How Italy made me a designer label junkie

by FRANK BARRETT, Mail on Sunday

Last updated at 12:11 25 June 2001

All I had to do was solve the clues and I could win myself some swanky clothes at crazy knock-down prices. It was like a designer label treasure hunt.

Somewhere in the lovely Tuscan countryside, within a short drive of Florence, were the official factory outlet stores of Prada, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana. And I had been supplied with the sketchiest of directions on how to find them.

I started with Prada. I was told it is in a small town about a half-hour south of Florence. Ultra-fashionable Prada is keen to get rid of its surplus stock but, like the other two fancy dan companies, it doesn't want to make much fuss about it. And it has succeeded in keeping its outlet a state secret.

I found the town of Montevarchi but from then on I was more or less flying blind (and with no Italian, asking directions from locals wasn't an option).

I crawled along, peering left and right in search of this shopping holy grail. Just as I had almost given up I found a likely road running down the back of an anonymous factory. A car park already filling up with minibuses disgorging parties of Japanese gave the game away.

I followed the Japanese across to a machine, took a numbered ticket and slipped past a security guard into the modern, stylish Prada shop. I had arrived.

After a shameful binge there, the cashier gave me some tips on locating Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana (they are within a mile or so of each other).

I retraced my path to the autostrada and headed back towards Florence, leaving at the first exit and heading towards Leccio.

I knew both shops were on or near the main road, about five miles from the motorway. Was that a fashion factory shop? On closer examination, it sold naff concrete garden ornaments.

A couple of circuits later, the place that advertised itself as a café proved to be Gucci. After my shopping, the security man tried to tell me how to reach Dolce & Gabbana. Directions are useful only when they relate to landmarks. Here in the heart of the country there aren't any.

Once again, more cruising and fruitless knocks on other factory doors. Until I narrowed it down to one modern-looking building which seemed more like a maximum security prison than a shop. But once through the glass doors I was in a wonderful shop packed with extraordinary bargains.

The staff were pleased to see me. 'It's been quiet today,' they said. Given how hard it is to find, I imagine it must be very quiet every day.

Oh, I forgot. I'm not supposed to tell you where any of these shops are, they're meant to be a secret. You won't tell, will you?

Getting there: Italiatour (01883 621900) offers a range of short breaks to Florence. Prices start at £295 per person for a fly-drive package including direct flights from London to Florence or Bologna and fully inclusive car hire for seven days.

A double room at the Villa San Michele, an Orient-Express five-star hotel near Florence, costs from £520 per night including breakfast and lunch or dinner. Call Leading Hotels of the World (0800 181123).

Click below to read about the designers and discover where they are in Florence:

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