The environs of Rome’s Spanish Steps and Via Condotti, while steeped in history and romance, are today a haven for global luxury fashion brands. From the monolithic Christian Dior store that overlooks the steps to the sumptuous Louis Vuitton boutique, the biggest labels in the world have made these cobbled streets their home. The prominence of these world-class major names, however, helps to make finding artisanal, handcrafted, labour-intensive, custom-made pieces all the more exciting. Finding these gems is the fashion equivalent of truffle hunting. In today’s fast-fashion world, under-the-radar artisan brands with a sense of heritage are the equivalent of gold dust and Rome, happily, has a rich treasure trove to offer.
Near the bustling streets around the Spanish Steps and Via Condotti, one can find ivy-draped Via Margutta, where Roman Holiday was filmed, tucked away from the main streets and lined with sumptuous Roman townhouses in shades of buttercup yellow, sepia and tangerine. It’s here that Saddlers Union, established in 1957, keeps a discreet workroom and emporium, with no signage or window displays. Saddlers Union was founded when the city’s film stars made their way across the cobbles to seek out the brand’s expertly crafted leather pieces. Jackie Onassis made the distinctive Saddlers Union bucket bag an iconic style piece; Italian aristocrats such as Gianni Agnelli bought their custom-made travel bags here. When it comes to quiet, stealth luxury, no one does it quite like Saddlers Union.
Now located opposite the house where Federico Fellini used to live, Saddlers Union was given a new lease of life in 2009 when designer and tastemaker Micaela Calabresi Marconi and her businessman brother Paolo relaunched the slumbering brand, which had closed in 2004. Marconi, who previously worked in PR for Giorgio Armani, had long been a devotee of Saddlers Union craftsmanship, and, on hearing it had closed, set out to revive this Roman icon. ‘My family used to be clients,’ says Marconi. ‘I found one of the founding artisans, who was living in the suburbs of Rome. He was making items out of his garage. I felt compelled to ask him, why don’t we [re]open Saddlers?’ The designer convinced the craftsman after he saw the store space.
Each bag, belt and, new for the 21st century, the brand’s home collection, is crafted by hand using Italian leather, finished and lined by hand and available in only the most discreet shapes and colours, with no logos or obvious fashion branding. Impeccable chocolate brown leather travel cases that look as though they could have been lifted from the luggage racks of the Orient Express (apart from the wheels fitted for modern convenience), leather director’s chairs and, of course, that iconic bucket bag in richest ostrich skin are all the result of intensive labour and generations of knowledge. The final flourish for luxury consumers? Customised elements such as a sumptuous flourish of initials, if they so desire.
Rome’s respect for its heritage labels has led the city to establish the Associazione Negozi Storici di Eccellenza di Roma (Association of Historical Stores of Excellence in Rome), an organisation that seeks to preserve its old-world gems. One of its most sought-after members is Caleffi, a traditional master Italian shirt-maker founded in the late 19th century. Caleffi’s custom-made, handcrafted shirts for men are crafted in exquisite Egyptian cotton. The label sources its fabric from the same suppliers as Louis Vuitton and Charvet, and its focus is on artisanal craft and the importance of fit.
The connoisseur of handcrafted excellence can also find peerless history and heritage in the rich surroundings of Cartoleria Pantheon, three tiny, quaint stores set around the cobbled streets around the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. In each of the stores, which retain their original dark wood interiors, the ancient crafts of book binding and paper making are alive and well. Founded in 1910, the brand creates hand-painted notebooks with delicate, beautiful patterns, sumptuously intricate hand-painted wrapping paper, writing accessories such as pens made from Murano glass, feather quills, blotters and wax seals, alongside – something of a showpiece – hand-painted paper music boxes that capture scenes of dancing maidens and violin-playing musicians. The effect is one of stepping into the past, but it is solid reality in the heart of bustling Rome. These brands are all keeping craft not only alive but thriving in the city.