It might sound absurd to ask “What’s new?” about the city of Michelangelo and Fellini, of Emperor Augustus and poor John Keats, of Fendi and Valentino. Why demand novelty when the old stuff is so good? Visitors come to Rome to immerse themselves in 2,000 years of civilization. But an unexpected newness has come to the narrow streets that wind over Rome’s seven hills.
Over the past few years, several big Italian fashion houses have been pouring millions into the preservation of the city’s landmarks. While Tod’s CEO Diego Della Valle has been funding the ongoing restoration of the Colosseum (at a cost of $33 million), Fendi recently paid for a cleanup of the Trevi Fountain, a 17-month refurbishment that cost $2.6 million. The company is also backing a prestigious research institute here dedicated to Caravaggio. And Bulgari recently contributed $1.8 million to save the Spanish Steps, which had begun to crumble.
Fendi and Bulgari, along with other fashion brands like Valentino, also run their design studios here, even though Milan is where the industry actually does business. Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, who is from Rome, set up shop in the Palazzo Alberini-Cicciaporci, a nine-story jewel of Renaissance architecture located in the Centro Storico. Designers like Michele gravitate to the city (or return to it) partly for its distance from Milan, and therefore its relative tranquility, but also for its sense of old-world glamour and its unapologetic love of tradition. (The city’s grand architecture is featured in several of Gucci’s recent ad campaigns.) “Rome has always represented beauty, but it also allows for introspection,” explains Bulgari’s brand and heritage curator Lucia Boscaini. Here, designers can take a historical perspective on fashion—and enjoy a lifestyle influenced by Rome’s past.
While the big Italian fashion houses have added a new sheen to the city, there’s a palpable buzz coming from a young group of designers, gallerists, and hoteliers who have fallen in love again with its La Dolce Vita–style cafés and its small stores run by generations of craftsmen. On my first evening, at the Charade Bar in the new Hotel De’ Ricci, I ordered a negroni that came tricked out with sake. A few more of those and I might have needed the flirtatious “privacy curtain” that can be drawn around each red velvet booth. Instead I sank into my velour club chair and lingered over my one cocktail watching the stylish crowd flirt over aperitivi.
The next morning, I found myself elbowing my way through the tree-shaded flea market at Porta Portese, in Trastevere, an emerging neighborhood of wine bars and art galleries. The New York art dealer Gavin Brown opened a space here in a former eighth-century church a few years back because, he told me, he wanted to “reopen its doors to a new kind of congregation.”
Two working-class neighborhoods that are similarly becoming fashionable are Testaccio and Ostiense. The former is dominated by a huge contemporary art museum housed in a 19th-century slaughterhouse, MACRO Testaccio, which was showing an exhibit of international young photographers the day I popped in. I also happened to bump into a stylist friend from London, which confirmed my suspicion that this was the next It neighborhood. Nearby Ostiense has enough graffiti and postindustrial sprawl, as well as arty residents, to recall Berlin or East London. But while factories and warehouses are getting converted into trendy apartments and hangar-sized clubs like Ex Magazzini, which packs in young Romans, there’s still an ancient feel. Delfina Delettrez, the jeweler and fourth-generation Fendi, moved here 10 years ago. She told me about one of her favorite local spots, the Centrale Montemartini, a former thermoelectric power station that houses a collection of 2,000-year-old sarcophagi, delicate ancient Roman mosaics, and fine gold jewelry.
Yet the general rule of gentrification—that all innovation happens on the outskirts of cities—does not quite apply here. Much of what’s new in Rome is in its center. The retail equivalent of the Vatican is the new flagship Rinascente department store, which opened in October. Situated on Via del Tritone, a few minutes from the Spanish Steps, the enormous, $240 million wonder has the remains of a still-functioning aqueduct from the first century B.C. in its basement, a food hall, and, on its rooftop, restaurants and bars with views across to St. Peter’s Basilica.
Another newcomer is Chez Dede, a cabinet of curiosities owned by Daria Reina and Andrea Ferolla, who have worked as communications consultants for luxury brands like Brioni and Mercedes. In a space large by Roman standards, the couple sells Italian indie fashion, like La DoubleJ Editions’ vintage-print skirts and dresses and women’s coats from the small Neapolitan label Giuliva Heritage Collection, as well as Assouline art books and Astier de Villatte dishes. Ferolla’s own glamorous illustrations are also for sale. It’s a favorite of many Italian fashion designers, including Gucci’s Michele. “We believe in handicraft and people who make something magical with their work,” said Reina, who with her partner will launch a Chez Dede women’s collection this year. “Something is happening in Rome, although slowly.”
And that’s not a bad thing, because what I found most enjoyable about window-shopping in Rome was exploring the tiny old-world stores. Many of them specialize in a single item, usually made by the master craftsmen whose workshops double as storefronts. I found handmade boxes and notebooks covered with gorgeous marbled paper at Aldo Fefè on Via della Stelletta, a little shop run by a papermaker, his wife, and their daughter, all of whom looked on, in a good-natured way, as I made my selection.
“The absence of lifestyle stores is extremely comforting for me,” said the Swedish illustrator Liselotte Watkins, who moved from Milan to Rome two years ago. Her Cubist-inspired work appeared in Prada’s Fall 2017 collections, and she’s collaborated with everyone from H&M and Marimekko to Italian Vogue. One of her favorite streets to stroll down is Via del Pellegrino, with its vintage-furniture boutique Martin Alain Georges, which can source that perfect pair of Fontana Arte wall sconces. “What is truly inspiring is the calm and beauty of this city,” said Watkins. “I have lived in both Milan and Paris, and I do love them both. But Rome I have found to be incredibly easy to work and create in.”
Nearby on Via del Governo Vecchio is Delfina Delettrez’s diminutive boutique, which the jeweler describes as a “little alchemist’s laboratory.” The former pharmacy still has its original 19th-century drawers, which now stock her talismanic fine jewelry: thick, pearl-studded rings and surreal earrings with enamel eyes or red lips. A few blocks north is the hidden Rome atelier of the clothier Blazé Milano. One of the owners, Maria Sole Torlonia, gazed out from the vast window of the showroom at her vine-covered courtyard. Like Delettrez, she is a Roman who has returned home after launching a fashion career elsewhere. A former stylist, she founded the brand with two colleagues from Elle Italia, Delfina Pinardi and Corrada Rodriguez D’Acri, in Milan in 2013. They’ve had international success, but Torlonia wanted to keep a workshop for bespoke fittings in her home city. “It’s not an easy place to make a business,” said Torlonia, “but people in Rome, when they fall in love with something, they come back again and again.”
Torlonia’s favorite places to shop in Rome are run by independent craftspeople. Repurposing the ancient ways of the city for modern life is something of a pastime here. Why else would chic Romans recommend getting monastic garments tailor-made by one of the clerical outfitters in the shadow of the Pantheon? I’d been advised that anybody could enter the traditional vestment suppliers Mario Bianchetti, De Ritis, or Annibale Gammarelli and have bespoke items made. “It might seem a sacrilege, but Rome is sacred and profane,” said Delettrez. “The fabrics are high-quality and divine.” I could only bring myself to buy one gorgeously smooth, wide, gray woolen scarf, intended for a nun, but the memory of the transaction will stay with me longer than any designer piece I’ve ever bought.
One chilly afternoon, I wandered into Bar del Fico. It’s a long-standing favorite among locals in the historic center, as evidenced by the jumble of scooters across from the entrance. The service is brusque, but there’s a bohemian feel that attracts a young, fashionable crowd to its zinc-topped bar. I sat at the counter only meaning to linger for a minute, but an hour melted by. It is this sense of freedom and ease, combined with Rome’s position at the very heart of Western civilization, that lures people here.
“It’s a fertile environment for art and creativity that’s both off the beaten track and a large city,” said the Irish gallerist Lorcan O’Neill, who opened up his contemporary art space in a 17th-century building in the center of town four years ago. “I think artists appreciate the attractions of Rome but also the space, both mental and physical, it allows them for their work,” he said. Luckily though, that sensation is accessible to anybody who comes here, artist or not—along with the opportunity to try out the style and rhythms of Roman life, in all its mixed-up, ancient-and-modern glory.
Rome’s Stylish Spots
GALLERIES AND MUSEUMS
Galleria Lorcan O’Neill represents artists like Francesco Clemente and Tracey Emin. Just across the river is Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, the New York–based dealer’s contemporary gallery housed in an eighth-century church. MACRO Testaccio is a modern art museum set within a 19th-century abattoir. Centrale Montemartini exhibits ancient Greek and Roman art in a former power plant.
In addition to several Fine Hotels & Resorts, including the Hassler, Hotel de Russie, and the St. Regis, there are stylish boutique properties like Hotel De’ Ricci (rooms from $305) and the Hotel Palazzo Dama (rooms from $300).
Near Via del Pellegrino, you’ll find the pint-sized boutique of jewelry designer and Fendi scion Delfina Delettrez. Blazé Milano specializes in colorful blazers. Chez Dede is the city’s newest concept shop. For expertly tailored liturgical vestments, there’s Mario Bianchetti, De Ritis, and Annibale Gammarelli. Aldo Fefè (Via della Stelletta 20B) sells traditional paper products. Martin Alain Georges features a selection of vintage furniture.
The shabby-chic Bar del Fico is a great spot for classic cocktails.