Firenze. January 2012.

Dear Rowley,

What better way to chase the New Year blues away than hopping on a Malpensa to Florence for the January edition of Pitti Uomo? The bi-annual Florentine men’s fashion foundation puts on the best fashion exposition bar none and, you’ll recall, sponsored the inaugural London Cut exhibition shown in the Palazzo Pitti in 2007.  I wasn’t intending to travel this year but our fearless leader Anda decided a school trip was necessary to source makers for the new Anderson & Sheppard shop at  No 17 Clifford Street so she, Audie and I boarded a plane for an escapade that can only be described as Carry On Up the Arno.

Now I’ve stayed in practically every hotel in Florence on numerous trips to Pitti…not to mention the odd private address and public square in younger days. In fact you only have to look at my photographs to get a rough idea of previous escapades in Firenze. For this trip we were billeted at the charming Pensione Hermitage with views overlooking the Arno and the very window that Helena Bonham-Carter peeped out of in the Merchant Ivory film Room With A View.

In the aforementioned book, E. M. Forster invented a Cockney signora who spoke Italian with all the finesse of a costermonger. Our Signora was of German extraction and chewed gum as if she were auditioning for a spaghetti Western. Frau Hermitage was six feet one in heels and the kind of gal who, should an earthquake strike Florence, would bear the weight of the campanile until everyone had fled to safety. She checked us in before you could say ‘Greta mit die grosse titten’  and we were led to our rooms. I flung open the shutters to drink in the intoxicating view: in this instance a lugubrious pigeon nesting in a wall of Medieval masonry giving me the eyeball as if to say ‘nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen’.

Undeterred, I slipped into the Pitti uniform – whereby all men in attendance have to wear spray-on white trousers with a tailored jacket, shirt, tie and something fanciful draped artfully about the neck as if one were posing for Canova – and we sallied forth. The light in Florence in January is searingly beautiful but the climate so chill it makes one entirely understand why the locals decided to burn Savanarola. Now I have always found the Florentines a gorgeous peacock of a ‘don’t hate me because I’m beautiful’ race. But the economic climate has clearly placed a chill at the heart of Italian culture.

Can’t tell you the number of restaurants we patronised whereby food was served at best grudgingly and at worst as if one were banged up in the Bargello and lucky to be thrown a crust. This is not the Florence I know. The only glimmer of Florentine loveliness we experienced was over dinner at Olio & Convivium on the Via Santo Spirito where we dined at the invitation of Pitti’s elegant director of communications Sibilla della Gherardesca. Sibilla’s family famously appear in Dante’s Inferno. So dining with she and Pitti CEO Raffaello is rather like being entertained at the court of Lorenzo ‘Il Magnifico’ de Medici.

And so to bed. My room had a heating system that would have defeated Stephen Hawking so the best part of the wee small hours was spent slipping in and out of a coma to soundbites from BBC World that became quite bewildering: a Malaysian politician acquitted of sodomy, Anthony Worrall Thompson half inching groceries and Tony Blair paying £300,000 tax on a £15 million income. I woke up in a cold sweat thinking Anthony Worrall Thompson had been sodomised in Malaysia and Tony Blair acquitted of stealing £300-worth of groceries from Tesco Metro.

Undaunted, I staggered up to the breakfast room that was deserted but for a table laid out with unimaginable things lurking beneath plastic domes on a gingham cloth. Was I still dreaming and this a bush tucker trial? A maid of Asian extraction appeared with a smile on her lips and knives in her eyes who, when asked for hot chocolate, gave a look that said ‘minimum wage’. I thought better of asking for eggs and bacon fearing a dagger would appear from the sole of her Dr Scholls a la Rosa Klebb.

Thus Anda, Audie and I sallied forth to the Fortezza del Basso and the wonderland of men’s fashion that is Pitti Uomo. I usually attend as press and it was an eye-opener to say the least to work the salons as a buyer. We were joined for lunch by Guy ‘Dashing Tweeds’ Hills and as a foursome decidedly stop traffic. Guy was resplendent in a Dashing Tweeds knickerbocker three-piece that got the Japanese snappers hopping up and down like overexcited meerkats.

Audie and I were on a mission to find sockage for No 17. I don’t think the exhibitors could have been more bemued had our accreditation badge read ‘Mrs Tiggywinkle and the Fantastic Mr Fox’. Had you any idea that there is a category of patterned knee length sock known in the trade as ‘business fancy’? Couldn’t have been more thrilled until we found a shade of silvery beige called ‘Mink Melange’. As Guy said, Mink Melange sounds like the late night act at the Copacabana Cocktail lounge in Vegas circa 1961: ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mink Melange and her milli0n dollar muff’.

There are many serious points to be made about this season’s Pitti Uomo but, quite frankly, it’s been too much fun sharing the gossip with you. I’ll give you the season’s highs and lows in the next letter. Until next time…