Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Best Place to Buy a Wearable Piece of Venice

The Barena shop on Calle Minelli, between Campo Manin and Campo San Luca

A few years ago while I was walking through the Mercerie (those crowded alleys of shops running between Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge) with a visiting friend he asked me, "What are you supposed to buy in Venice? Silk neck ties? Leather belts? Leather bags?" He pointed to those things in the shop windows around us.

His question threw me back to when I was a teenager, visiting Europe for the first time and diligently buying things I'd been told before leaving the States were the specialty of each locale: a gold cameo for my grandmother on Ponte Vecchio, a leather chessboard for my brother nearby; a small hand-carved alpine hiker in Brienz, Switzerland for my sister; lace for my mother in Venice.... In an era of globalization and the homogenization of so much of Europe, it was charming to be reminded of a time when I believed wholeheartedly in regional specialities--long before I moved to Venice and discovered, for example, that most lace sold in Venice is made a great distance from the lagoon (China).

I told my friend that what Venice was famous for was lace and blown glass, though much, if not most, of what we were seeing in the windows around us wasn't made here.

He had no interest lace or glass. He changed the subject.

The next day, on another walk, he asked me the same question, as though I were keeping something from him. Or perhaps simply because he really wanted a reason to buy a silk tie (which I assured him was exactly the same tie he'd find for sale in tourist shops in Florence or Rome or anywhere else) or a leather bag (ditto).

The interior of the Barena shop

Of course there are still shops here that do sell authentic Venetian lace (rule of thumb: if it ain't expensive, it ain't real Venetian lace) and authentic Venetian glass, as well as other authentic goods created by local artisans. But in this post I wanted to tell you about a shop that sells authentic Venetian clothes inspired by the styles and fabrics of traditional lagoon clothing, which are made on the mainland just a short distance from the lagoon in Mirano, and available in only a limited number of locations outside of Venice.

The name of the shop, located in a short alley that runs alongside the large modern Intesa San Polo bank between Campo Manin and Campo San Luca, is Barena, which is also the name of the clothing line it features.

"Barena" is the Venetian word for mud flat--of the sort that used to occupy a large part of the lagoon, and which are still vital to the ecological health of it--and aptly suggests the clothing line's roots in this unique environment.

The company (as you can read on the "Brand" link of the website above) was started in 1961 by Sandro Zara, and Mr Zara still heads it, along with his long-time collaborator Massimo Pigozzo and his daughter, Francesca Zara. 

There are just two Barena stores: the one in Venice, and another in the town of Mirano where the clothes are made; and one showroom each in New York, London, Milan, and Erenbach, Switzerland. Barneys Department store in New York City also carries the menswear line, for example, but at considerably higher prices than you'll find in Venice.

In other words, while Venice's exclusive shopping street of Calle Larga Marzo XXII is lined with big-name designer boutiques selling exactly what you can buy in any one of their countless boutiques around the world, the best place to buy Barena is here in Venice.

The owner of the Barena shop, Nicola Grillo

The Barena shop here is owned by Nicola Grillo, whose knowledge of both the history of Venetian clothing and the manufacture of its typical fabrics I think must rival that of Signor Zara himself, who's considered an authority on these subjects. In the course of our recent conversation Grillo told me that the production of high quality wool cloth, of the sort we were looking at in the Barena line, has a very long tradition in Venice. The first regulations governing its manufacture here were issued in 1253, and the zone of its production used to stretch from San Giacomo dall'Orio to what is now Piazzale Roma.

He showed me promotional material for the very first Barena menswear collection from the late 1980s (the womens' line was begun only a few years ago), pointing out the features of each item--its cut, its fabric, etc--which revealed its original use by the lagoon's hunters or fisherman or marinai (something usually represented by Barena's name for the item as well).

In addition to the Barena line, Sandro Zara's company now also includes the line of Tabarrificio (which produces the traditional cloaks whose revival Zara is credited with beginning) and Cini, an old Venetian lanificio, or wool producer, started in the late 1700s, whose extensive archive of historical fabrics and production "recipes" Zara also acquired with his recent purchase of the company from the family's last surviving heir. Grillo's Barena store carries all of these lines and a few select others whose materials and style is in keeping with Barena's.

But Grillo also offers items produced by Barena specifically for his store alone. He showed me, for example, a jacket made from a particular shetland tweed he'd discovered. He'd found a 10 meter bolt of the cloth, from which five jackets were made only for his store. 

The Barena, Tabarrificio and Cini lines are not inexpensive, but in contrast to some clothing that costs even more, the pieces are made to wear well and long. Not surprisingly in a company so inspired by a love of durable high-quality cloth, and by extensive research into clothing worn by working Venetians (rather than the much better-documented styles of the nobility), the seams of these clothes (in my experience of them) don't unravel, buttons don't fall off, the wool doesn't "pill" or lose its shape. For all of their evocations of another time and all the historical study that inspired them, the clothes aren't simply "show pieces" or costumes, and they hold up well over long use--as they're intended to do.

There's a great deal of the lagoon and its history represented in Nicola Grillo's little Barena shop. And for anyone looking for something distinctly of this area I'd recommend they pay it a visit.  

A sample of some of this season's wool vests


  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post! I travel to Venice as often as life allows. I lived in Venice for a semester in grad school. I am past the bauble stage of shopping in Venice and I'm always looking for local places to support! This is now on my list. My last visit was for ten days during this year's Feste Della Salute. I'll have to make a point to visit this shop on my next trip!

    1. I'm glad you liked the post, Christopher, and I hope you'll also like the store. It's a particular style and it may not be to everyone's taste, but I'm happy you'll stop in and see for yourself what you think of it, and happy, too, that you make it a point to support local businesses.

  2. I am a sustainable/ethical fashion designer here in the UK but I have Venetian ancestry. I loved reading this. Home grown talent is so important. It is important to keep up the old skills. Venice has a beautiful history that should be woven into its crafts and what it sells. I used to go to Venice every year but have not been in a while. Next year I am going again and I am looking forward to seeing all these things for myself. Thank you for your blog. :)

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to write, Claudia, and I'd be curious to know what you think of the store when you do see it. I know very little about fashion, but was intrigued by the inspiration for this company and by its founder's passion for Venetian history and craft.

  3. I certainly enjoyed reading about this local shop, and hope it continues to prosper for many years.

    Now, you have me intrigued. You said "the seams of these clothes (in my experience of them) don't unravel". Does this mean you possess one of their garments? If so, I'm impressed. If not, I still respect you. :-)

    1. I have turtle neck sweater from them, Yvonne, that I'm tempted to wear every day during the winter, a wool vest, and a pair of pants. All bought in different years, all holding up well. I like that Italian idea of buying one thing that fulfills a need and lasts for a long time instead of buying a bunch of things that fall apart rather quickly. It's ultimately less costly, I think.