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How fashion-forward is Milan? It's the kind of city where you can spend every minute of every achingly stylish day following in the stiletto-heeled footsteps of top designers. That can mean, say, a morning browsing through the new men's line at the Prada boutique, lunch at either of Roberto Cavalli's two cafes, and an afternoon trying on impeccably cut blazers at Emporio Armani, followed by cocktails at the martini bar attached to Dolce & Gabbana's men's store.
Not enough? Book a quick shave at the D&G barbershop to clean up for your dinner at the Gucci Cafe. And don't be surprised if you bump into a real-life brand name along the way: Stefano Gabbana once told CNN that he and Domenico Dolce "love staying in the middle of the people. If you go in the restaurant, walk in the street, you go shopping, and watch, look, the people give a lot of information." And Giorgio Armani has said that he stops at his own sushi bar, Nobu, most evenings for a drink. "It's around the corner from my house and has a great atmosphere. It helps me unwind and is, I suppose, my way of getting close to the everyday life of the city I love."
Certainly, there are prettier Italian cities (actually, almost any of them) dishing up better pasta and more sublime Renaissance masterworks, but Milana -- a northern Italian urban center that takes its lead from sober neighbor Switzerland -- has always been Italy's industrious town, and it puts all that discipline behind the one industry it knows best: fashion. If that has made it a company town, at least it's the kind of company you'd want to keep; just about every top Italian designer is based here. And Milan's reputation just keeps building. Now hosting four ready-to-wear designer shows a year, the city is at its best in late June and mid January, when the men's shows are staged. Those are the optimum times to get a jump on the season's fashions and luxuriate in the sea of male models, who turn the city, momentarily, into one crammed catwalk.
The city's significance as a fashion capital came into full global force during the 1990s, thanks to northern Italy's perfect marriage of modern textile plants and sophisticated talent. Although less progressive than Parisian or even London design, Italian style has always been known for its sleek and classic lines, which works well in the more conservative men's fashion world.
Even if you can't afford the haute fashions, Milan's stylish cottage industry still pays off. First, the sheer accumulation of designers, and the runway models who love them, makes the city, by default, Italy's most openly gay city; because Gucci holds more sway here than the Vatican, the queer scene doesn't have to go into hiding. The city's explosion of boutiques, some actually affordable, means Milan is still the best place for that one big shopping spree -- a mandatory climax to your Gay Grand Tour. Rivaling the Duomo (the city's go-for-baroque cathedral) and sitting just to its north is the epicenter of Italian fashion, the quadrilatero. Its boundaries are, roughly, Via Alessandro Manzoni (west), Via della Spiga (north), Corso Venezia (east), and Via Monte Napoleone (south). That's where you can find Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Moschino, Etro, Gucci, Versace, and Valentino. And Armani. And so on.
If you'd rather limit that excess of choices, head to 10 Corso Como, a bazaar (complete with upstairs hotel) that features a highbrow selection of Italian fashions, accessories, and housewares, all anchored by a cafe and the invariably chic Carla Sozzani Gallery. If you're looking for discounts (of up to 50%), join the locals at the outlets like the D Magazine Outlet. Since this is an Italian shopping outlet, you'll be picking through yet more Armani, Gucci, and Prada, not the two-for-one khakis and last-decade polo shirts.
How can you improve on this kind of haul? Enterprising Milan is now branching out beyond the catwalk, local designers have started producing housewares, so now you can choose a sofa that will coordinate perfectly with your formal wear, because Versace designed both. Having established a martini bar and barbershop, Dolce & Gabbana has opened a full-blown restaurant, Gold -- famous for its luxe white-and-gold interior.
And don't even think of trying to escape the designer imprint when you bed down for the night: Moschino and Armani hotels are opening in 2008. It's only a matter of time before Dolce or Gabbana (preferably Gabbana) will be tucking you in.