Stumbling into nirvana

How Italian women get around in four-inch stilettos is a mystery to me. The cobblestones of Milan are hell on heels, as I discover when I arrive in the city on the relatively modest height of two inches.

Admittedly I have just disembarked from more than 24 hours of flights and transit from Sydney lugging a suitcase the size Milan Fashion Week demands, so perhaps the near-snapping of a heel is as much a result of my mental and physical state as it is a symptom of the city's stony laneways.

Unfortunately vanity won out over practicality when assembling the contents of my case (I ditched the hefty Italian guidebook in favour of an extra pair of boots) so I'm utterly lost as well as exhausted. But looking up to catch my bearings for the umpteenth time, I see it: 10 Corso Como.

Attempting to find my hotel, I've unwittingly stumbled across one of the world's best fashion concept stores, comprising a boutique, art gallery, restaurant, outdoor cafe, bookshop and hotel all under the same roof, owned by Carla Sozzani, the sister of Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani.

So successful has Carla Sozzani's ''slow shopping'' philosophy of combining commerce with culture and cuisine proved since she founded 10 Corso Como 21 years ago, it has since expanded to include operations in Seoul and Tokyo and an e-commerce site that ships globally.

On the ground in Milan there's nothing like the eye-watering promise of a space filled with the likes of Rick Owens, Junya Watanabe, Alaia and Balenciaga (not to mention a panini or pasta) to lift the spirits after a long-haul flight, so I make my way pronto to the hotel to shower and change before returning to shop and observe the local street style.

While the racks are groaning with designer clothing, the restaurant is a gregarious United Nations of stylish citizens from Japan, China, the US and England.

But it's the Milanese who dominate, the men in navy, grey and oatmeal cashmere teamed with denim and designer trainers, and the women in knee-high boots or heels toting four-figure handbags. Both women and men are impeccably groomed (from manicures and maquillage to designer stubble) and while they experiment with new fashions, they retain a classicism in their approach to dress that translates to true style rather than mindlessly following trends. The keys to dressing like a local are knotting a cashmere scarf around your neck (preferably from Florence-based Faliero Sarti), embracing a neutral palette in order to let your Bulgari and Buccellati jewellery shine and, unfortunately, throwing on a fur.

Fur is ageing, cruel and utterly inappropriate to the Australian climate, yet in winter in Milan it's worn by twentysomethings to septuagenarians. The alternative to beat the chill is the ubiquitous black puffer jacket, which looks like an inflatable bin bag but at least keeps out the cold.

At 10 Corso Como I try on a Rick Owens leather jacket instead, but despite the alluring feel of the blistered lambskin, the €1900 ($2370) price tag convinces me to strike out to the company's outlet store instead.

A paradise for Lanvin lovers on a budget, the outpost tests one's commitment to chic, located as it is in the twisty-turny backstreets of Corso Como somewhere (I'll never remember exactly where) beyond a bridge under which Milan's homeless have established a base camp. There are doubtless bargains to be had but frankly I'm a little overwhelmed at the prospect of sifting through rack after rack of black on black Ann Demeulemeester, Junya Watanabe and Balenciaga: for me the biggest thrill was simply finding it at all.

But while Corso Como's bargain store may have been difficult to pinpoint, it's impossible to miss fashion in Milan: it permeates all aspects of society, from business and culture to hospitality and politics.

The epicentre of Milanese style is the so-called Quadrilatero d'Oro (rectangle of gold), bordered by four streets of which the most luxurious (and expensive) is Via Monte Napoleone.

I start there, on the corner of Via Manzoni, where the Emporio Armani superstore towers above. Within, you can do anything from buy a sparkly hot pink iPad cover, clothes or a lipstick, to enjoy a lunch in the Emporio Armani Cafe, an aperitif or coffee outside or perhaps pick up a CD or a book from the bookshop carrying a selection of coffee-shop tomes selected by Mr Armani. Oh, and there's an Armani florist and a space selling Armani chocolates.

The ''concept store'' idea of offering goods and services in addition to clothes is part of what makes shopping in Milan so enjoyable. The Gucci store in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II has a cafe serving drinks and snacks, and the Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani flagships on Via Monte Napoleone offer made-to-measure services as well as ready to wear. Roberto Cavalli has his Just Cavalli cafe while the likes of Bulgari and Armani have gone a little further with their own hotels.

But if your budget doesn't run to a night under Armani sheets, the plethora of cafes around the key retail strips serving excellent wine, pasta and salads at reasonable prices will revive any tired shoppers for comparatively small change.

If you want to do your gourmet grocery shopping after you've picked up a pair of Ferragamos or a Fendi handbag, visit Milan's new six-floor department store The Excelsior. A former cinema in the heart of the city, the building's interior was redesigned by architect Jean Nouvelle and opened in September last year as a temple to the Italian passions for food, wine and fashion. Make your way up from the food hall, restaurant and wine cellar to discover the latest Givenchy, Balmain and Marni collections, as well as an entire floor devoted to accessories.

Another must-visit is Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the ornate shopping centre with a magnificent domed glass ceiling that is known as il Salotto di Milano (Milan's drawing room), due to its use as a central meeting place for Milanese.

Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton are among the brands in the breathtaking building that connects two of Milan's most famous landmarks, the Duomo and Teatro alla Scala. Sadly, McDonald's has also since moved in. I opt instead for a Caprese salad and glass of wine at the historic restaurant Savini, which has hosted everyone from Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini to Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly since it opened in 1884.

A more recent arrival was Prada, which opened its first store in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in 1913.

It's finally time to reconcile my footwear with Milan's cobblestones, so I purchase a chic pair of patent Prada kitten heels of less than an inch. I'm well-fed, well-heeled and happy. Grazie mille, Milano.

The reporter travelled to Milan courtesy of Australian Wool Innovation.

Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide