Travel Loot

Vintage Shopping in Milan: A Secondhand Paradiso

by Lauren Lumsden
Scenes La Scala, Madame Pauline, Navigli, Foto Veneta Ottica. All photos by Lauren Lumsden.

MILAN - On my first day in Milan, a new Italian friend told me: "For most tourists, the appeal of Milan isn't as immediate as Rome or Florence. But give it a few days. It may surprise you."

Now, having just spent a week there, I’m indeed surprised to report: Milan is my new favorite European city.

Beneath its industrial reputation — or perhaps in part because of it — it's a town of pure, uniquely Milanese charm. Think beautiful nonnas in fitted suits that could be something they sewed themselves 30 years ago OR Ferragamo. Baroque-era palazzi beside severe, Brutalist towers, all softened by surpluses of balcony foliage. (And not just the famed Bosco Verticale either. I saw so much green I surmised there might be a tax break for plants.) Italy's oldest bookstore, Libreria Bocca (1731), next to the world's first Prada store (1913), next to the Campari bar (1915) — all inside the country's first indoor mall, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (1877).

Milan's a hub for good taste, and it's been that way a very long time. 

And it's precisely this combo of ubiquitous aesthetic flair, commercial trailblazing, and historical high-browedness that makes Milan the city for vintage shopping. Even if you're not in the market for ‘90s Versace (so. much. Gianni.), it's worth going on the ride: Many of the shops feel like meticulously curated museums; the blight of fast fashion nowhere to be found.

Here are the places I shopped, window-shopped, and loved around town, followed by a mapped plan of attack and general vintage shopping tips.

Clockwise from top left: Lauren in her new Paola Belle frames, Veneta’s second-generation owner Giorgio, scenes from the shop.

Foto Veneta Ottica 
Via Torino, 57
I found this place by typing "vintage" into Google Maps, and proceeded with skepticism up to the second floor of an old building off busy Via Torino. The tiny, multi-roomed optical shop that awaited this four-eyed traveler was so special. I imagine Veneta feels not so different from when it opened in 1931: shelves of thousands and thousands of high-end deadstock or gently used one-of-a-kind eyewear dating back to the early 1900s sit alongside new designer frames. The current owner, Giorgio, the son of the shop's founder, also amassed a fetching collection of cameras that he put on display, though not for sale. (The family loves a lens.) I bought sturdy 1980s sunglasses for €150, and if anyone dares to say I'm embracing the "mob wife" trend (ugh), well, I’ll be wearing these forever.

Scenes from Humana Vintage on Via Edmondo de Amicis: a busy collage for a busy store. So many bright colors and tags from long gone Italian designers from the '60s-'80s.

Humana Vintage
Via Edmondo de Amicis, 43
Via Vigevano, 32 
Via Cappellari, 3
This chain of charity second-hand shops has three locations in Milan. I hit two and found both to be exceptional, though my favorite was on via Edmondo de Amicis, just south of Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio, the church of da Vinci's Last Supper masterpiece. Don't expect couture. Humana’s like the Italian big sister of Brooklyn-based consignment darlings LTrainVintage or Beacon's Closet. Almost everything is priced €15-25 and, while there's a tiny designer section, most of the clothes are by little-known and long-gone Italian labels. You'll see tags in a ‘70s font — or no tags at all. In other words, the stuff the Golden Girls would've worn if they were Italian (a.k.a. my dream style). I bought three colorful dresses, a denim vest, and a mockneck button-up shirt — all for €80.

The room of pinks and reds, an old Gianni Versace tag on a gorgeous coat, the bags and hats collection, Cavalli e Nastri’s Mora storefront

Cavalli e Nastri
Via Gian Giacomo Mora, 12
Via Brera, 2
Before my trip, this was the shop my Milanese friend said I had to visit. Of the two locations, I went to via Mora shop, which felt like a visit inside the closet of Tilda Swinton’s character in I Am Love (filmed in Milan at the absolute must-visit Villa Necchi Campiglio across town), with gowns she would've worn to La Scala and luncheon-appropriate suits. There's an emphasis on the greats — Prada, Valentino, Hermès, Chanel, Armani, Versace — as well as no-longer-around-but-revered Italian names like Pirovano, Krizia, and Roberta di Camerino (all whose lives are worth a Google). I tried on a million things — the shopkeeper indifferent to my existence — including a red Karl Lagerfeld dress circa 1992 that was just a little too big to justify its €500 price tag. I bought a zip-up Isabel Marant Etoile sweater for €150. Not Italian, I know, but imminently wearable (and currently selling on eBay for more than $300).

Madame Pauline, from left: A '90s Versace shirt (€675), two label-less dresses Lauren loved but didn’t buy (€90 and €225), the display, coats from their in-house bandana collection, the label-less '60s-era swimsuit giving nostalgia (€180).

Madame Pauline
Foro Buonaparte, 74
If you vintage shop in Milan, there will be that one piece you regret not buying your entire plane ride home — and mine was a label-less striped metallic party dress from Pauline's. Tough life, I know. This dreamy shop is small but expertly curated and so colorful. In addition to the vintage, they carry a signature (new) bandana collection. I was weirdly moved by a plaid vintage swimsuit, imagining my grandma wearing it in the 1960s, if she'd ever gone to Lake Como (an hour’s train ride from Milan, btw). It was so perfectly preserved — in better condition than new stuff I purchased last year — a testament to the craftsmanship of the past.

Clockwise from left at Bivio: Paco Rabanne “Salvador Dali” dress (€500), the store’s entry, Lauren in an Erika Cavallini jacket (€595), a label from handmade Italian designer Rota Armeria Meschieri, a Balmain blazer (€395), Prada boots (€210).

Bivio Milano
Via Gian Giacomo Mora, 4
I was struck how everything was in perfect quality at Bivio, including shoes. This seems like the main criteria for what they buy, since Bivio stocks a huge range of prices and designers (minus, of course, fast fashion). For this reason, the shop, which has been around for a little over ten years and has three locations (one women’s, one men’s — both in the Mora neighborhood — and, another for men and women), feels a little more contemporary than the other high-end shops I visited. Which means you’re more likely to find newer Pinko, Marni, and Balmain items, which was a welcome sight.

Vintage Delirium asked Lauren not to take photos, so she snapped these vague photos of the buzzer and courtyard outside the shop.

Vintage Delirium by Franco Jacassi
Via Giuseppe Sacchi, 3
The shopkeepers at Delirium kindly asked me not to take photos. A shame, because this collection belonged in the Met’s Costume Institute. The entrance isn’t on the street but rather inside an unassuming courtyard. My first impression through the door was that Delirium is fine, just fine. But buckle up: Treasures abound in the overstuffed labyrinth of rooms upstairs and beyond. If you’re lucky, an employee might lead you out of the store, down some steps, and into the well-lit, huge, and not-sketchy basement. (As a solo female traveler, I hear “basement” and flags go up; not warranted here.) What booty! Multiples of swinging Pucci swimsuits, a straight-from-the-’91-runway Marilyn Monroe Versace gown (allegedly not for sale), and immaculately preserved lace, buttons, and 1950s women’s shoes, to name a fraction. I saw so much ‘80s and ‘90s Versace that I wondered if this guy Franco wasn’t a relative.

Urzí Vintage
Via Ciovasso, 6
This one was a welcome change of pace from the other shops. It’s on the quietest, most idyllic little block in Brera, and the shopkeeper smiled (smiled!?) warmly (warmly!?) at me when I walked in. It had perhaps the smallest inventory of all the boutiques I saw, but was the most carefully curated and decently priced, starting around €25. If you're into the chic French girl label Sézane, Urzì feels like stepping into the secondhand, Italian version: think your coolest friend’s closet, with a good mix of high-end designer and ‘70s/’80s one-of-a-kind pieces, all wearable when you walk out the store.

Ripa di Porta Ticinese, 47
I won’t lie to you: A visit to Guendj is overwhelming. A million leather jackets seem crammed into a square foot; a busy, endearingly frazzled proprietor at a desk in the middle. But the high quality, vintage, and reworked jackets and denim are worth the dig. The inventory reminded me of what model Erin Wasson would’ve worn in the aughts — and it’s conveniently located on the Navigli, so you can take in the canal and eat risotto (I liked a place called Officina del Riso) before and after.

This photo is clickable.

A Walking Guide for Hitting Every Shop in One Day

Attempting this would be very ambitious, but doable. My suggestion would be to start at Madame Pauline, just south of Castello Sforzesco, and end at Guendj, immediately followed by aperitivo/dinner on the Naviglio Canal. If you were going to walk it straight through, it’d take only 57 minutes, but I spent about an hour in every shop.

Here’s a link to the walk in Google Maps that you can open on your phone.

Note that I included a delicious pizza pitstop at Romoletto, about halfway through. (You’re welcome!) Also, on your way from Brera (where Pauline and Urzi are), you could make a detour to see the Duomo, the Galleria, and La Scala, but my two cents: Those are worth their own day. 

You’ll pass other vintage shops on your journey (I wanted to hit Groupies, but it was closed while I was there), so consider this a curated starting point to build your own adventure. 

General Tips for Vintage Shopping in Milan

  • Store hours are sometimes just a suggestion, and many places close for an extended lunch break (welcome to Italia!). If you're really worried, call before you go, though no one may pick up. Basically, take the risk.
  • Don't be offended if store employees aren't super warm and helpful. It's just how it goes sometimes. Personally, I liked that they weren't hovering.
  • Sadly, there just isn’t a lot of diversity in sizing — and the max size you’ll find is probably a 12 or 14 (American). You’ll definitely encounter dresses and coats that could fit an array of body types, but truth be told the inclusivity movement didn’t kick in until quite recently in Europe (and still eludes many high-end designers).
  • Speaking of sizing, as with any vintage clothing, it’s wildly inconsistent (if you can find it on the tag at all). You will want to try it on. Fitting rooms in all these shops were small but clean.
  • About haggling. I was warned by a local not to do it in Milan because store owners would be offended, so I bypassed the temptation.
  • Don't vintage shop on your last day in Milan. You are going to linger on things you wish you'd purchased after the shops are closed and want to go back. Give yourself a one-day decision-making cushion.
  • Don't wear any makeup (this is true for shopping in general). It makes trying on items so much easier and carefree.
  • I couldn’t fit everything in my suitcase, so I brought all my purchases to the airport in a shopping bag, which was technically a second carry-on. I thought the airline might make me check my first carry-on, but they didn’t. Maybe (or maybe not) this could work for you, too. 
  • When you’re shopping, take a break and get some gelato. You need energy, and this is yet another benefit of vintage shopping in Italy that you must take advantage of. 

Where to Stay

Hotel Principe di Savoia
High-End Luxury
From the minute you walk into the perfumed entryway at Principe, past the top hat-wearing valets, Fiat-sized floral arrangements, and fellow guests in Fendi boots, it's obvious this is THE hotel in Milan for the well-heeled set. The 301 rooms further the only-in-Milan style of opulence: giant, canopied beds with six pillows, wood paneled and Italian marble everything, and the biggest closets we've ever seen in a hotel room (Gucci execs and Condé editors need somewhere to store all their outfit changes during Fashion Week). Definitely carve out time for Principe's exclusive "Art Trail" walking tour led by a longtime Sotheby's historian tolearn about Milan through the lens of one artist's life/work. It's about two hours on your feet, but — trust — you'll want to get in your steps after the hotel's famously insane buffet breakfast.

Vico Milano
Modern Boutique
The seven-room Vico Milano feels like going to a friend's house — that is, a well-traveled friend who has astonishingly good taste in art, furniture, and architecture (basically, the trifecta of what makes contemporary Milan Milan). Every corner of the hotel, which used to be a factory for racing bikes, manages to be a photo op and homey at the same time. We stayed in room no. 1, which had a little foyer-cum-closet and Moroccan-tiled bathroom (with a Dyson hairdryer *chef's kiss*) on its first floor and a bed underneath about five skylights (that can be closed for black-out effect) on its second. Take advantage of the honesty bar at night and absolutely get chocolate granola at breakfast.

Budget + Cool
Finding LaFavia takes a second: You enter through a little door carved into a big door, then pass through three more doors and a casket-sized (but somehow still charming?!) elevator. Embrace the journey; there's a verdant little oasis on the other side with four rooms (we stayed in the Oaxaca) that cost about 100 euros/night. Don't expect luxury frills, but the necessities are covered elegantly: a simple breakfast with a good cappuccino, comfortable beds, and access to a well-kept little garden that'll make you want to write poetry (we did, but don't ask to see it). LaFavia's location in the middle of Milan's bustling Chinatown is also great if you need a break from risotto — as if.

How to Get There

I flew La Compagnie, the Paris-based boutique airline — and the one remaining business-class-only airline in the world — that flies from New York to Paris, Milan, and (seasonally) Nice. There's a lot to love: Their prices that are consistently cheaper than competitors, every seat becomes a fully reclining bed, and all flyers get a few meals, unlimited good booze (if sleep isn’t your thing), and all the other higher-class bells ‘n’ whistles. Read more about my flight on Fathom.

We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.