don't have to fit as snugly.

Why It's Worth The Money

House of Florence "Borsa-scrivania" ($794; style BO04270)

Design Ingenious. The flapped front functions as a woman's briefcase/purse. Two compartments inside for papers and pens, and an attachable shoulder strap. The back is a stiff flap that unsnaps and opens into a portable lap-desk.

Leather Scratch-resistant pigskin.

Lining Also pigskin, smoothly fit, with under-turned, finely stitched edges and crisp corners.

Hardware 0.5 microns gold-plated polished brass hardware.

Stitches Even and small, with sharply turned corners and hand-finished details, such as extra-heavy top stitches (in addition to fine machine stitching), holding one compartment to the next.

Coup de grâce: Cranberry color, unusual yet professional-looking.

Master Craftsman

This is how the story begins: In the late 1950s Princess Boncompagni, walking her little dog in Florence, looks up and sees a sign for leather repair. She goes in to ask if her dog's black leather collar with tiny gold bones, made in Paris but now falling apart, can be remade. The artisan, Silvano Cellerini, a master designer and craftsman of leather purses, bags, and accessories, beautifully re-creates it, this time with good leather. The princess is delighted, and tells all her friends about the wonderful artigiano she has discovered. The rest, as they say, is history. "All because a dog lifted his leg outside my workshop," jokes Cellerini, now 67.

Well, not exactly. According to Cellerini, who became an apprentice at 17, becoming a leather artisan was his destiny. "I entered the factory, smelled the leather and thought, 'This is my work,' " he says. After the war, when frugal aristocrats brought in bags for repair, Cellerini would study every stitch, in awe of the workmanship and materials. "I looked at Hermès, at Gucci," he explains. "I learned from what is good and no good. And I modified."

Today his workshop, on the Via del Sole above the elegant Cellerini store, is the only one left in the centro storico, or historic center, of Florence. He and three workmen—one of whom has been with him for more than 25 years—cut, stitch, and finish bags entirely by hand. On the walls hang cardboard patterns for more than 4,000 designs Cellerini has created over the decades. The designs are meticulous and inventive: purses with secret compartments; butter-soft slippers that collapse into travel cases; tiny, leather-clad tape measures; briefcases flawlessly lined with Japanese pigskin, a material Cellerini discovered in the 1970s and is perfect, he says, because it is feather-light and scratch-resistant.

One of his most ingenious designs came at the behest of a Venetian countess who called him one day 30 years ago and said, "Cellerini, I need a bag for cocktail parties that lets me hold both a cigarette and a drink." His solution: a small, sculptural purse in black velvet and satin, with a handle just large enough to loop over the wrist and stay put ($265). It is still one of the shop's best-sellers: Contessa Consuelo Crespi (a former editor of Italian Vogue) bought one for herself and another as a gift for Nancy Reagan; an American ambassador's wife in London bought one for Margaret Thatcher. Cellerini's most popular item, however, is his interpretation of the classic Hermès Birkin bag ($418-$647), which, like his version of the Kelly bag ($453-$524), comes in a variety of sizes.

And while one might think that after so many years Cellerini's original passion for his medium might have waned, it has not. The smell of leather, he says, "is like perfume to me. Still."

Gucci Outlet

Aside from the incredible prices (50 percent off store tags), the most surprising thing about the Gucci Outlet in Leccio, 25 minutes south of Florence by car, is that so few people—Florentines included—know it exists. Gucci did not publicize the store's opening last June, has done no publicity since, and, according to management, has no plans to do any in the future. Because the outlet is such a well-kept secret, and because it doesn't close for three hours midafternoon as most Italian stores do, shopping here is a real pleasure. In fact, both afternoons I went it was empty. Unlike some American outlets, which offer irregular merchandise, here the wide selection (including leather goods, as well as clothing and accessories, though more women's than men's) is all regular but from the past season. Hence, during my visits last July I found different fall/winter items each time. My only quibble: Merchandise in black was hard to come by.

—Travis Neighbor

Gucci Outlet, 63 Via Aretina, Leccio-Reggello; 39-55-865-7775; Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Tuesday 9 a.m.-1 p.m.

To get there by car from Florence: From Piazza Beccaria, take Via Vincenzo Gioberti to Via Aretina (S.S. 67) in the direction of Pontassieve. At Pontassieve, pick up the S.S. 69 in the direction of Leccio. Immediately after the Leccio sign, look for a white and green building with red awnings. Turn right into the parking lot.

Alternative route: Take the A1 Autostrada at Firenze Sud in the direction of Rome to the Incisa-Val d'Arno exit. Then take the S.S. 69 toward Leccio-Regello (left turn). The outlet is just before the sign indicating you are leaving Leccio. Turn left into the parking lot.

Top Shops

The country code for Italy is 39; the city code for Florence is 55. North American information number is in parentheses.

Bottega Veneta 7r Via De' Tornabuoni; 294-265 (212-371-5511)
Beltrami 48rvia De' Tornabuoni; 287-779
Bojola 25rvia De' Rondinelli; 211-155
Cellerini 37rvia Del Sole; 282-533
Cole-Haan 77rvia Della Vigna Nuova; 211-553 Or 287-980 (800-633-9000)
Desmo 10rpiazza De' Rucellai (At Via Della Vigna Nuova); 292-395
Fendi No Freestanding Florence Store. Call 800-336-3469 For Shops
Ferragamo 14rvia De' Tornabuoni; 292-123 (800-445-1874)
Gianfranco Lotti 57-59rvia De' Tornabuoni; 210-226
Giotti 3-4rpiazza De' Ognissanti; 294-265
Gucci 73rvia De' Tornabuoni; 264-011 (800-234-8224)
House Of Florence 6via De' Tornabuoni; 288-162
Madova 1rvia De' Guicciardini; 239-6526
Prada 67rvia De' Tornabuoni; 283-439 (212-307-9300)
Scuola Del Cuoio 16piazza Santa Croce; 244-533
Simone Taddei 11via Santa Margherita; 239-8960
Tanino Crisci 43/45rvia De' Tornabuoni; 214-692
A. Testoni No Freestanding Florence Store. Call 888-837-8064 For Shops
Trussardi 34-36rvia De' Tornabuoni; 219-902 (212-906-9133)
Ugolini 20-22via De' Tornabuoni; 216-6644.

Pocket Pick

Ferragamo's men's wallets, like one from the Angelini line in "caffè" calfskin ($145, style 5716; with coin purse style 5652), look stunning and exemplify quality: small stitches, precisely turned edges and corners, and fine leather. Even the signature "F" is 0.5 microns gold plating, the best to be had.

Rosemary Ellis wrote "Baggage Check: A Guide to Fine Luggage," the November/December 1997 installment of Worldly Goods.


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