Interview: Wok Store, Milan

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Every year we’re wowed by the world’s top fashion houses. New York, Milan, London and Paris have been setting the fashion agenda for years with their respective fashion weeks – each one now bringing a unique brand to its event. What has been interesting to watch is the succession of pop culture designers really coming to the fore. London is now a far more prominent hub for independent and up-and-coming designers, with graduate fashion weeks that you simply can’t afford to miss.

Milan fashion week, however, holds strong in its couture history: there’s a reserved consideration to the top names, and while they are prominent in their chic sensibilities, they have remained conservative. Paris still holds these notions, but the younger designers are starting to make a name for themselves in their showrooms.

Nestled on the outskirts of the Milanese fashion hub is Wok Store: a hot pot of creativity that is yet to really take off in the Italian fashion capital. We recently spent some time with creative directors Federica Zambon and Simona Citarella to talk about their concept of fashion, art and design. Coming from backgrounds in fashion and industrial design, Federica and Simona wanted to bring something new to Milan, “We opened the store because it’s difficult to find these kinds of clothes in Milano, stores here are quite conservative,” explains Federica.

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This might seem surprising: the city with an extravagant history in art and architecture, yet it lacks the avant-garde nature that is so important for the evolution of design, particularly in fashion. When asked about access to up-and-coming designers both laugh a little bitterly, “It’s very difficult to find an Italian brand that has the same attitude of what we have in the store. Italy is full of industries able to produce a collection and there are some independent designers, but a lot of the taste is very old fashioned. They try and imitate the big brands, which is very weird. First of all, the big brands are older than you and you should have a different taste. Second, there’s no experimentation,” says Simona.

That’s not to say Milan lacks any talent, “We have big talents in art, a lot of amazing photographers, art directors, but it is really niche and they tend to work abroad, there’s not so much space for new designers,” says Simona. Federica goes on to highlight a really important factor, “There’s no help for designers here. In London you have the British Fashion Council, in Paris they have showrooms and there is a great opportunity to sell.”

Like many other independent boutiques around the world, Wok provides designers with this opportunity to sell. There are fewer competitors here in Milan though…

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“It can be very difficult here, I think the public understand this type of fashion, but I think they are afraid,” says Federica. Simona interjects, “It’s an attitude, not because people don’t like the style, but it’s just that they don’t want to look too different. I can understand it. It’s a long tradition from centuries ago.”

To help Wok expand, Simona and Federica had to start thinking commercially. “We are not commercial girls,” they both state defiantly. But they understood that for the business to grow they had to think more mainstream. What’s great to see is they remained true to their roots. As Federica highlights, opening the store was about bringing something new to Milan, “When we opened the shop, we looked for brands we liked and wanted to showcase; it was more poetic.”

“It is important to keep the poetic side and it is the reason why we are still doing this job. At the same time, we had to develop the business so we tried to be clever. We don’t imitate and we try to be honest. It’s not typically Italian fashion,” says Simona. And it works for them. With a huge e-commerce platform, a partnership with Farfetch and an affiliation with artists around the world, Federica and Simona have created something much more than just a clothing store selling ‘avant-garde’ designers. What’s more, being ahead of the curve ball has given them huge advantage in making a name for themselves internationally. Wok has been one of the few original retailers of brands like KTZ and Opening Ceremony; well before their current popularity.

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Here, the store caters to a mostly international clientele: people from Japan, Australia and America are regulars. While there may not be a huge number of local designers to choose from, Simona and Federica have managed to find some that share the same attitudes toward fashion. Italy’s Super and Malibu 1992 can be found in store and are some of their biggest sellers.

Milan might be too traditional right now for the Wok girls, but they have high hopes the industry, and it’s associated attitudes, will change. For now, they are targeting an audience that want to be part of the change, no matter what age. Simona says, somewhat triumphantly, “We are not just about young people, but also people who are older, like 60 years old, who like and appreciate choice…who want to be more original.”

WOK STORE, Viale col di lana 5a Milano, Italy.

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