Italian image consultant Margherita Perico believes the reason we buy so many clothes is that we don't know what suits us. Consequently, we are continually going shopping, caught up in an eternal hunt for the magic something that will transform us. But because we don't really know what we should be looking for, we keep buying the wrong thing, or at least the not-good-enough thing. Well-dressed Italians, on the other hand, have a uniform and abide by certain sartorial rules, with the happy outcome we have all seen around us on our travels.
"You British are so… individual," sighs the small, pretty, deceptively unassuming Ms Perico, stirring her espresso at Pasticceria Cova on via Montenapoleone, in the heart of Italy's fashion capital. "But in London, everywhere I look I see the jacket too long, the trouser too short, the earring too small, the bag too big… It is a shame."
Once we know the rules and what we should be looking for, she says, we will buy less – but better. We might spend more than we did before as our taste becomes more refined, but it will be on clothes we actually wear rather than leave on a hanger until condemning them to eBay or a charity shop.
"People are scared to consult an image consultant," Perico explains, smiling. "They think it will be expensive or embarrassing. Yes, you need money – and beautiful clothes do cost more – but expensive fabric performs very differently from cheap fabric, and the outlay brings savings in the long run. Improving your look is an incredible help in life – and everyone can do it, whatever their budget." By this time, with my coffee growing cold, I am almost begging her. Tell me the rules, Margherita! How can we all look like Italians?
"So. The secret of Italian style is simple yet complex: fit, colour and fabric," she begins. "Every client, the first thing I tell them is 'Please, keep it easy, keep it clear, keep it simple'. The first rule is to know your body. Dressing well means time in front of
a full-length mirror. Stand, turn, sit and lie like a Velasquez painting in front of a mirror. Analyse and accept yourself, good points and the bad. Otherwise, you will be dressing something you don't know. It will be like having a round table and buying a square cloth. It could be nice, but it also could not."
The second rule is to restrict the colours you wear. "Italians wear just two at a time," Perico advises. "They buy only four: black, blue, brown and white. In winter, black is king; in summer, white is black."
The third and most important rule is to pay close attention to fit. "Clothes should skim the body," Perico says. "Too tight, and it is as if you are exploding. Too big, especially if you are curvy, and people worry what is underneath."
So there you are. As we stand up – in front of a full-length mirror in the café – she gently grasps the back of my jacket. "You see?" she says. As I look at my new, waisted silhouette, I feel as if my eyes have only just opened. It's my favourite jacket, but how could I have been so blind? It doesn't fit!
Take me shopping, Margherita, I implore. The surrounding streets have to be the best trying-on territory in the world: Bottega Veneta, Chanel, Armani, Prada, Gucci, the DMagazine outlet at via Montenapoleone 26… She laughs. "Women go too crazy for the shopping. Start with accessories; be the diva with those. Study more before buying more. Women should be like men, and know that the most beautiful thing can be to go not to a shop but to a very good tailor. Then you must wait, but you get perfection." On behalf of the nation: thank you, Margherita.
WHEN TO GO
Avoid Sunday/Monday: shops in Milan close from 7.30pm on Saturday to 3.30pm on Monday.
WHERE TO START
Margherita Perico (00 39 348 493 8665, www.margheritaperico.com) charges from £580 for an image consultation, including photographs.
WHERE TO SHOP
For costume jewellery at brilliant prices (£60 for a necklace Versace would sell for £300), try the tiny treasure trove Anna Tarabelloni & Co (00 39 02 760 21 169) at via Gesù 15. And for the ultimate sartorial treat, visit master tailorGianni Campagna (00 39 02 77 88 11, www.campagna.it) at via Palestro 24, where Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino go for their own hand-made suits.
WHERE TO STAY
In the centre, close to the four most famous fashion streets (della Spiga, Montenapoleone, Sant'Andrea and Manzoni), hotel options include The Townhouse, Four Seasons, The Gray, Park Hyatt and Bulgari. Ten minutes away, the grandest of all is the Principe di Savoia (00 39 02 62301,www.hotelprincipedisavoia.com), where heads of state and fashion editors stay, with marble bathrooms, one of Italy's great bars, and a complimentary limo shuttle to the centre. Rack rates start at £630, so book through a tour operator. Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2213, www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) is offering two nights from £530 per person, b&b, with Alitalia flights and private transfers.
WHERE TO EAT
Busy Pasticceria Cova at via Montenapoleone 8 and chic Caffè Baglioni at via della Spiga 6 are good for a pre-shop cappuccino. At lunch, fashionistas still pack Nobu (00 39 02 6231 2645, www.armaninobu.it) at Armani's store on via Manzoni. In the evening, try the coolly dramatic, two-Michelin-starredTrussardi alla Scala (00 39 02 806 88201, www.trussardiallascala.com), by La Scala opera house, or Antica Trattoria della Pesa (00 39 02 655 5741) at viale Pasubio
10, full of atmosphere and flavour.