On a little concrete island in central Milan, a square block that staunches the flow of the city’s cacophonic traffic as it weaves its way to and from the historic centre, sits the castle-like brutalist wonder that is Largo Augusto 10. The impressive building, beneath a gridded, decorative facade, leans closer in size to a city street than a single structure. It’s an exquisite example of the inventiveness of Italian brutalist architecture and the ideal habitat for the complex of creative industries housed within.
Who is it that rules over this buzzing architectural ecosystem? Milan’s resident renaissance woman, Chichi Meroni.
Meroni, a sixth generation Milanese, is a living, breathing monument to the city’s inexhaustible potential for style. The multi hyphenate designer’s sparkling list of skills is long. She’s a clothing designer and couturier, creating a ready-to-wear line under the labels L’Arabesque and La Rêverie, as well as bespoke wedding dresses and gowns. She’s an interior decorator, whose keen eye for colour has won her the praises of seminal architects Renzo Mongiardino and Paolo Portoghesi. She’s an entrepreneur, whose portfolio of chic shops and elegant restaurants — most notably her cult store, L’Arabesque — consistently sit at the summit of Milan’s Best Of lists. She’s a dedicated antiquarian and vintage hound whose vast collection of ancient Japanese textiles and decorative screens rival those of national museums. And, finally, one of the last bastions of good taste, upholding the delicate dance of manners that once ruled Milan’s now-modernising bourgeoisie.
“It’s not talent,” insists Meroni as she discusses her path towards her current post as one of Milan’s matriarchs of style, “everything is work.”
Meroni’s schooling in fashion came early, when as a girl she would follow her mother, a former model, to dressmaking appointments at Rina Modelli, Milan’s answer to the Paris ateliers. “At that time you couldn’t be a model when you got married,” the designer recalls of her mother’s transition from clotheshorse to couture client, “you were only a ‘signora’”.
Watching her mother be pinned and primped by the tailors at work, she learned her way around a pattern. “How to try on a dress, how to fix a sleeve, choose revers, recognise defects and how to fix them,” she recounts of her fashion education. She still keeps the old school approach alive today by hand drawing most of her designs. Her otherwise exactingly organised desk heavy is with glass vases of fat, multicoloured sketching pens like bouquets of felt-tipped flowers.
Trips to the ateliers alongside her glamorous mother may have made the deepest mark on a young Meroni, but the real fun began when she got a little older. “Yves Saint Laurent designed my wedding dress,” she mentions, pulling out a black and white photo of her in the 70s, smiling jubilantly in a white organza gown with a tiered, scalloped hem and bracelet of fresh roses and pea blossoms trailing to the floor. “He was very sweet, a very polite and shy person,” Meroni remembers of Saint Laurent. “I went to his atelier to try on the dress and Catherine Deneuve was there too. It was so fun, I felt like a princess. I was only 19 and it was like a fairy world to me. I had to fight with my mom because he wanted me to wear a coloured satin ribbon as a belt — my mom wanted all white — so he tried with yellow, green, light blue and in the end he decided that I should go for acid green.”
Not much has changed: she still loves a kick of colour in a wedding dress. These days she devotes much of her time to dreaming up bespoke frocks for Milan’s blushing brides-to-be. But don’t expect any American-style sparkle on her gowns. “I’d rather someone wear a red dress than one with rhinestones,” she exclaims, “it doesn’t matter if it’s your first or fifth marriage: no crystals!”
Meroni’s fashion pronouncements may be strict as a schoolmarm and followed to a T by her hordes of adoring couture clients, but like a true Milanese, her first love is design. “I’ve always preferred design over fashion,” she insists. “Because design is where I started from. It was my father’s job, he was an industrialist who worked with Paolo Buffa and Giò Ponti. It’s what inspired me the most.” Indeed, most of the furniture that populates her bustling ground floor restaurant and cafe was designed by Meroni, which she mixes with a constellation of floating lanterns, antique Japanese screens and a smattering of midcentury modern pieces.
Meroni’s home, whose original architect was Paolo Buffa, is a testament to this devotion. Like the restaurant and shop floors below, she matches vintage furniture with art and objects sourced from China and Japan. But the apartment’s real stand-out feature is Meroni’s marvelous use of colour. Her bedroom walls are washed in Yves Klein blue, brilliantly contrasted with pops of ruby red on the upholstery of an antique bamboo chair and decorative Persian carpet. The pale greens and lights blues of her sitting room sofas bring out the natural toffee tones of a midcentury credenza and coffee table, alongside an intricate Murano glass chandelier above. Her bathroom walls are painstakingly painted with leaning fronds of leafy green bamboo, a design touch she admits isn’t given it’s fair shake these days: “If you have your walls decorated it means you really had to think about it,” she says. “It’s not something, like wallpaper, that can be duplicated. It’s meant to stay.”
The wall painting technique was inspired by seminal Milanese architect and interior designer, Renzo Mongiardino, whom Meroni counts as one of her greatest inspirations. “The best compliment I ever received was from Mongiardino,” Meroni casually mentions, as a sly smile spreads across her face, “He said that besides him in Milan there was only me that had great taste.”
– Laura Todd