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La Rinascente

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La Rinascente

Now an established store chain with branches all across Italy, La Rinascente is a venerable pioneer, starting off as the first fashion store in Milan. Its owners, the Bocconi Brothers, had been inspired to set up a similar operation to Le Bon Marché in Paris, especially since French influences could already be seen in the Milanese way of dressing, which admittedly was more simple and reserved than in the French capital at the time.

Initially going under the name Aux Villes d'Italie, the store began its operations in 1865. In a city where bespoke tailors ran the show (in 1881, Milan had nearly 250 tailors and seamstresses), Aux Villes d'Italie started to offer ready-to-wear items. Soon after, the store came out with another new concept: the mail-order catalogue. That was an event in itself.

However, the business later went into a slump that was compounded by the economic dislocation of the First World War. In 1917, an entrepreneur named Senatore Borletti bought the nearly bankrupt store and decided to give it a new image. He asked a well-known Italian poet named Gabriele D'Annunzio to think up a new name for the establishment. D'Annunzio suggested La Rinascente, or "she who is born again". The name was to refer to a new life for the store under new management, and to the rebirth of war-torn and impoverished Italy. One year later, On Christmas night in 1918, the renovated premises burned to the ground as a result of a short circuit. Not to be deterred, Borletti had the store rebuilt and when it reopened again, it literally embodied an establishment that had been reborn from rubble and ruin. Not long after, La Rinascente established its place as the standard- bearer of Italian elegance and good taste. During the 1920s, the store's shop windows bore posters made by legendary Italian illustrator Marcello Dudovich, which exuded the joie de vivre of those times. The store building was severely damaged in air raids during the Second World War, rising again like a Phoenix from the ashes in 1950.

Among other things, La Rinascente is connected with a defining moment in the career of Italian fashion legend Giorgio Armani. During the early 1960s, he began working at the store as a shop window designer, before moving on to buy clothing collections. In this way, he learned a great deal about the fashion business, which helped him to build his own fashion empire.

The store itself experienced a gradual downturn, as many classic establishments do over time, becoming just an average and mundane department store by the 1990s. However, La Rinascente once again got a hold of itself during the early 2000s, placing an emphasis on the contemporary. At first its management revamped the cosmetics, accessories and shoe departments, then turned to the food section. The slightly run-down restaurant and cafeteria on the top floor were replaced by modern food bars and delicatessens. With the astute assistance of the London-based architect bureau Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, the store took full advantage of the top floor's greatest asset - an unsurpassed view of the majestic Milan Cathedral, which now looks like it is almost within arm's reach from the glass-walled terrace of the refurbished café.

In 2011, the Thailand-based Central Retail Corporation bought the store for 250 million euro, launching the third rebirth in the establishment's history. The following year, La Rinascente's fourth floor, which is devoted to women's fashion, received a new image. Its repainted pearl-grey walls now give off a hue of contemporary but sufficiently discrete luxury, providing an elegant backdrop for the cream of global and niche fashion brands. Chloé, Stella McCartney, Marni, Diane von Furstenberg, Alexander Wang, Vionnet, Rochas and Valentino are just some of the brand names that are currently represented at the store.

One initiator of these changes was the current chief executive officer, Vittorio Radice, who joined the Italian luxury store chain seven years ago and who previously presided over the restructuring of Selfridges, London's renowned fashion department store. Although style-wise La Rinascente remains more cautious and reserved than Selfridges, the recent changes are quite evident. In addition, the store has become involved in a number of social initiatives.

Last Christmas, for example, the store decorated its shop windows with "sun lamps" by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. Under the Little Sun project that Eliasson initiated together with the store, La Rinascente is providing solar-powered lamps to those parts of the world where electricity remains an unattainable luxury. The small lamps require only five hours of exposure to sunlight in order to provide household lighting that lasts an entire evening.

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