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Real or Fake? Shop Smart in Italy

shoppinginflorence

‘Shop small-mart not walmart’ is a life quote I (try) to live by.

While it’s completely tempting to go for those deep discounts, what matters more is who you actually are giving your money too. It’s not always possible, but I think doing that extra bit of research to find a local place that adheres to a higher standard and treats their employees well, is a pretty damn cool thing to do.

Living in Italy, people would like to think that everything is made by a mom or pop shop. After all most of the economy is built on small or medium businesses, often passed down generation after generation. Though for many coming from outside of the country, it can be tough knowing what is ‘real or fake’. Especially when referring to leather shops in Florence, small souvenirs, or truffle oil that could quite easily have been concocted in a lab. We’ve all heard of the sweat shops in Prato, which has been heavily criticized for numerous police busts showcasing dangerous work conditions that even cost some their lives.

It’s a tough conversation, because it is easy to be deluded about the ‘Made in Italy’ authenticity after reading books such as Gomorrah about the mafia’s impregnation of so many facets of Italian business or Tom Mueller’s Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. It makes you wonder How do we know we are getting the good stuff? The label is a billion dollar industry and rife with expert criminals who know how to cheat the system like a true professional.

Last time I had a friend visit, she grabbed a bottle of truffle-infused olive oil at a souvenir shop commenting that it only cost six euros. What a deal! I gently eased the bottle out of her excited hands and took her to the Sant.Ambrogio market instead.

Also on another note, the last thing you want to do is get fined buying a crappy Prada bag or have a visiting family member do so. You know the ones, sold on a sheet by guys that will sweep their bags up in a blink of an eye with passing carabinieri cops. Seriously these guys know what their doing.

When I first came to Florence, the streets were filled with these illegal vendors, selling everything from ‘designer’ sunglasses to Rolex watches which fall apart the second you walk away. There are less now but then again, there are now ‘selfie stick’ men at every corner, guys who sell those wooden blocks or some sort of weird gooey thing they throw on the ground that reminds me of a Nickelodeon ‘getting slimed’ moment from  my youth.

Since, I get a lot of your questions about ‘where to shop in Florence’ or Italy so this gives me the chance to give a few tips and start a conversation about authenticity when it comes to the popular mantra of ‘please shop local’. There are so many talented, creative and interesting craftsman in this town making items that almost feel like they were born from their soul. Many of these trades are suffering and dying, less and less of the latest generation take over their grandparent’s work, opting for a cooler career in the digital industries (if they can find one).

Last year I was able to get up close and personal with some of my neighborhood’s artisans which was such a rich, rewarding experience. From then on, I have been more inspired than ever to support them and keep the dream alive.

Looking for Leather? Read This First

One of the most common questions I get is ‘Where can I go to get a leather jacket or handbag etc?’ Florence is well-known for its leather-making past, one of the oldest professions that human beings have ever done. I know for a fact how shady some stores in the city can be, after doing a two-week marketing stint in one near piazza della repubblica, my ‘coworker’ chatting up smiling Americans and offering them sub-par leather for outrageous prices that would make a nun roll over in her grave A flurry of fake smiles and compliments. I want to slap these people.

The contempt the owners had for their customers was known only to us in the store, and soon as I realized this I ran as fast as you can say ‘andiamo’.  This led me to not recommend that anyone buy leather at the markets or most stores, because I was convinced that most worked the same way.

‘If the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is’ – if someone is offering you ‘crazy discounts’ for that one of kind leather dream machine, well, I’m sorry but it’s probably not a good idea to buy that jacket. A lot of leather that is sold in markets is fake, and it can be hard to tell the difference.  Why many think they can ‘sniff’ out the difference, often that ‘leather smell’ exists because of chemicals or wax that they use. You can get more insight on how to tell if leather is fake via this great video.

However, I know now that there are some great options out there, and when I get an email asking for suggestions on where to shop? I send everyone to the Scuola del Cuoio or Leather School in Santa Croce. A fascinating place that has been operating as a leather laboratory since the second world war, the Monastery of Santa Croce sought to give orphans the chance to learn a trade and contribute to society. Here you can be assured that what you are buying is real leather, and where else can you see skilled craftsman working at their stations, a wonderful place.

Leather School http://www.scuoladelcuoio.com/

Leather School http://www.scuoladelcuoio.com/

Another wonderful option is actually in the San Lorenzo neighborhood, A quaint store called Via Dè Ginori, 23. Inside you can browse actual Made-in-Florence items such as purses, briefcases, luggage — and they will be more than happy to show you the laboratory. I recently bought my husband a briefcase from there, a beautiful cherry-leather bag that cost around 180 euros in total. I’m super pleased with it!

*Recent additions

  • Ben Heart: two locations in Florence, Via dei Cimatori 25 R & Via della Vigna Nuova 97 R. This leather shop is quite a find, the Florentine owners (two friends) opened up shop after one had a heart transplant and thus a new lease on life. All of the products here (think leather jackets, bags, customizable belts, shoes) all are excellent quality and are hand-dyed (something you never see). I also appreciate the fact that the style is a bit more trendy than the classic leather goods you find at the leather school by Santa Croce.
  • Digerolamo near Santa Maria Novella. I love love love this shop and everything in it. Here you can find beautiful handmade leather bags, jewelry & accessories — everything is Made in Italy and the family secret is Sustainable Design + beautiful  Artisanry + Transparency. Showroom: Via del Moro 58/R Firenze.Great jewelry too!

Murano Glass

You’ve probably heard about the famous hand-blown glass items that hail from an island off Venice called Murano, a house-hold name and rightfully so. We would love to believe that sellers are honest and would only sell 100% Murano glass but there are plenty of copy-cats out there. In order to make sure you are getting  the real-deal (especially online) it should have a sticker with Vetro Artistico® Murano and make sure to ask for a certificate. On this, it should list the date of production and the artist who made the item. For more details, Alex from the Italy Chronicles wrote this great article about how to tell if your Murano glasswear is real or fake.

Obviously if  you find a ‘great deal’ for 3 euros, maybe next to some tacky Venetian masks at a store that also sells cigarettes and motocross mags – you are probably not getting quality.

Olive Oil And Where to Get it

Ah yes, this green gold that keeps me ever so happy, especially in November when it is freshly harvested (except for the last year – which due to bad weather was nothing short of traumatic for olive-oil producers). Nevertheless I know it can be tough to choose between the many options available in Italy. My first suggestion is to make time to visit a place that actually makes olive oil and is willing to show you around, which are quite easy to find in Tuscany.

Only five kilometers from Florence is the lovely Fattoria di Maiano, which has been producing excellent oil for some time now, and has a nice outdoor restaurant that I like to take people to in the warmer months.

Also an excellent spot is Villa Campestri Olive Oil Resort in the Mugello valley, this family-run resort is dedicated to their olive grove, and the owner Paolo Pasquali has even invented a new system, OliveToLive, which seeks to preserve the oil in restaurants in some very nifty looking machines. They also do curated olive-oil tastings that are absolutely awesome if you want to learn how to taste good oil.

You also want to check the date, ideally you want oil from the most recent harvest. Unlike wine, olive-oil does not get better with age. The best part of autumn is the ‘new oil’ that usually has a pleasant ‘bite’ to it, best enjoyed over a slice of Tuscan bread, perhaps rubbed with a little garlic. The Walks of Italy Blog has a great article on how to find good olive oil.

Villa Campestri

Villa Campestri

Spotting Fake Ceramic

After writing this post, a helpful comment from Jill Bellobuono via facebook led me to add this little excerpt on ceramic and how not to get ripped off. Ceramics were most likely the first products used by mankind for domestic use, meant to be both functional and decorative. Ceramic tiles were used in the late middle ages as people started to care more about public architecture, giving life to ceilings and floors and this a handicraft ( majolica) was born. Italian ceramic is especially beautiful (I fell in love with it in Sicily, especially) and here are a few tips on how to spot real vs. fake. I have a new respect for ceramics after making some myself on a little shop in via romana and then also painting them with a few girlfriends.

Painting ceramics in a local workshop, so fun!

Since in order to make ceramic, you only need a few natural elements, clay, water and fire – sometimes you can spot markings (left by the tongs used to keep the hands out of the glaze) underneath the piece which are left by the fast-moving wheel. Just because you see a stamp underneath does not guarantee that is indeed authentic as they can be machine stamped.  When you turn the plate upside down you should see the natural brownish orange hues of the terracotta, which should also feel slightly rough (not white and shiny). You can read more tips here on how to spot a fake.

Lastly, Take Tips from Locals

The wonderful part of being in a network of bloggers all writing about Italy, is all of the fantastic information we share among one another. It’s incredible how much I learn from people every single day and I am so very thankful that so many are generous here in Italy with all of the wonderful places they’ve found.

Since Florence is full of interesting shops featuring local artisans who need your support. I highly recommend skipping the ‘high street’ labels on via calzaiuoli and instead going a bit off the beaten path. The ‘oltrarno’ area definitely has some favorite shops of mine, I love taking people here to poke at tiny little places that so many tourists skip.

Street art and poetry dot the walls of piazza della passera, one of my favorite places

Street art and poetry dot the walls of piazza della passera, one of my favorite places

Stores like & Company on via maggio, a curious shop featuring the beautiful items crafted by a renowned local calligrapher, who offers lessons in case you’re wondering. I did a lot of my Christmas shopping there and it happens to just down the street from my favorite corner in town, piazza frescobaldi where you can see the renovated Buontalenti fountain.

oltrarno florence buontalenti fountain

oltrarno florence buontalenti fountain

Also there are some new and interesting places on via romana like Muse Lab. All the way to the end of the road, close to porta romana, I recently discovered this gem when I visited my local shoe repairman on the same street. The place is owned and managed by two Florentine sisters who specialize in artisan women wear, kids and maternity. They have some lovely items in their shop showcasing a simple, elegant and comfortable style. Plus the girls are very friendly.

Photo by Muse Lab

Photo by Muse Lab

On the same street is a place that I always pop into, Sdam Factory, a quirky space selling light fixtures, interior design items and many interesting things (like a chess board) made with a 3D printer he has on-site. You can see more of what he sells here on my friend Birgitte’s blog, a Dusty Olive Green. 

Also a good point of reference is the website of Nardia Plumridge aka ‘Lost in Florence’, she is not only a friend, she also has an extremely ‘on point’ eye when it comes to particular fashion, young designers and interesting shops. I discovered Erin, owner of a book-binding workshop called Il Torchio on via dei bardi.

For Christmas, I ended up getting a personalized notebook, in-scripted with a quote, as one of Nico’s Christmas presents. Being able to choose the leather and stitching was a lot of fun and I really appreciate being involved in the step-by-step process.

iltorchio

Il Torchio book-binder, thanks to Nardia I now know this place well

In addition, for other local artisan items in Tuscany, there is an online catalog of traditional and artisan products that I find incredible useful.

Google also has teamed up with hundreds of museums, cultural institutions, and artisans to showcase a sort of interest hodgepodge of items that you can be assured are authentic. I checked out the list here and have already saved some new items I had never heard about in my own city. It is a service that is very well done and I am sure is a growing project. They also have a section dedicated to food which is slightly dangerous if you are anything like me, aka you get hungry at the sight of a tasty wheel of pecorino romano.

This week our COSItaly roundtable has teemed up with the other wonderful Italy Roundtable group and the topic is authenticity. Check out everyone else’s posts here, lots of good and interesting topics!

From our fabulous COSÌ group:

From our new friends at Italy Blogger Roundtable:

Have something to share on authenticity in Italy? Use the hashtag #COSItaly to join the conversation!

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26 Comment

  1. […] Girl in Florence – Real or Fake? Shop Smart in Italy […]

  2. Reply
    Alexandra Lawrence
    18.03.2015 at 11:00

    Thanks for this incredibly helpful post, Georgette; I will be passing it along to all of my clients!

    1. Reply
      GirlInFlorence
      18.03.2015 at 12:05

      Ciao ma belle! Thank you, after my own leather shop experience I am now forever a ‘is this real’ shark, especially since they seem to just make up numbers at times. I am wary of anything that sounds like too good a deal..

  3. Reply
    Lisa Condie
    18.03.2015 at 11:36

    Grazie mille, Georgette! I was about to write an email on this subject to our ladies arriving in the next few months. You have saved me again!

    1. Reply
      GirlInFlorence
      18.03.2015 at 12:03

      Lisa my pleasure! I was lucky that our blogger topic happened to be this. Also I would have no idea on how to shop for leather jackets myself if I was a newbie so hopefully people won’t get scammed on their next trip to Italy… ‘If it’s too good to be true…’

  4. […] Girl in Florence – Real or fake? Shop smart in Italy […]

  5. Reply
    Rick
    18.03.2015 at 15:15

    Georgette, I’m always impressed how you can add such great information and value to any topic. This post could stand alone as a guide to visiting Florence. The only input I can add is that I, too, have visited the Leather School and I agree that it’s the place to go if want real (dare I use the word “authentic?”) leather products produced in Florence. You can watch them make it, so there’s no “fake” in that place.

  6. Reply
    Victoria De Maio
    19.03.2015 at 22:03

    Grazie – yes, lots of “fakes” out there, no doubt! And the “too good to be true” certainly applies in many ways in many places!
    For those of us who want to support local artisan but have a slightly more limited budget – for example re: leather – I agree about the Leather School – gorgeous but if many larger (purses, jackets) items are a bit prohibitive, are there some other “real” leather shops with slightly more affordable prices?
    Grazie, Georgette!

    1. Reply
      GirlInFlorence
      20.03.2015 at 10:07

      Hello Victoria, it is a problem ,especially when people want to buy nice things and think it is 100% Florentine and see it break down only a few months down the line. I have a limited budget myself but I tend to save money for things of this nature so if I hear of good quality but cheaper, I will add it to this list, I will ask around!

      1. Reply
        Rose
        20.12.2015 at 0:56

        Hello Georgette, my husband and I were Florence in 2002, we bought two beautiful leather jackets, mine in a lovely green and my husband in brown. Shortly after arriving home my husband was wearing his lovely field coat, a friend with butter on her fingers touch his coat and left a stain..You can imagine how upset he was..we called the company where we purchased our coats..They told us to send it back and they will clean the coat or try to match the leather..a little apprehensive we sent it back, the coat was returned back to us as good as new with no charge..the Leather factory is David 2..I don’t know if they are still there, I must say were were very impress with the owner and our leather coats are still beautiful.

  7. Reply
    NG
    23.03.2015 at 7:19

    Thanks for the highly informative post. Do you also have any recommendations for stationery purchases (leather journals and such)? Thanks in advance!

    1. Reply
      GirlInFlorence
      23.03.2015 at 10:06

      Hello and thank you for reading, yes I certainly do! I highly recommend visiting Il Torchio (you see the photo in the post) on via dei bardi. They make leather journals and can customize something for you and what they do is quite beautiful and unique. I am slightly obsessed with the Italian art of bookbinding. Also if you get the chance to visit Enrico on via velluti in the oltrarno,his family has been marbling paper of stationary (the store il papiro) for many years!

  8. Reply
    Alexandra
    24.03.2015 at 11:12

    These are some very nice tips, G! Hopefully you will have saved just one more person from buying crappy souvenirs 🙂

    1. Reply
      GirlInFlorence
      25.03.2015 at 10:24

      thank you Alex! If I can help at least one person, than my job is done…

  9. Reply
    susan
    26.03.2015 at 21:54

    We could have spent all day wandering the Leather School…fabulous bags! There was a great little store in Lucca, and for the last fews years we always bought unique gifts (all homemade by the owner) as well as local, organic grains, etc. Unfortunately, she closed the end of 2014. Sad, as I will surely miss buying special gifts from her tiny store. I totally agree – stay away from the fakers and buy the Real Deal! Help keep the artisans in business.

  10. Reply
    Kate Bailward
    27.03.2015 at 20:23

    My grandmother used to do bookbinding, and there’s nothing quite like having an artisan (ha! How Italian I’ve become …) hand-covered book in your hands. Gorgeous stuff.

  11. Reply
    Pecora Nera
    02.04.2015 at 17:45

    This is a great post. We have a lot of the ‘white blanket sellers’ in Northern Italy, it is possible to buy a dodgy bag or a pair of sunglasses that will probably last a little longer than a pizza slice left in the sun.

    In the North these traders have even diversified into unofficial parking attendants. They will point out an empty parking space and then charge you €1.00 to park or ask you to buy a pack of tissues or a lighter !!!

    I agree that you should try to go to the producer to buy your products when ever possible. Each summer Mrs Sensible and I drive to Sicily to visit ‘The Family’ to fill up my little mini with containers of olive oil from their trees, almonds and anything else I can lay my hands on.

    Roll on summer

    1. Reply
      GirlInFlorence
      03.04.2015 at 22:28

      Hello Pete! Thanks for your comment! We have a lot of those sellers here too, selfie sticks, weird things that ‘plop’ on the ground, wooden letters, things that fly in the air, it’s all here.

      Funny you mention the parking attendants, we have them too. I haven’t seen them lately but that is because we park in a different area.

      If you have a connection with the producer, you not only get a better deal but you also might create a long lasting relationship that will actually MEAN something, which I think we can all agree is why we adore Italy in the first place. I am a little jealous she is from Sicily because what an amazing country (and food)……

  12. Reply
    Malou
    03.04.2015 at 11:04

    Your blog is wonderful and I enjoyed reading them. I’ve only read 3 articles so far, stumbling upon your blog as I search for ‘how to dress in Italy’ and found your write up very enlightening. So I moved on to ‘where to eat’ then decided to check on your latest article so I can post in the comment section to thank you and let you know you are doing a wonderful job sharing your knowledge about Florence. I only wish I could also read on Rome and Venice as our family plans on a European trip, spring of next year, to Italy (Rome, Florence and Venice) and Paris. We do not wish to look like tourists (hence the search), but as we are Asians, I doubt if we’d succeed in passing as locals at all lol. But I think learning to speak their language will be a big help, and probably put a little smile on their faces knowing I’ve tried to learn their language, so I will definitely do that. I will be going over your blog as I really find your tips quite helpful. Keep up the great work!

    1. Reply
      GirlInFlorence
      03.04.2015 at 22:26

      Ciao! Thank you so so so much for your kind comment, I really appreciate the fact that you took so much to write and share your thoughts on what I’m doing. I wouldn’t worry about whether you look like Asians, I have been here for 9 years and everyone (lol) knows that I am not Italian but it’s all about being a little savvy so you know what is a good deal and what is just smoke and mirrors. If you have any questions, feel free to ask 🙂

  13. Reply
    Ilene Modica
    12.07.2015 at 17:51

    Fantastic article Georgette!!!!!!

  14. […] how to spot fake in Florence ! shop smart […]

  15. Reply
    Giorgy
    01.03.2016 at 17:47

    Thank you for this article, which gives right information about Tuscany leather bags and other products. It is important to pay attention to details, to be sure not to buiy fake products!

  16. […] read this blog before I hope this could help Real or Fake? Shop Smart in Italy Here's an excerpt…"If the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is’ – if someone […]

  17. Reply
    Fitri
    18.04.2016 at 4:14

    Hello! I will be going to Florence this May and your blog has been very helpful! While researching on Florence, I came across a website by Bottega Fiorentina. They say their store is on Borgo dei Greci, 5/r. Have you heard of them? I want to buy a woven bag and their prices seem to be similar to those of Scuola del Cuoio. Are they of similar quality as well? Do you know? Unfortunately, there is so little information on Bottega Fiorentina. Thanks in advance!

  18. Reply
    LaRae P.
    03.06.2016 at 16:46

    Hi! I’m so happy that I just stumbled upon your blog this morning.!! My husband and I are coming to Italy for nine days in September and will be spending five days throughout the Tuscany region (&Florence), one day at Trivoli and three days at the Amalfi Coast & Capri ( or would you recommend four days at the coast? ). My first question is about leather. I fell in love with Florence 16 years ago when I was there with my sisters and I bought some great leather items at the market. Of course I want great quality but we will also be on a fairly strict budget as well. I noticed that last March Victoria had asked you about additional leather shops that you might recommend that might be more moderate in pricing. Can you recommend any of those? Were you ever able to find some? I love the market and I love haggling and getting a great deal, but I also don’t want to end up with a piece of garbage! We are also looking for a good place to buy shoes. ( we also heard that we can get custom sandals on the island of Capri and we are thinking about one of our children’s feet and taking them over with us and getting them custom shoes. Have you heard anything about this or do you know anything about this? )

    I certainly don’t want to take up all of your time but I am going to use you as a Golden Nugget considering the fact that you live there and I wish that I did. 🙂 We want to take a cooking class for one day or for one meal out in the Tuscan countryside area and stay somewhere out there for a couple of days. I think my husband wants to stay in Perugia a day. I just want to know if you have any recommendations on Where To staying to experience the best countryside/Tuscan quiet relaxing life while out there? I want to see everything beautiful and we like to experience local life. We would love to Stop at a vineyard and an olive farm in addition to again seeing the beautiful sites in Florence. I would seriously love any information that you can share with me at all. I love the market and I love haggling but I also don’t want to end up with a piece of garbageand getting a great deal,

    We don’t have it finalized anywhere where we are staying yet or how many days, but we are staying nine days and my nights there. I would LOVE any suggestions you could possibly offer to me!!!! It’s Like a godsend that I found you this morning. I hope that you’re still blogging and still living there and I hope that you have a few minutes to try and help me. We’re so excited to come but we want to make the best use of our time, of course, and I keep telling my husband that I wish we knew somebody that lives there that can help us and here you are! 🙂
    THANK YOU IN ADVANCE!!!

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