Shopping in Italy: Bargains at Prada, Gucci & Italy Outlet Shopping

By Kathy McCabe, Editor and Publisher, Dream of Italy, The Insider’s Guide to Undiscovered Italy

The buildup is intense. First you have to find the Prada Outlet (officially called Space) among the nondescript buildings in the town 45 minutes from Florence. The high-fashion designer doesn’t put any sign on the warehouse where it operates its outlet, and the directions it gives out aren’t much help either.

Luckily, any good citizen of Montevarchi knows the place and has probably been asked about it a thousand times already.

Then there’s the whole issue of taking a number. Prada allows only 100 shoppers inside at one time and averages about 1,000 visitors a day. So it employs a space-age-looking computerized counter to allot numbers to those shoppers raring to get inside. The wait time can be just a few minutes or a matter of hours. Again, by shrewd planning on the part of Prada, there’s a cafe’ on-site for you to patronize while you wait.

International shopping guru Suzy Gershman says outlet shopping is the smartest way to shop in Italy these days. “With the euro, and now the much weaker dollar, Italian outlets are the only way to go,” notes Ms. Gershman, author of Suzy Gershman’s Born to Shop: Italy (Frommer’s, 2001). “The savings and quality are great,” she adds.

Another great Italy stop is the Gucci outlet, about half an hour away. More on that later.

In addition to very good food, the Prada cafe’ serves up some fine people watching. Many of the customers, Asians, Americans, Brits and Italians alike, are dressed in their Prada best, and some look like models about to walk down the runway. But then there are also the usual tourists in shorts and sneakers. And don’t worry, as you eat, you can stare longingly at the monitor, indicating the number of the next group to go inside, willing it to move faster.

Once inside, it’s hard to choose which section to attack first. As you enter, shoes are directly in front of you, with handbags, accessories and collection pieces to the right and skin care, sunglasses and sportswear to the left. And the prices are to die for.

During last summer’s sale (20 percent off the already deep discounts), small classic Prada handbags were offered at the equivalent of $70 each, leather key holders at $30, beautiful women’s moccasins (similar to J.P. Tod’s) at $50.

These were the best bargains and prices went up from there. So you could still spend several hundred dollars on a purse, but that’s likely to be half of its original price.

Then there’s the fact that if you spend over 185 euros (about $185 at the current exchange rate), you get the value-added tax (VAT) back when you leave the country. That’s 20.6 percent.

And how can you not spend several hundred dollars, stocking up on gifts for the folks at home and presents for yourself?

As with American outlets, Italian outlets, including Prada, are the final stops for last season’s merchandise. So you will find the fluorescent green flats that didn’t sell, or the shirt with the shredded look that fashionistas wouldn’t be caught dead in.

But Ms. Gershman cautions that there can be some real finds in the mix as well.

“Old merchandise can be classical enough to not matter,” she says. Keep in mind that all of the merchandise came from Italian or European stores, so you could still out-fashion your neighbor by buying pieces that may have never been sold in the United States.

The outlet carries all of Prada’s lines, including Miu Miu, Helmut Lang, Jil Sander and Church’s shoes. The staff is helpful and free of the attitude you will find at many of the label’s stores throughout the world. Next stop, Gucci.

The high-style Gucci Outlet is only about a half-hour drive from Prada. It’s housed in an elegant shopping strip called The Mall, along with Bottega Veneta, Giorgio Armani, Loro Piana, Sergio Rossi and Yves Saint Laurent outlets.

Thankfully, there’s no number system or waiting to get in, although the outlet can get crowded. Gucci’s decor exudes more elegance than Prada’s, and items are carefully displayed on glass shelves.

Handbags, shoes, accessories, men’s clothing and women’s clothing each have a separate salon. Gucci seems to have a better selection of classic pieces than Prada does.

You can snap up a beautiful black leather wallet for $75. The best find of a summer shopping spree last year: a small leather purse for $45. Men’s ties were also about $45. As with Prada, Gucci will give you a cloth drawstring bag for each of your items.

“At Gucci, I got such bargains, I am still drooling, such as a blue silk sports jacket for my singer-songwriter son, for $125,” Ms. Gershman boasts. Again, factor in the VAT refund if you spend enough.

If dropping cash makes you hungry, try the eatery called Cafe’ at the entrance of The Mall. It keeps with the shopping theme by continuously playing fashion videos on screens around the restaurant.

Start saving. The outlets are waiting.

If you go…

PRADA OUTLET
Location: Levanella Spacceo, Strada Statale 69, Montevarchi.
Phone: 011-39-55 978-94-81
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 2 to 7 p.m. Sunday.
Driving: From the A1 motorway, take the exit marked Baldano. Follow the signs for Arezzo and then for Montevarchi. You pass through a series of traffic lights, and a warehouse/factory will be on your left. That’s Prada. There’s no sign on the building; just follow the people.
Train: Take the train from Florence’s Santa Maria Novella Station to Montevarchi (one hour), then continue by taxi (about 20 minutes) to the outlet.

GUCCI OUTLET
Location: Via Europa 8, Leccio, Reggello 50060.
Phone: 011-39-55 865-77-75
Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 3 to 7 p.m. Sunday.
Driving: From the A1 motorway, take the exit marked Incisa. Stay on the right toward Pontassieve until reaching Leccio. Soon after passing the center of Leccio, The Mall will be on the left.
Train: Take the train from Florence’s Santa Maria Novella Station to Rignano sull’Arno, then continue by taxi (about five minutes) to Leccio.
Shuttle bus: There’s a daily service from Florence to and from The Mall. Phone: 011-39-55-865-77-75

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