I've set a new goal: For the next year, when shopping for clothing or accessories in Rome, I'm only buying handmade or preworn.
And I'll be sharing what I discover with you. That means that, over the next few months, I'm going to be writing about artisanal stores around Rome—including what streets to hit up for Rome's best (unique, great-value, and no-chain) shopping, and blog posts on some of my favorite artisans.
If this sounds niche, or like a topic only for those of us who live in Rome, I don't mean it to be. Travelers to Rome often ask me what they should buy as a souvenir or gift; I can't think of a more priceless memento than, say, a handmade leather passport holder, or a handcrafted ring reminiscent of ancient Rome. Even if it costs more than a made-in-China "Rome, Italy" T-shirt, it'll last longer, feel more special, and bring you into contact with a Roman artisan, perhaps even letting you see how it was made. (Plus, these handcrafted goods aren't always pricier than the factory-made stuff. But more on that later).
Still curious why I've made the decision to avoid chain store shopping in Rome?
I want to support Rome's artisans—not the stores I can see in Any Other City, U.S.A./Canada/Europe
One of my favorite things about Rome is its artisans (above: Anna Preziosi at Silice, an artisanal glassmaker). I love seeing sewing machines in clothing shops. I love that there are still picture-frame makers and basket weavers here. It adds a sense of diversity within, and uniqueness to, Rome that simply wouldn't exist if H&M and Zara replaced every atelier and Pier One took over every picture-frame shop. It makes walking around—and shopping—fun.
Plus, when I grab something off a rack in a big store, I always feel like I'm simply "acquiring." Keeping up with the trends. Purchasing a necessity. You know—consuming. But getting something handmade? Picking it out with the help of the person who crafted it? Getting to see the smile on their face at you being so happy with the product? Well, call me a sucker, but that's ideal. Not to mention…
Right now, Italy can use my dollars more than a multinational corporation
My relationship with big chain stores is one-sided
So, in general, I've tried to avoid chain stores in Rome. Except for one: Zara. Open my closet, and you'll still see so many clothes from the Spanish label's line, I could practically open my own branch. (Not that Rome needs another one—there are three on Via del Corso alone!). When their Italian flagship opened on Via del Corso, I was thrilled. And then, this winter, I stopped by—an all-too-frequent habit—and, as I browsed, accidentally knocked down a hanger from a pole overstuffed with clothing. I picked it up and, rather than replace it and recreate the problem for someone else, set it on a table. One of the shop workers beelined over. "Oh," he said in Italian, "so you knock things down for me to pick up, do you? Is that how it goes?" I looked at him, speechless. "Right," he continued. "Yep, I see. I just clean up after you. Oh, that's great! That's really great! Thanks so much!".
That's when I realized. My addiction to chain-shopping? It wasn't just bad for my wallet. It was bad for my emotional health. I was giving my complete loyalty to… a corporation that didn't care less.
If I wouldn't do that in a relationship, why would I do it with my hard-earned money?
And so is their relationship with everyone else
Of course, a quick Google search can show that many of these big, beloved brands don't only not care about you (they have so many other millions of shoppers!)—they also don't care about the people they employ. Zara recently was penalized for the terrible conditions of one of its factories in Brazil. It's no secret that Forever 21 is one shady business, running sweatshops both at home and overseas, and, by blatantly ripping off designers and artists, breaking so many copyright laws it's faced more than 50 copyright lawsuits… all while proselytizing Christianity to its employees and printing Bible verses on their shopping bags! Even Urban Outfitters—which, from their clothing's urban trendiness, you'd think would be all about planet-saving hipster ideals—has no labor guidelines; the International Labor Rights Forum accuses the store of using child labor in Uzbekistan.
I don't care what label is sewn into a factory-made good when it's finished. It's still factory-made (read: not high-quality)
Big-theme issues aside, there's another good reason to get away from factory-made goods: the quality. I don't just mean for the cheapie stores, like H&M. I mean for the upmarket stores, too. I recently purchased an expensive bag from Baldinini, an upscale Italian store, that promptly lost its dye. The store sent it back to the factory to be repaired; it was returned to me and the same thing happened again. When they let me trade that bag for another, within a month, the strap of the new bag had started tearing off. They repaired the bag again. And three months later? The outside pocket started ripping right off the bag.
Turns out, when you're paying €300 for a bag, you're still paying for assembly-line production and factory-level quality. Just more for it.
So there you have it. Ciao, chain stores. I'll see you around
Of course, I know the whole issue is complicated. I know that all of these issues have to do with globalization, and the modern economy, and outsourcing, as well as the particular decisions made by these particular brands. And I don't mean to romanticize an artisan-filled past: Obviously, factories and machines have made life much easier and cheaper for everyone First-World consumers.
But, just as I think we lack a crucial understanding and awareness of what we're eating when we consume food that's traveled thousands of miles from its origins, been repackaged, marketed, and sold out of season… so do we all lose something when we only buy products delivered far away from their source of creation.
We lose the awareness that, for the product to be so cheap, very cheap labor was involved. We lose knowing how many hands it passed through to get to us (and how many of those people touching it were involved with the black market and the Mafia—just read Saviano's Gomorra if you're curious). We lose a sense of responsibility for how it was manufactured, why, and what it took to get it to us (i.e. thousands of miles of petroleum-heavy shipping and trucking).
What do you think? Those in Rome, have any artisans for me to try? And anyone want to join me on my year-long effort?