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Milan Fashion Week: A Texas-Born Handbag Designer on How to Live Like an Italian

During last season’s Paris Fashion Week, a friend of a friend introduced me to Allison Nicole Hoeltzel. Birds of a feather do tend to flock together, and Americans abroad will find each other, then meet up over burgers and Champagne to balance the whole thing out. Allison actually lives, works and operates a handbag line called Officina del Poggio in Milan, so while all of fashion is enjoying la bella vita we asked Allison to help us with a primer on how you can do it too.
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Lucky for us, she obliged, filling us in not only on the neon-orange happy hour bev of choice, all the haute hot spots and cool cafes, but on what not to wear and do.

 

Let’s say you had three short sentences to explain how a nice girl from Texas ended up in Milan.

Allison: The story is waaay more complicated than three sentences, but I actually arrived 15 years ago for what should have been just a three-month internship after finishing graduate school (I studied business and arts administration). I was working in the opera house in Bologna and fell in love. Let’s just leave it as that, because at that point it became complicated. Yet fashion was always a dream and a passion, so when I found myself in Italy for good, I was finally able to make my career here through a chance encounter with a designer at the hairdresser. Four sentences, sorry!

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The chic American in Milan, Allison Hoeltzel 

In terms of Italian culture during the workday, can you give us one or two examples of how things work differently there?

It is one of my pet peeves when people think that Italians don’t work as much and are always on long lunches or on a month-long holiday. Yes, they do enjoy leisurely lunches but only on occasion and very few companies close for the entire month of August.

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The work hours in Italy are long, and especially in our sector people often work on Saturdays. In the creative offices, people come to the office around 9 or 9:30 and stay until 7:30 or 8pm. In the tanneries or laboratories they start at 7:30 and finish around 6pm. I find that in the fashion sector people are very passionate about what they do, so they end up working lots of overtime to make sure things are made in time to meet the demanding schedules. The good thing is that things definitely slow down for at least a week in August, and also the week between Christmas and New Year’s. There are many coffee and cigarette breaks scattered throughout the workday, which allows for a little more socialization. People dress comfortably but always with an edge or elegance, with definitely less “rules” than in the U.S. (e.g., they show a little more skin in the summer).
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Switching over to the after-work hours, assuming you might have a few of those every now and again, what does the average Milanese do after work this time of year? 
I don’t know if the Italians invented the happy hour, but they definitely do it better with the art of the aperitivo. From 6 to 9pm, drinks in Italy are always accompanied by a few nibbles—chips, nuts and/or olives. Some bars take it up a level and offer full buffet-type spreads, or serve plates of mignon-sized treats to the table. It is a great time of day to meet with friends or also to have a more social work meeting without committing to a full-on dinner. The typical aperitivo drink is a “spritz”: a mixture of Aperol, soda and Prosecco, in a neon-orange color that looks like cough syrup.
As soon as the weather starts turning warm, everyone spends as much time outdoors as possible, although you will rarely see anyone exercising in public spaces, as sports activity is reserved only for the gym or large parks that have running or walking trails. And of course don’t ever, EVER commit the cardinal sin of the Italian dress code: wearing gym clothes out in public. It is the ultimate taboo, even to run to the supermarket for the quickest of errands. Italians change into their workout clothes at the gym and it is definitely frowned upon to be seen wearing your workout gear on the street (unless directly en route to the public park with a running trail, but no stopping allowed).
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Silly question, but what do the Milanese eat for breakfast and lunch?
Breakfast is a croissant or brioche and a cappuccino, usually eaten while standing at the local bar near your home or workplace and chatting with the barman. Every Italian has their bar, where the barman starts preparing the usual after establishing eye contact. He may not know your name, but he will greet you with an affectionate “Ciao, cara…” while he whips up your macchiato.
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Lunches are usually a quick panino, plate of pasta or a salad, and fortunately now there are more international restaurants opening up in Milan for sushi or even a hand-formed grass-fed burger. International food is definitely becoming more popular, as is the “kilometer zero” trend of sourcing and serving only local products, which I always thought was the case in Italy but now they are really taking it to the next level. One thing I have come to appreciate in Italy is only enjoying certain foods while they are in season. In the U.S., especially in Texas, we have everything on-demand, whereas in Italy we only enjoy truffles in the fall, asparagus in the spring, strawberries in the summer and so on. It makes me really look forward to the food of the season, also because the flavors are much more intense.
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Say we … surprise! … showed up in Milan this weekend and asked you to treat us to an insider’s Saturday. What would we do, where would we go? What would we wear???

What a treat! Milan actually empties out on the weekends (aside from Fashion Week), as the true Milanese escape to the mountains in the winter or the seaside in the summer. My husband and I rarely spend weekends in Milan, as we go back to our home in Bologna.

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On a Saturday you can really enjoy the true beauty of the city, as it is a little quieter. I like to walk a lot, so dress comfortable but still chic. The Milanese are ALWAYS chic, even on Saturdays! I would suggest to stay at The Yard, a great little boutique hotel in the Navigli district, with each room decorated in a different sport theme; they have an amazing breakfast, and the resident dog, Pina, greets the guests. The Navigli area (navigli means “canal” in Italian) has recently become a hip neighborhood, where bars, restaurants and shops now line the grand canals once constructed to transport the massive marble blocks to build the Duomo. I really enjoy it in the morning, with the warm light and mild bustle of people walking their dogs and morning deliverymen unloading the fresh fruit.
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There are some great vintage shops on the Ripa di Porta Ticinese, where we can also stop for another cappuccino at Mag Cafè, an eclectic local favorite. Next stop is the Fondazione Prada in another up-and-coming neighborhood near Corso Lodi. The former distillery from the early 1900s has been transformed by the architecture firm OMA, led by Rem Koolhaas, into a complex of both new and existing structures, including the “Haunted House,” a four-story tower covered in 24-k gold foil, which houses the permanent collection. The venue itself is worth seeing, and the exhibits are always a topic of conversation at every Milanese dinner party. A stop at the Bar Luce is mandatory to admire not only the Wes Anderson-designed interior, replicating a typical Milanese bar from the 1950s (complete with Formica tables, a jukebox and pinball machines), but also the waiters in their white shirts and black ties as they serve up delicious panini on buttery brioche bread, making this the perfect stop for a quick lunch.
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Next I would move back towards the center of town to the more traditional Brera district. Via Solferino and Corso Garibaldi are great for shopping, including one of my favorite new shops Milaura, where the owner presents her curated collection of gift items and clothing. Time for (yet another) coffee at my local coffee stop: El Tombon de San Marc. This restaurant/bar has literally stood still in time, with its Art Deco decor. I am personally obsessed with the green walls and red-leather chairs and booths, and love to stop in the mornings for a cappuccino and chat with Claudio, the barista. The downstairs is worth a visit for the brick vaulted ceilings and red Venetian chandeliers, which cast a romantic glow over the bistro chairs and cafe tables. Just up the street we can move on to the aperitivo at N’Ombra de Vin, a hot spot known just as much for the people-watching as for the incredible bottle-lined cellar. For dinner, there are so many new restaurants opening up and the Milanese love to eat out, so reservations are always a necessity. I would suggest Giacomo Bistrot, which is always delicious and elegant, and after a certain hour everyone starts to mingle with the tables next to them or at the bar, making it a perfect spot for you to practice your Italian after some grappa.
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What do you miss most about Texas?
My family, the convenience of grocery stores that are open late at night, casual backyard barbecues, Tex-Mex food and listing to live country music on a hot summer day while drinking a Shiner Bock beer. You can definitely take the girl out of Texas, but you can never take the Texas out of this girl!
What would you miss most about Florence and Milan if you left?
The food, and the little daily routines of getting a coffee at the bar and the ease of grabbing an aperitivo with friends, walking everywhere, being able to travel so easily…. We are definitely speaking very hypothetically because I don’t think I could ever leave!