From the café tables on the top floor terrace of la Rinascente, you get a fantastic view of the Cathedral and its spires. The two buildings are close one to another, and they are both symbols of Milan, the Cathedral with its spire, and la Rinascente with its glittering history as a department store. la Rinascente’s story began just over 150 years ago, when it was founded by the Bocconi brothers. They revolutionised the retail industry in Milan, and the store saw many landmark events: the first electric lightbulb in Italy was turned on here, Mary Quant presented the first miniskirt in the store. To find out more about la Rinascente and its role in the city today, we spoke to CEO Alberto Baldan.
LUXOS: What is the most important feature of la Rinascente?
Alberto Baldan: The fact that it is an expression of the city. There are la Rinascente stores in many locations in Italy and abroad, and for each, we research the distinctive features of the city. At la Rinascente in Milan, you discover a 1,000 square metre design floor, unique to this city of design. From the 1930s to the ‘70s, all the top designers worked for la Rinascente, and in 1954, la Rinascente founded the Compasso d’Oro design prize, to encourage the work of artisans who were forging new manufacturing enterprises and helping the country’s rebirth after the War. It has become a tradition that la Rinascente plays an active part in the Salone del Mobile week. For the third consecutive year, Serpentine Galleries will collaborate with la Rinascente on a special commission for the department store’s eight store-front windows. Moreover, the annex’s windows, in an area of the store completely dedicated to teenage girls, will feature installations by students from Central St. Martins. During Design Week, la Rinascente will become a piece of the UK and of international design..
View over Milan's Duomo from the rooftop restaurant
Could you tell us about your approach to customers?
Alberto Baldan: I never talk about customers. For us they are people first and foremost. As soon as they enter our store, or our website, they become visitors, and once they buy a product, only then do they become customers. You can buy products everywhere, but when people go to la Rinascente, they are looking for something else: an hour spent pleasurably. Perhaps you have a coffee, read the paper, and have a look round. It becomes a 45-minute holiday.
I ask our staff for two things: first, provide advice on the right product for each visitor, rather than just simply selling something. Shoes that fit well and suit the wearer. The second thing is to surprise the tourist with information on what is going on in the city, exhibitions, museums and restaurants. In August in Milan, la Rinascente is a point of reference for tourists, because everything else is closed, but we want this added value to be a constant feature, for all the ten million visitors we receive in the store every year.
In Dubai and China, shopping malls increasingly stage performances and concerts. Is this something that you would like to do?
Alberto Baldan: We don’t have as much space as those sorts of shopping malls, but more importantly, for us the performance is already there, around us: a stroll down Corso Vittorio Emanuele, a visit to the Cathedral rooftop, a trip to Prada’s store in the Galleria. The same is true of Rome, Copenhagen and our other stores. In these European cities, you are surrounded by living art and history.
What is your definition of luxury?
Alberto Baldan: Luxury is subjective, and, with respect to la Rinascente, it could be going into the store, trying on a unique designer garment, and putting it back. You’ve had a fantastic experience. Being able to visit the store, buy a 2-euro bag of quality crisps and getting the la Rinascente bag, that’s also luxury. It’s nothing to do with price. Our luxury is accessible: the branded bag is the same whatever you spend.
la Rinascente's design department in the basement of the store
What are your plans for the future?
Alberto Baldan: In 2017 we will inaugurate the new Rome store, 15,000 square metres in the city centre, between Piazza di Spagna and Fontana di Trevi. But more importantly, more in general, we can look to our past to see our future. In 1904, our founders the Bocconi brothers opened the Bocconi University, Milan’s first business university, because they wanted to teach others what they had learned over the previous 40 years. Today, la Rinascente and the Bocconi University are two jewels. They wanted to give something back to the city, and the same thing is true today. The city has hosted us for many years, and we have the responsibility of giving something back. We support local museums and promote young designers. This helps the city to grow, and we grow with it. I’m here now, in ten years time there will be someone else, but the store will be a constant presence.