How to Bargain Like an Italian

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Cobbled laneway in Trastevere, one of Rome's most charming areas. Photo: Glenn Beanland

The art of resale shopping has long been lost on the Romans, either as a result of their pride or their inclination to save those rare Pucci heels for future generations rather than sell them to a stranger. But all that’s finally changing according to Flavia Servili, owner of the five-year-old consignment shop Frankenstein in Rome’s always lively (and only somewhat touristy) Trastevere neighborhood. We caught up with Flavia and shop clerk Lavinia Rosato to talk about “radical chic” locals, haggling with Fendi heiresses, and why lace will always be in style.

Why the rogue idea of opening a consignment shop in Rome?
Flavia Servili: I used to be a stylist and work on ad campaigns, but it stopped feeling creative. You get hired by a big brand like Fendi or Gucci, and they don’t really let you do what you want. I decided to open a store when this jewelry boutique across the street from my apartment closed. Rome has this weird law that says you have to wait five years before you can move into the space of certain protected businesses — including butchers as well as jewelers — but I was able to get around it by making it a consignment store. That was the only reason I did it. It’s not typical to have secondhand shops for clothing here — if people are going to buy secondhand, it’s more for, like, a fridge. 

Why do you think consignment shopping is so much more common in the U.S.?
Lavinia Rosato: My impression is that it’s a custom in the U.S. for people to keep buying new stuff and getting rid of the old stuff. It’s a circle that keeps spinning. Italians seem to invest in things that they hold onto for longer. But we’re lucky that a few blocks away we have John Cabot University, which is an American university.

F.S.: You’re starting to see more consignment shops opening now — in Parioli, for example, which is a really rich area in the north of Rome. But that store is just about the big luxury brands that the rich, rich women bring in. It’s less about taste. My store is so small that I have to love everything that’s in it. I have Chanel, but I also have Zara; it just has to be the right taste.

What is your taste?
F.S.: People describe it as Miss Marple meets Marie Antoinette. You know, a lot of lace, but of course with many modern things mixed in.

L.R.: We love lace all the time.

Is it a mix of vintage and new?
L.R.: Yes. We mix pieces from the '20s with Isabel Marant. We have a French lady who sells to us; she’s brought us so many beautiful silk dresses from the '40s. But right now we do happen to have a lot of big brands — nude-and-black Chanel slingback heels that we’re selling for 150, a classic black Prada jacket for 160, these wool short-shorts by Moschino for 75. For myself I just bought a Helmut Lang jean jacket, which was in stores for 200 but we sold for 60. We’re not so crazy about the prices here, like they are at those four or five vintage shops that are on the Via del Governo del Vecchio, which is near the Piazza Navona. Today, it was so funny, a girl came in wearing a Maison Scotch dress that she had just bought brand-new from a boutique for 150, and we were selling the same exact dress for 30. So she realized we have good deals.

Aside from the American students, what are the people in the neighborhood like?
F.S.: “Radical chic” is how we describe it. They’re wealthy people who like to pretend they don’t have money. You know, the women go on their bikes. It’s like Brooklyn.

L.R.: The neighborhood has changed a lot in the past ten years, especially when all the bars started opening. Flavia grew up here. It used to be very common people — what we call popolare — and you still have some of that kind of soul. When I was renting an apartment here recently, my next-door neighbor would set up a big table right in the middle of narrow alley and have dinner with her family there. You felt like you were in a small village in southern Italy. And then you also have the creative people here — Fernanda Pivano, who was a very good friend of Jack Kerouac, used to live right around the corner from Frankenstein, but she passed away a few years ago. So you have the small streets, the touristy streets; people live here for many reasons. But you can’t rent a small studio now for less than 1,000 a month. 

Who are your typical consigners?
L.R.: Rich ladies from the neighborhood

F.L.: Actresses sell their stuff with me, because they get things for free. Also Salvatore Ferragamo's niece — she sells a lot of her uncle's stuff, as well as things from her own line of clothes. You get these great older ladies — like this one woman, her husband worked in the movie business in the '50s and '60s. She was telling me the story behind each one of the dresses she brought in: “This one I wore to a premiere in Venice,” and so on. This store feels like you’re at home in your personal wardrobe, so people tend to relax and start talking a lot. But then you also get the annoying women, really rich housewives who want to tell me all about how “This I bought in three colors but I never wore.” And I’m like, “Well, congratulations.”

A lot of costume designers both sell and shop here. When they were shooting the Woody Allen movie To Rome With Love, the costume designer bought a bunch of things from my store — a few pieces from the '40s, a dress for the prostitute character that Penélope Cruz played.

How do you feel about bartering?
F.S.: That’s my problem — I’m never able to say no to discounts. This I probably shouldn’t say, because it’s not nice, but I had one of the Fendi family come in: She  wanted to buy a cheap costume necklace for her niece. It was like  25, and she was bothering me to have a discount! Her argument was that everywhere she goes she gets stuff for free. I found that really annoying. But I did end up giving her a discount. What I like about the tourists, in general, is they know what they want. They’ll come in the store, try on what they want to try on, and then they’ll ask me for a discount. Whereas the Italians, they walk in, point to something and say, “That, you give me discount for.” Before they even know if they want it! That’s an Italian thing that I hate.

L.R.: Flavia and I get in trouble with the sellers sometimes — the other day a father came in with his teenage daughter and wanted to buy her a present. It was so sweet. We couldn’t resist giving him half price. But basically, our general rule is, if you buy more than one piece, we’re definitely going to treat you good.

What are some other differences between your Italian and American shoppers?
F.S.: With style, American girls are more creative. They’ll pair a dress from the '40s with biker boots. Italians are afraid to mix new and vintage clothing. They only mix when it’s in a style that’s already everywhere, like, “Oh, this is how I saw it worn on TV.”

L.R.: In Rome people are more about the classics, and looks that are monochromatic. They do wear things that fit well, I think, but they’re less brave, less about inspiration, than people Paris in New York, no comparison. You see a lot of Chubbies, Fred Perry, and Louis Vuitton going on here. But maybe I’m biased. I hang out in the music scene, and I like the rock-and-roll look.