Pupi Solari is the official dictator of Milan’s fashion society. Since she opened her first shop in 1969, she has become an oracle of the sort of high-quality and low-flash fashion that characterizes Milanese style. She makes her pronouncements in three adjoining storefronts located in a ritzy residential neighborhood, issuing edicts on what the city’s well-heeled women should wear, with precise rules for how their children must dress, too. And she meets very little resistance, too.
“She is the most sophisticated woman in Milan,” declares Cesare Cunaccia, former social editor at Italian Vogue, who has followed the who’s-who of Italy for the last two decades. “She has a very precise idea of fashion. It’s very per bene. It’s Bon Ton with a northern Italian twist.”
A regal, silver-haired figure with sparkling emerald eyes and glistening skin, the 89-year-old retailer still barks her style commandments in the booming voice of an autocrat (and den mother) every day from a seat in her shop in Piazza Tommaseo, just down the road from her apartment. Those ringing the shop at midday may be surprised to have their call taken by Pupi herself “I always answer the phone during the lunch hour, people never expect it to be me.”
“I’m a boss who yells,” she admits unapologetically over breakfast at her cozily posh top-floor home, which sits across from the church where Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” is painted. “I’m strict because the store needs to have certain values. I’m like a mother [with the staff and my clients]. It’s a lot of drama, like a big novel.”
“I used to be terrified of her,” one Milan-based, American mother of four recently admitted to me. “And now whenever I go into her store, there’s always an hour-long discussion—no, a fight actually—over how the children are dressed. Pupi always wins.”
Pupi’s personal point of view has crystalized over the last four decades into a citywide sanction on the quintessential Milanese attire. Dressed in an all-navy uniform of Dusan pants, Aspesi shirts and fine sweaters from Tomas Maier—giant (real) diamonds clipped onto her earlobes—she both mirrors and calibrates the city’s genteel taste, while filling the closets of babies, children, teenagers, brides, mothers and grandmothers alike with a coordinated wardrobe of chic, subtle classics.
Though she occasionally stocks Dolce & Gabbana (“I like the laces”) and Stella Jean, the brands that now make it off her ruthless chopping block are beautifully made, low-profile labels like Massimo Alba, Massimo Piombo, Alberto Biani and Aspesi. Babies are swaddled in cashmere onesies with round collars. Young girls are forbidden to wear rhinestones. Brides are scolded with any ideas of sexy matrimony wear.
“She’s an iconic figure in Milan, but also in Turin and Genova,” (where she was born and also has a shop) observes Cunaccia. “She’s the perfect expression of the bourgeois culture that exists between those three cities.”
At home, that level of supreme taste is transmuted in typical Milanese understatement. Her home is layered with sophisticated trinkets obtained over the years and well-curated collections of important novels and antique china objects, but welcoming enough to encourage visitors to lay back on her feather-filled couches. Ironically, the woman who is a beacon of traditional cultural, fashion and social codes is sassy to the core and as naughty as a whip. She swears, she gossips, she hangs out with gay men half her age. It’s possible she has a man locked inside her bedroom the day LaDoubleJ comes to visit her, but she won’t divulge the saucy details. She’s as fun-loving at 89 as most 20-year-olds.
“I’m a cross between the informal and totally formal,” she explains. “I hate bad manners, but I’ll even say ‘fuck!’ Some people get scandalized by it. I am more interested in the morals of people.”
Unlike most reserved Milanese, Pupi will say anything, and freely divulges the details of her three husbands. “The first one was a jerk, then there was my children’s father, who I actually never married, then my true love, Giorgio, who died seven years ago,” she recalls. “He managed to keep me on a diet when I was vigilant and angry.”
Now there is little time or use for diets. Pupi is as unconcerned about her figure as she is about scoring a new runway trend. She loves to entertain, spontaneously offering to make pesto pasta for 10 people who show up quite unexpectedly during our interview. “I worked and had success, but I’m also a housewife,” she says proudly, pouring the linguine into a giant pot. “I love having that aspect.”
Her home, a light-filled sanctuary brimming with antiques bought from Nilufar gallery or inherited from her family, boasts mesmerizing views of the terracotta rooftop of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazia, one of Milan’s most iconic historical sites. Its close proximity to her shop allowed Pupi to mix her private and professional lives over the years more easily as she raised two children. “Plus, I can sit on the Piazza Tommaseo and read a newspaper and I feel like I’m on vacation,” she says. “I’d never feel that way in Via Montenapoleone. No way. The other day I celebrated 46 years on the job. I still work every day. I have a saleswoman who’s been there for 41 years. And guess what? We fight like an old married couple.”
– J.J. Martin