The Duomo di Milano, an enormous wedding-cake-like cathedral, has finally been unwrapped after what seems like an eternity of cleaning and restoration. Its chalky white, spiky turrets beam bright against a backdrop of grey department stores and even greyer office blocks.
The 14th-century gothic edifice is emblematic of the stark contrasts that make up the unique Milan dynamic. Here in the often-maligned Lombardian capital, the gracious and the grand sit comfortably with the utilitarian and the plain. Baroque churches and neoclassical opera houses (including the famous La Scala) rub shoulders with some of Europe's most brutal inner-city developments and deliciously severe buildings. The strict lines of the Milano Centrale station are worth a look even if you're not catching a train.
Fashion designer turned interior designer turned hotelier Giorgio Armani's multi-billion-dollar empire is based in Milan. And as if to prove that this is his time in the sun, the 77-year-old has created a monument to his success. Where a renaissance prince might have built a palazzo, Armani - who was born 65km away in Piacenza - has opened a luxury hotel (his second; the first was in Dubai) on the prestigious Via Manzoni in the heart of Milan's most exclusive shopping district.
The Armani Hotel Milano occupies the upper floors of a rationalist-era building designed by famed Italian architect Enrico Griffini and makes easy work of translating Armani's famously streamlined aesthetic into a hotel experience. There isn't a trace of that gilded rock 'n' rococo that Italians love so much. Instead, a Far Eastern temple bell soundtrack gently announces a more meditative pace; the smell of amber-infused fragrance (from the Armani Privé range, of course) hangs in the air. The mood is one of quiet discretion. The views out across the city's roof-tops and custard-coloured old buildings from the seventh-floor glass-walled foyer and restaurant are a graphic contrast to the steely sexiness within.
"Milan is not just my city, it's also the international capital of fashion and design, a city with an important economic and productive role," says Armani. "My hotel, with its characteristics, location and services, enriches and fits perfectly into an active, busy urban setting."
Armani Hotel Milano's arrival heralds a new era of buoyancy for the northern city. The last time Milan was truly considered cool was in the late 1980s. Back then, it was the world's definitive fashion capital, home to the masters of Italian couture - Valentino Garavani, Gianfranco Ferré, Gianni Versace - and the postmodern protagonists - Miuccia Prada, Helmut Lang and Jil Sander. This was a time when the "Made in Italy" moniker (an economic, cultural and political manifesto created to kickstart Italy's postwar recovery) was the ultimate mark of quality; when family-owned fashion houses such as Missoni, Salvatore Ferragamo and MaxMara took their ancestral textile-mill origins and turned them into luxury fashion empires. But, as happens with fashion, the shine wore off and Milan was left to gather dust as the bourgeois, industrial sister to experimental London and that recharged sleeping beauty Paris.
Now it seems Milan has been emboldened by Italy's recent political housekeeping (ciao, Berlusconi!), energised by a need to resuscitate the country's economy, and heartened by Armani's vote of confidence in his hometown. Its parade of luxury fashion boutiques still rivals those anywhere else in the world, and it's the European epicentre of directional furniture design. (The annual Salone Internazionale del Mobile brings designers such as octogenarian Alessandro Mendini, experimentalist Alberto Alessi, Munich-based Konstantin Grcic and London-based Ron Arad and Tom Dixon to town.)
Miuccia Prada, Milan's other truly revolutionary fashion figure, also dragged her native city back on the map with the development of the Prada Foundation, featuring works from the gargantuan contemporary art collection amassed by Prada and her husband Patrizio Bertelli. The foundation was launched in 1993 with a sculpture exhibition in a former warehouse and has steadily expanded across the media of film, photography and video, with pop-ups in Venice and collaborations with the Tribeca Film Festival. Next year it moves to its new home in a restored industrial site south of the city, designed by Rem Koolhaas for OMA, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture.
"Milan is definitely the victim of certain clichés," says Giorgio Armani. "In the '70s it was indeed an industrial city, but from the 1980s onwards it became the capital of fashion. It is a city that still offers many opportunities, and, although seemingly cold, it is actually welcoming and generous. It is a multifaceted city: austere like its buildings, but which often hide beautiful gardens."
Giorgio Armani's Milan
Milan is my adopted home "I arrived with my family from Piacenza in the aftermath of World War II. I studied here, made friends, started working. I built my life here. This city welcomed me and offered me great opportunities. Today I feel completely Milanese. I love the city very dearly."
It's such a creative environment
"There are many places in Milan that inspire me, from the small gem that is the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, designed to appear like a house, to the almost Parisian streets of Brera, with historic venues such as the Jamaica Bar, and Corso Garibaldi with its juxtaposition of classic and contemporary architecture. More than the places, however, it is the energy and contradictions of this city that really inspire me."
Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Via Manzoni 12, Milan, +39 02 794889; Jamaica Bar, Via Brera 32, Milan, +39 02 876723.
My favourite rituals are the simple ones "I relax strolling through the streets of Milan, in particular in the Brera district, which is always so busy. Corso Garibaldi affords a spectacular view: the Milan I am familiar with, and behind it the new skyline that is changing the city's profile. One of the characteristics of this city is its continuous striving for modernity."
There are many secret corners to this city "The hidden courtyards, beautiful cloisters and unassuming churches that contain great works of art."
Milanese food is a source of pleasure
"I love traditional Italian cuisine: simple, based on few ingredients yet great imagination. A healthy diet that is not at all boring. I often eat at the Emporio Armani Caffè and the Armani Ristorante, which are close to my office. The atmosphere at both is sober and warm, the waiters attentive, the menu Italian. I couldn't ask for more."
Emporio Armani Caffè, Via Croce Rossa 2, Milan; Armani Ristorante at the Armani Hotel Milano, Via Manzoni 31, Milan, +39 02 88838888.
My favourite Milan galleries
"The PAC [Pavilion of Contemporary Art] and the Triennale."
PAC, Via Palestro 14, Milan, +39 02 88446359; Triennale di Milano, Viale Alemagna 6, Milan, +39 02 724341.
Architecturally, many places stand out for me
"The Duomo certainly, but also the Castello Sforzesco, the new impressive skyscrapers, and the Torre Velasca, reminiscent of a medieval tower."
Duomo di Milano, Piazza del Duomo; Castello Sforzesco, Piazza Castello Milan, +39 02 88463700.
I've wanted to open a hotel in Milan for some time "It was a long-cherished dream of mine. The Armani Hotel Milano offers an intimate, special experience. It looks beyond visual aesthetics, offering unique, tailored services, with the intention of making customers feel at home. This is why I opted for a large spa - 1200 square metres - on the eighth floor of the building with a swimming pool and entirely dedicated to beauty, peace and tranquillity. And of course, the Armani experience would be incomplete without top-rate cuisine, such as that offered by the Armani Ristorante, the Armani Lounge and the Armani Bamboo bar." Armani Hotel Milano, Via Manzoni 31, Milan, +39 02 88838888.
The hotel is unique in the city "It's situated in a building from the rationalist era, which also houses the Armani Manzoni 31 concept store. The building was designed in 1937 in reinforced concrete, a material typical of that period. Its striking shapes and proportions perfectly reflect the sense of solidity of Milan as a whole. The interior also reflects this sense of solidity and refined elegance, starting from a painstaking study of volumes, lighting and details, no matter how small. The result: 95 spacious rooms and suites. In flashy, fast-paced, constantly evolving Dubai, the Armani Hotel introduced a different concept of luxury, marked by unassuming details and refinement. In Milan, I wanted to give life to a hotel in which guests can enjoy a very Milanese atmosphere of intimacy and elegance. In both cases, I worked hard to provide a very strong personal imprint, in terms of both aesthetics and service - excellent and ever discreet."
I like to give back to Milan "Milan is a city steeped in art and many institutions here rely on private money for their upkeep, rather than on subsidies from the government. Last Christmas I decided to make a present to this rather wonderful late-baroque church [San Francesco di Paola, directly opposite the hotel], which is such a fixture in the heart of the city. It struck me as an appropriate thing to do, given that we have been busy renovating a 1930s palazzo for the hotel. It seemed only right that we give a little help to an even older near neighbour."
There are plenty of places to lose yourself for a few hours "Santa Maria delle Grazie with The Last Supper or the Pinacoteca di Brera with its Napoleonic court and picture gallery." Santa Maria delle Grazie, Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie 2, Milan, +39 02 46761125; Pinacoteca di Brera, Via Brera 28, Milan, +39 02 722631.
Lombardy gets into your soul "When I'm away, I miss the tranquil landscape and its light."
INTERVIEW FRANCES HIBBARD