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October 18, 2017
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An illuminated Christmas tree stands next to the Duomo in Milan (Source: Luca Bruno / Associated Press).

Each year, the beginning of Milan's Christmas season is marked on December 7 (Saint Ambrose's Day) by the opening of Teatro alla Scala's opera season, the VIP event of the year. The gala was broadcasted live internationally and the city reconfirmed itself as a capital of Opera and a place where politics, show business, fashion and economic power join together. But at this year's event, the two faces of Milan's Christmas were revealed. In the theatre's foyer, an elegant audience prepared for a modern staging of Don Giovanni, while outside the theatre, workers, students and the unemployed protested against the budget package proposed by new Italian Prime Minister, Mario Monti. Two worlds, separated by a few meters and massive security. 

This Christmas season, Milan's consumers don't know whether they're rich or poor, or whether they're living in the past or present. Milanese want to believe that the city's mantra (Work. Work. Work.) is the formula that will maintain their rights to abundance, but Christmas 2011 seems to be a restrained one, even for the capital of fashion and design. Are Milan's citizens finally giving up their consumer habits?

Across Western economies, 2011 has been a year of crisis talk. Currencies are teetering, jobs are endangered and homes are in jeopardy. This year, panicky Italian consumers don't seem to be in the mood to spend money on presents, a sentiment recently confirmed by a Confesercenti-SWG survey. 64% of Italians interviewed are spending less on Christmas presents this year - more than 20% of whom are cutting Christmas expenses by 50% - while only 4% are increasing their budget. Hand in hand with the uncertainty are hopes for a recovery: 50% of Italians want to believe that there will be a recovery, yet 32% of interviewees prefer a general austerity and 83% have cut expenses related to clothing. Italy's so-called middle class is rapidly shrinking and, with it, their power to spend money.

Carabinieri policemen stand in front of
La Scala on December 7, 2011
(Source: Reuters/Alessandro Garofalo).

The Confesercenti-SWG survey paints a general picture of Italy, but another survey by the Milan Chamber of Commerce in collaboration with Voices from the Blogs, suggests a different attitude in Milan. 21,000 blogs and Twitter posts were reviewed from November 15 to December 10, 2011 to gauge overall spending habits of Milanese. The results? 66.6% of Milanese say that the economic crisis won't affect their Christmas shopping. "In Milan, consumers have confidence in the present and in the future," asserts Carlo Sangalli, President of the Milan Chamber of Commerce. "Companies are at the forefront and don't resign themselves to the very difficult time. This is demonstrated by the substantial stability of revenues and employment." 

While the impoverishment of the population is much less evident in Milan than elsewhere in Italy, perhaps it's because the hardship is covered by a veneer of apparent well-being. I confess to being confused at times. I see crowds every day in the city centre, in the shops, fighting to enter a luxury department store. What are they really doing? Taking a walk? Browsing and fantasising? Are they actually buying anything? The truth is that Milanese are confused, lost between a fear of the future and the will not to give up their past consumer habits. And even in Milan, the signs point towards a restrained Christmas season. The municipality decided against illuminating its monuments in order to save money and energy, and the shops' street adornments were decidely moderate.

The truth is that Milanese are confused, lost between a fear of the future and the will not to give up their past consumer habits.

Other events in the city have had implications on the Christmas mood this year. Milan's mayor, Giuliano Pisapia, imposed a two-day ban on traffic in the city and closed schools in a radical move to battle smog in Italy's industrial heartland despite fierce protests from shopkeepers. Pisapia banned traffic between 10am and 6pm on December 9 and 10, and the decision was criticized by shopkeepers who argued that it would affect pre-Christmas sales. According to Guglielmo Miani, CEO of the elegant menswear brand Larusmiani and President of the Via Montenapoleone Association, a merchants association representing Milan's most fashionable shopping street, the mayor's decision dramatically affected sales: "We had a 50% loss during the two-day ban on traffic because during the St. Ambrose days traditionally customers come from the province of Milan or from other northern cities to buy on Montenapoleone street. We didn't get to recover that loss on Sunday the 11th for the simple reason that customers of a certain level are not used to going to the shop on Sunday. The damage has been even more disappointing," continues Miani, "if we consider that the levels of pollution did not decrease below the thresholds."

(Still) dangerously polluted, how has Via Montenapoleone recovered from the two days of damage? Miani explained that the VMA decided to react constructively by offering customers a "Christmas Shopping Experience," an initiative in collaboration with Cartasì, a well known brand of credit cards. From December 12 to 18, they provided black and platinum cardholders services such as welcome cocktails, dedicated personal shoppers, cars with drivers to/from Malpensa airport and Via Montenapoleone, home delivery of goods and more. Speaking with Miani was a way to step onto Milan's luxury orbit, where businesses seem to not know any slowdown (two-day traffic ban aside). In these difficult economic times, the strength of the luxury fashion and design industry allows the city to thrive and maintain an internationally prominent position. The affluence nourishes itself.

But what is left of the middle class who are floundering in a sea of doubt and uncertainty? Milanese consumerism is two-faced: on one side, people are frightened, feeling that the economic situation has changed and that nothing will be the same anymore. On the other side, there is a strong wish to celebrate and enjoy this Christmas season, as always - which means spending money. In the end we have to face it: Milanese are Italian, and Italians aren't known for being pragmatic. They probably will never be. We could take these crucial days as an opportunity to learn to celebrate Christmas in a different way, a more authentic one. We could buy less presents, less food, less goods for ourselves, but we love to live and enjoy the present moment and every problem can be temporarily forgotten with a delicious slice of Panettone. Milanese will need a lot of sugar to overcome this recession.

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