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Shopping Italy: Something for Niente

Near Florence
PRADA
For the past few years, having the address of the Prada outlet, like knowing the unlisted number of the hottest restaurant in town, has been a source of keen satisfaction (and great clothes) among the fashion cognoscenti. But the real point of pride is knowing how to find the outlet. Hint No. 1: Technically, it is called I Pelleteria d'Italia, but the sign is so obscure it hardly matters. Hint No. 2: The exit off the autostrada is Montevarchi, the town is Levanelle, the landmark to look for is the IP gas station opposite a factory building with a sawtooth roof. Hint No. 3: If all else fails, merely idle on the main road until you see a taxi with a couple of stylish customers (often Japanese) pass by, then step on the gas.

Is it worth it?Well, do Prada (for men and women) and Miu Miu clothes at half price (and sometimes a bonus third or half off the half) appeal?Do trendsetting shoes and bags with little triangular metal labels make your heart skip a beat?We rest our knapsacks.
Prada, Localita Levanelle, Montevarchi; 39-55/978-9188.

PRATESI
At first, the Pratesi outlet north of Florence seems to be somewhat incongruously located, in the midst of nurseries planted to benefit from the wettest weather in Italy. Chances are you'll pass through a shower en route to the shop. (Be sure to park in the back, or you run the risk of being scowled at.) It's fitting that, aside from finely woven cotton sheets, pillowcases, and comforters, Pratesi carries terry cloth in every possible guise: towels, robes, even slipcovered wastebaskets.

Only those who dress their beds religiously in Pratesi won't suffer sticker shock. Even with a hefty discount of 50 percent, a cotton flat sheet for a king-size bed (84 by 116 inches) costs about $200. Still, there are small items such as stocking cases and wash mitts that bear the same embroidered logo and make packable, practical gifts. And an umbrella ($30) in a signature shade of orange (almost) as recognizable as that of a sister house of luxury, Hermès, may come in handy sooner than you think.
Pratesi Shop, 41 Via Montalbano, Casalguidi (near Pistoia); 39-573/526-462.

RICHARD GINORI
Fashion plates can easily find colorful ceramics in nearly every region of Italy, but for fine porcelain dinnerware they turn to Richard Ginori, whose headquarters are located in the suburb of Sesto Fiorentino, northwest of Florence.

The company factory and museum are easy to spot; the outlet is less so. Across from the factory, look for a plain yellow stucco building marked with a very small sign; go down the gravel drive to its left. Inside, friendly cashiers will help you sort through the dusty shelves of all-white porcelain seconds (a set of bone china, service for 12, with few visible flaws, was marked $350), and firsts of discontinued items such as a macÈdoine fruit set. Just remember, this is cash (or charge) and carry.
Botteguccia Richard Ginori, 19 Viale Giulio Cesare, Sesto Fiorentino; 39-55/421-0472.

In (or Near) Milan
FRETTE
At the small Frette outlet within the company headquarters in the heart of Milan, you can purchase the legendary linens at a 50 percent discount. To really feel like a thief, though, go to the Spaccio Frette shop in Concorezzo, on the northeastern outskirts of the city, where the remainders from hotel and restaurant orders are sold. With the 6 p.m. closing hour bearing down on me, I had to pick fast: two damask tablecloths reversing from apple green to sunny yellow, and the last dozen and a half white damask dinner napkins designed for the Four Seasons hotels. The grand total: $26. Only bulk and weight dissuaded me from throwing in a pair of cotton single-bed blanket covers ($8 each) produced for New York's Carlyle Hotel; ditto a plush terry robe for London's Dorchester ($23), which would have been fun to stuff into my bag legitimately.
Spaccio Frette, Via Visconti di Modrone, Milan, 39-2/777-091; and 45 Via Vittorio Veneto, Concorezzo, 39-39/604-9390.

IL SALVAGENTE
Upholding their reputation as the most fashion-conscious people in the world costs the Milanese the earth, or so it would seem. Savings on clothing are only to be had at the twice-yearly sales and, for the savviest, year-round at Il Salvagente (literally, "the life preserver"), an outlet for many designers' factories. An easy taxi or— if you're really intent on saving— bus ride from the center of Milan, the shop offers something for most sizes and all budgets. Men's clothes are relegated to the second floor, as are women's sweaters and a sparse selection of ladies' shoes and belts. The closer you move to the cash register, the more enticing the inventory becomes, increasing the risk of impulse shopping. Fair warning: big-ticket items like Jil Sander suits and Versace gowns are within grabbing distance as you hand over your credit card.
Il Salvagente, 16 Via Fratelli Bronzetti, Milan; 39-2/ 7611-0328.

ETRO
Yes, the Etro outlet, next to the company's offices in Milan, carries ties, robes, and slippers in signature subtle paisleys. But the range of luxury goods here is broader than you'd expect. Downstairs are racks loaded with suits, shirts, and sensational waistcoats for men and women. On the main floor, the inventory skips from pillows to bathing suits to "Midnight Mass" scented candles. Count on seeing the sublime (cashmere coats) and the ridiculous (crocodile-skin holders for Etro fragrances) as well as the downright practical (two-faced wool and alpaca fabric for less than $20 a meter).
Etro, 3 Via Spartaco, Milan; 39-2/5502-0218.

SETERIE RATTI
The silk route in Europe begins and ends in Como, an easy drive north from Milan. If you're after finished goods rather than fabric by the yard— scarves and ties made for Lagerfeld, Valentino, and Armani, as well as dressing gowns, pillows, and shirts in sophisticated prints on heavy silk— head for Ratti.

With its sweeping views of Lake Como, Ratti is one of the few outlets where the setting lives up to the elegance of the wares. Best of all, you can take what you've "saved" and splurge on a terrace lunch at Villa D'Este, just up the road in Cernobbio.
Seterie Ratti, 10 Via Cernobbio, Como; 39-31/269-053.

Keep in Mind . . .

  • Outlets are frequented mostly by Italians; don't count on being helped by an English-speaking clerk. Carrying a small English/Italian dictionary is highly recommended. Useful distinctions: farmhouse = fattoria, factory = fabbrica, fabric = tessuto.
  • Many outlets are fairly close to a major city but poorly identified. Even armed with a detailed local map (an essential), plan on plenty of U-turns, and don't be shy about asking for directions.
  • Take a size-conversion chart as well as the measurements of your beds, dining table, and family members. A tape measure marked in inches and centimeters is especially helpful.
  • Even guidebooks get information wrong. Call to confirm hours, directions, and forms of payment.
  • Have your receipts handy for the customs agents. They'll never believe your designer purchases come in under the limit.

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