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You Need This... I Promise

Ode to Italy

La Double J's original Swing Dress 
I am chronically last-minute. This was a Myers-Briggs test nugget of truth – as an ENFP I can often work best ONLY under pressure and at the eleventh hour. I have known this about myself forever, being the person who whipped up the school paper the night before it was due, or started ideating about the Christmas cards around December 17. In fact I am writing this at noon on Tuesday, as I do every time, and it still needs to be edited and coded for the virtual world to get out the door this afternoon. Imagine how great it is for my ENFP self to always have so much to do and so little time to do it. I am ALWAYS in the mode for doing my best work! (Wait… is that right?)

This is of course a more flattering way of saying that I am a major procrastinator. The worst of this shows up in my travel plans. So even though the borders have opened up and we all have the chance to travel to Europe again, I have nothing on the books. Italy really is one of my favorite places. It has been over two years since I have been there… which is nowhere near crazy for most (who am I, Princess Grace?) but Sid and I have spent the last 14 years going back and forth several times a year as we built our business. Sid makes a huge portion of his line in Italy, so the proximity to the airport – a direct flight and you're almost anywhere – was a big reason why we landed in Atlanta in the first place. As the company has grown, we now have members of our design team that travel, but in the beginning it was just the two of us. Often last minute, always on the cheap, and such an adventure.

It is his most favorite place in the world, and honestly he is at his best when he is leading me through a crazy train station with confidence, or jumping out of our Panda rental car and dashing into a hotel asking if there is a room for us. Very "Two For the Road" – the happier first half. We would usually wing it, having hopped on a flight by the skin of our teeth with no real plan except to visit the factories we were working with, and find more that we might someday use. I do not recommend this mode of travel to anyone, as we made a lot of mistakes and had a lot of fights and stayed at a lot of hotels just one step above a youth hostel. We stayed at the Hotel Locarno once in Rome, which is amazing in every way, but getting the last available room meant that it was SO hot that anyone would start arguing within thirty minutes. Don't tell on us, but it might have actually been a single room, with one of us probably sneaking in later.
kind of a silly picture but you can see how happy I am to be in Como
A better memory is from an unbelievable hotel we found on Lake Como. When I look at the pictures from this trip, exactly 10 years ago, I can see the delight in my eyes. Italy is full of fairy tale stuff that is just… part of normal life there. The churches, the architecture, the simple meals. I can make a salad with tomato and basil and salt at home, but it just tastes better there. It is magical. Our agents (who help us work with these factories) work in a castle outside of Florence. A REAL castle. You get to wind your way up a stone staircase to get to their office on the third floor. You open up the centuries-old windows and the view is one from every princess story I could imagine.

On yet another hastily-planned trip, Sid and I were working in Naples and decided to take the weekend off to take the boat to Capri. Again, last-minute, in a hotel recommended by the people from the shoe factory we were visiting. The first night in the room was fine. But Capri is a hilly island, and you can look down from your balcony and see all the other properties and pools and gardens that look even better than the one you're in. So the next morning I pointed to one that looked especially amazing and asked Sid if he could figure out where that one was. He ran down the winding cobblestone street to see if they had any rooms. You can guess how it turned out. Finding the exceptional on your own – spotting it and making it yours – makes good things so much better somehow. Why is that? Is it pride? Is it the thrill of discovery? Is it that it feels more personal that way? All of the above?
view from the castle window
LONG intro – but there are a few things that I think you might need (I promise) that feel so much more special to me after having found them on a few of my funny trips to Italy. The handwoven bags we sell are just amazing. They are made of coated cotton with an intrecciato weave. Bottega Veneta makes it in leather but I like the cotton because it feels light and easy for summer, like a chicer LL Bean canvas tote. (Although we do make one in leather, too.) Each bag takes a DAY to weave by hand. I love the look of these, but I love it even more knowing the heritage and the craftsmanship from the people who make them. Stories make everything better. That is probably why the tomatoes taste better in Italy, too. The waiters go on and on about the soil… or the region… or the reason the pasta is shaped the way it is. I have a dim memory of being told about some special type of pasta that is served at weddings because it is twisted together and it is driving me CRAZY to not even find it on Google. I love that. A story and the feeling of discovery adds so much.

And sometimes there is a sense of providence too. We found the maker for our Artisan bags at exactly the right time. We had a great business with Henry Cuir for years and years – he was known for his luxe, boho aesthetic. Slouchy leather bags with hand stitching and funny little iconography. We loved that kind of thing, and sadly, when he went out of business, it left a major hole in our assortment. So when we found this wonderful partner in Italy a few years ago, it felt like fate and now we make our own hippie-ish bags – totes, backpacks – with the same charming hand construction and amazing workmanship. I love them. I mean, look how great that hobo bag is.

Another great Italian find is La DoubleJ. This one I first discovered on the internet – no just-under-the-wire flight needed – and while it has grown into a huge brand in the years since it launched, at the time it was much, much smaller. Back then, JJ Martin was a fashion writer (of Wallpaper* magazine fame) living in Milan and she had this super cool website that sold vintage clothing and housewares. Her style and vibe just killed me. It was charming and kooky and joyful and girl-power-y all at the same time. She had these jazzy subject lines on her emails and always addressed you, the buyer, as BABE! in all caps, and the whole thing was just fun.
the first La DoubleJ x Mantero label
At some point, La DoubleJ expanded (the vintage business is usually not so profitable and inventory is a bit of a problem when you are selling one of a kind) into the kind of line it is today. JJ partnered with Mantero, which is a major silk mill based in Como, Italy. (Actually that is one of the spots we were visiting back in 2011 on that extra fantastic trip… Sid goes there to make his ties, and has kept up a long relationship with them going back to his very earliest design days.) She dove into their pattern archives and began her La DoubleJ brand with a single dress that was modeled after a vintage one she knew was nearly perfect. It is called the Swing Dress and they still make it, plus a few spinoffs as well. I snatched one up when it first came out and I still wear it to this day, six years later. The prints are kooky and colorful and STRONG… but timeless in the same way that Lilly Pulitzer or Pucci feel. Retro but modern. I love having this line in the store – it is a great complement to my own stuff – but if I am honest, I loved finding it even more. The sense of discovery, the relationship I had with all those silly emails in my inbox, the slight sense of ownership when I got the first dress… it made it feel like mine. Don't get me wrong, I like to share – that is part of the reason I write this column every two weeks. But when you have found something special, it feels extra cool in the very beginning when it's still a bit of a secret. It's the "I knew them back when" feeling. Social media has totally transformed the discovery process and now everyone is finding everything at hyperspeed. There is just so much! It is fantastic, but also kind of exhausting. Sometimes I think, "oh… I thought it was just me who liked that…"

Italy has been such a special place for Sid and me, even with our scrappy travel itineraries. Things like this – and the stories behind them – make it even more so. I won't be going there this summer, or anytime soon, but I will enjoy being reminded of it in the wearing and carrying of these things. A mental trip, at the very least. Perhaps I will try to make a Caprese salad tonight to really drive it home.
From Ann

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