LA DOUBLE J: JJ Martin, Milan's Patron Saint of Patterns

Welcome to the wonderful world of La Double J. Photo: Erica Firpo

Welcome to the wonderful world of La Double J. Photo: Erica Firpo

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It’s not easy being a saint, and JJ Martin does it in style. As the creative force behind La Double J, a Milan-based clothing and homewares company, JJ has maxed out whimsical maxi dresses to fabulous formal wear and epic casual looks. La Double J dresses, skirts, blouses and outwear have sashayed through every party and decorated every It girl. Laura Ashley, it’s not.

"I love waiters that never change….”

JJ is enthusiastically particular and particularly enthusiastic. You can tell from her prints and from any conversation with her. She is neck-deep in Milan and can get down about anything- from vintage dresses and vintage waiters to the city’s renaissance which is happening right now. She considers herself a home body yet she’s up and on top of La Double J, its collaborations and her friends, a collective of creatives. Attentive, dynamic and incredibly well researched, JJ does the work which is why she was able to transform a vintage clothing e-shop into an international label of her own designs. And it helps that she’s in Italy, where historic design and textile companies are still (fingers crossed) producing.

Even though I am innately overwhelmed by prints, I fell in love with La Double J dresses for the peculiarity of some of the designs (my favorite is the Bouncy Dress with rainbow doves flying all over it). and for the quality of the fabrics, another fascination of JJ’s.. She sources fabrics like Crepe de Chine, crispy cotton (a thick, almost started cotton), silk and Jacquard from Italy’s heritage textile companies, and works with Mantero, a four-century old print archive and silk company whose revolutionized to the 21st century, for her prints. For her homewares, she collaborates with Murano glass makers and Italian ceramic artists. The result is that every La Double J piece is entirely made in Italy. And you can feel it.

JJ’S Milan includes the historic Marchese Pasticceria, Caffè Cucchi, the garden Bar at Bulgari Hotel, The Botanical Club (the first Italian micro distillery), and Lu Bar for those fabulous Milan aperitivi.


Want to know how JJ went from fashion journalist to fashion house? Why La Double J is all about Italy? Where JJ hangs out in Milan? And finally where can you find your next La Double J dress? Pull up a chair, press play on the player above and catch the conversation with JJ Martin of La Double J.

CIAO BELLA is An ongoing conservation with those creative minds who are redefining Italy. New episodes every Monday. If you want to be part of Ciao Bella, support the podcast by visiting my Patreon page for behind-the-scenes, and for-your-eyes-only content. Keep in touch with ideas and comments for more Ciao Bella episodes.

To Florence, With Love

Three reasons you’ll fall for Tuscany’s capital.

Photo: Erica Firpo

Colpo di fulmine, that’s what Italians call love at first sight—a ground-shaking thunderbolt that shocks you from the first look. It’s hard not to feel that bolt when you set foot in Florence, partly because of the sheer beauty of the city, with its tangle of parks and piazzas, and partly because it fuses the past with the present. Even as Florence embraces renewal, the metropolis holds steadfast to the ideals that helped lead Europe out of the Middle Ages during the Renaissance long ago, including a commitment to the arts. Is it any wonder that Tuscany’s capital fascinates travelers, who come for a glimpse only to find themselves falling hard? Read on to get the lay of the land and discover three sides of the storied city.

Lay of the Land

Long considered the cradle of the Renaissance, Florence believes itself to be the heart of Italy. Geographically, it lies about halfway between Venice and Rome, in the region of Tuscany. Reachable by North American air carriers via connections through Rome, Milan, and other European cities, Florence is also a major hub for railway transport. While exploring Tuscany requires a car, for Florence, one needs only a great pair of walking shoes, as the main attractions lie within about two square miles.

Building on the site of an Etruscan settlement turned Roman military colony, the Medicis (a political dynasty that once ruled Florence) created a graceful city of piazzas, palaces, and promenades. Today’s urban layout is almost identical to that of Florence’s 16th-century heyday. The Centro Storico, or historic center, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and straddles both sides of the Arno River in a gorgeous knot of medieval- and Renaissance-era streets that subdivide into niche neighborhoods. These tiny districts are often anchored by the piazzas they’re named after and are usually within a 5-to-10-minute walk of one another, so wandering around the city feels like a kind of historical-piazza hopscotch.

Most of the Centro Storico lies north of the Arno River. But if you cross the Ponte Vecchio, a medieval stone bridge spanning the waterway, you’ll enter the residential neighborhood of Oltrarno, which has been home to Florence’s artisans since the early Renaissance. Explore Oltrarno’s Piazza di Santo Spirito or Via Maggio to view the newest generation of Florentine craftspeople, from traditional goldsmiths and jewelry makers to clothing designers and street artists.

The Culture

There are not enough days in the year to enjoy each of the cultural sites of Florence, which span all corners of the city and range from Renaissance masterpieces and Roman antiquities to contemporary art, fashion, and design. Begin north of the Arno and work your way south, starting on the narrow Via Ricasoli, where the Galleria dell’Accademia (58/60 Via Ricasoli; 011-39-055-098-7100; site in Italian; admission, $18*; reservations recommended) houses Michelangelo’s David along with a small collection of his unfinished sculptures, as well as works by other Renaissance artists.

About a five-minute walk away lies the emblem of Florence: the Piazza del Duomo. Its centerpiece is the encrusted marble Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (Piazza del Duomo), also known as the Duomo because of its famous dome by master architect Filippo Brunelleschi. Once you’ve seen your fill, head to the Palazzo Strozzi (Piazza degli Strozzi; 011-39-055-264-5155; admission, $15), a few blocks southwest, for a different perspective on the city’s artistic legacy. The museum hosts blockbuster temporary exhibitions highlighting everything from the art of the ancient world to works by today’s superstar artists, such as Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović and Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei.

Follow the sightseeing crowds to the L-shaped Piazza della Signoria, the political center of the city and an open-air museum. Here you’ll find an exact replica of Michelangelo’s Davidin front of the Palazzo Vecchio (Piazza della Signoria; 011-39-055-276-8325; admission, $11), a 700-year-old fortress that today serves as Florence’s city hall and mayor’s office in addition to being a museum open to visitors. The standout room of the Palazzo Vecchio is the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred), a monumental meeting space with larger-than-life frescoes by Renaissance painter Giorgio Vasari. Immediately adjacent to the building is the Loggia dei Lanzi (Piazza della Signoria; 011-39-055-23885; admission, free), an arcaded open-air gallery showcasing Renaissance sculpture.

Nearby is the Gallerie degli Uffizi (6 Piazzale degli Uffizi; 011-39-055-294-883; admission, $25 in high season, $15 in low season), a lavishly decorated multilevel building designed by Giorgio Vasari as the offices of the Medici family. Known fondly as the Uffizi, it holds one of the world’s greatest collections of Italian Renaissance art yet still manages to constantly upgrade its offerings by establishing new rooms to appreciate the greats, such as Raphael, or by hosting epic exhibitions, such as the one last year commemorating the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death.

Yet despite the many wonders these museums hold, Florence’s greatest work of art might be its landscape, and to fully appreciate it, you have only to cross the Arno. South of the river lies the Giardino di Boboli (1 Palazzo Pitti; 011-39-055-294-883; admission, $11, including entry to Giardino Bardini), a park that was once the Medicis’ playground, and the Giardino Bardini (1r Via dei Bardi; 011-39-055-2006-6233; admission, $11, including entry to Giardino di Boboli), a tiered garden in the Oltrarno. In the latter, Michelin-starred restaurant La Leggenda dei Frati (6/a Costa S. Giorgio; 011-39-055-068-0545; site in Italian; classic tasting menu for two, $240) looks out on the lush grounds.

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The Food

In Florence, the cuisine is subtle and elegant, and simple dishes are proudly made with mostly local ingredients. Restaurants such as Trattoria Sabatino (2r Via Pisana; 011-39-055-225-955; site in Italian; dinner for two, $23), which lies south of the Arno, cheerfully dole out heirloom Florentine recipes such as minestrone di fagioli e riso (rice and bean soup) or trippa alla fiorentina (tripe, a dish made with cow stomach, is an Italian specialty) at affordable prices.

North of the river, Florentine elegance is epitomized at the Piazza della Repubblica, the city’s center in the time of ancient Rome. On its northeast corner is Caffè Gilli (1r Via Roma; 011-39-055-213-896; cocktails for two, $18), the oldest café in the city. Two other piazzas—Santa Croce and Sant’Ambrogio—are foodie musts. Both are residential areas with squares flanked by a parish church and streets lined with butcher shops, bakeries, electricians, hair salons, and the like. Here you can expect quiet mornings, post-school chaos, and early evenings filled with dog walkers—as well as some of the best food in town.

In the Santa Croce neighborhood, Club Culinario Toscano da Osvaldo (3r Piazza dei Peruzzi; 011-39-055-217-919; dinner for two, $100) prepares heritage dishes that are made from hard-to-find and often foraged regional ingredients and are therefore on the verge of extinction. Meanwhile, chef Fabio Picchi, the city’s culinary emperor, demonstrates Florence’s spirit of innovation with his suite of restaurants in the Sant’Ambrogio neighborhood. Cibrèo Ristorante (8r Via Andrea del Verrocchio; 011-39-055-234-1100; dinner for two, $140)Cibrèo Trattoria (122r Via de’ Macci; 011-39-055-234-1100; dinner for two, $52), and Cibrèo Caffè (5r Via del Verrocchio; 011-39-055-234-5853; dinner for two, $90) all focus on Picchi’s signature dishes, while Ciblèo (2r Via del Verrocchio; 011-39-055-247-7881; dinner for two, $90) adopts a Tuscan-Asian fusion approach, mixing Italian ingredients and recipes with Korean, Chinese, and Japanese traditions.

The Shops

Florence is as much about shopping and people-watching as it is about sightseeing. On the northern end of Centro Storico, the small square of Piazza San Lorenzo has a vibrant market, Mercato di San Lorenzo, that’s best known for its leather goods. The piazza gets its name from the Basilica di San Lorenzo church, which used to be a parish church of the Medici family.

Since the 14th century, the Via de’ Tornabuoni has been a runway for beautiful palaces and people. International brands keep a foothold here, from the Piazza degli Antinori to the Ponte Santa Trinità. The city’s side streets also hide treasures. Along them sit two time capsules: the flagship store of the nearly 300-year-old porcelain manufacturer Richard Ginori (17r Via dei Rondinelli; 011-39-055-210-041)—an exquisite showroom with vaulted frescoed ceilings—and Aquaflor (6 Borgo Santa Croce; 011-39-055-234-3471; site in Italian), an intriguing custom perfumery that feels like vintage Florence.

For a more contemporary spin on the city’s crafts scene, visit Florence Factory (6/8 Via dei Neri; 011-39-055-205-2952; site in Italian), which showcases goods made by artisans from the Oltrarno neighborhood. Or check out Cuoiofficine (116r Via de’ Guicciardini; 011-39-055-286-652), whose leather purses and wallets combine 17th-century marbling patterns and contemporary leather-tattooing techniques to create designs that are reminiscent of centuries past. (All leather goods can be customized.) Take the time you need to find a memento that’s just right—after all, it would be a shame to leave Florence without your own piece of la dolce vita.

This article first appeared as a feature in Endless Vacation, Summer 2019.

A Fashionable Packing List for the Venice Biennale

This article originally appeared in Fathom on April 28, 2017.

Highlights from the most recent Biennale. Photo by Erica Firpo.

Every other spring, the contemporary art world flocks to Italy to celebrate art, dance, architecture, cinema, and theater at the Venice Biennale. Fathom contributing editor and Biennale regular Erica Firpo gives us a peek at what she's packing in her suitcase.

VENICE – Flashback to the 1999 Venice Biennale, a time where I spent many months covered in red powder. Anne Hamilton, an artist representing at the U.S. Pavilion, made a crimson snowfall cascade down the walls for her installation Myein, and it was my job, as the Peggy Guggenheim Collection assistant, to make sure the powder and everything else flowed smoothly. There was nothing glamorous about the long hours, often spent alone, in a bone-chillingly cold pavilion, occasionally greeting guests and explaining the installation — but the full immersion into contemporary art was unforgettable, and every 24 months, I return to the Biennale for that very same pleasure, though now as a journalist covering the art.

Over the decades, the press preview for the exhibition has evolved from a quiet industry event for artists, gallerists, and journalists to 72 solid hours of art and hobnobbing with the Pantheon of Glitterati — art, fashion, literature, and film folk from all over. As soon as I arrive in Venice, I have to be ready for nonstop exhibitions, openings, and cocktail parties. Style, efficiency, and fun are my goals — and the same can be said for anyone visiting the Biennale. My suitcase is a balanced mix of form and function, organized Matryoshka-style. Here's a peek inside.

Mophie Juice Pack Air

The Biennale is more than an all-day affair — I'm out the door by 8 a.m., photographing Venice street scenes, perusing every pavilion in the Venetian Arsenal and gardens, visiting collateral events, and partying late into the evening. The Biennale doesn't just kill my feet, it quickly and painfully kills my phone, a.k.a. my life source. Because there is nothing worse than trying to find a free outlet in Venice, I always bring an extra battery pack, and lately it's been a pretty rose gold case that snaps right onto my phone. If I'm feeling extra gamey, I bring two. ($100)

Insta360 Nano Video Camera

The Biennale is not just freeze frame art, it's panoramic performance. For the rare times I broadcast on Facebook Live, I love giving the full 360-degree experience so viewers can choose what they want to see. ($199)

Kasia Dietz Nice Clutch

My handbag has to be stylish and easy to carry. I love Kasia Dietz totes for her choice of vintage fabrics, which are perfect for the exhibition's artsy vibe. I also make sure to have one of her clutches, for a quick switch to evening glam. (€70)


Opening Ceremony Silk-Satin Bomber Jacket

Venice is tricky. Misty mornings burn into hot days, while evenings are chilly and humid. The only solution is a satin bomber jacket and the reversible nature of this one makes it easy to do a quick outfit change. ($525)


Moleskin Ruled Reporter Notebook

The first time I ever purchased this notebook was in Venice, and I have carried one in my handbag ever since. The hard cover makes me feel like Lois Lane scooping the art world. ($13)


Hydaway Water Bottle

I don't like feeling the weight of a water bottle in my purse, but I don't want to be dehydrated either. My solution: a lightweight, collapsible water bottle introduced to me by my friend Livia's 90-year-old nonna. ($20)


Tom Smarte Panama Fedora

Most of my time is spent outdoors, walking from one exhibition to the next. I love a good hat with a little charm to protect my face and lift up my outfit. ($449)


La Roche-Posay SPF 50 Sunscreen

My London BFF introduced me to the French sunscreen. It's light, non-greasy, and the best way to protect my skin from the Venetian sun, which never seems as potent as it really is. ($34)


MSGM Jumpsuit

I love Italian brand MSGM and would wear anything they put in front of me. The fun, striped number would work well for artsy selfies at cocktail parties. ($700)


Tod's Tattoo-Inspired Sneakers

If there is one lesson it has taken me a while to learn, it's that style should take second place when it comes to shoes for an event like the Biennale. Comfort is everything when you're standing on your feet all day. Thank god these sneakers are chic. ($845)


Herban Essentials Peppermint Towelettes

You definitely need antibacterial hand wipes. Added plus: These smell amazing. ($7)

Olloclip Core Lens Set

I use this set of lenses to up my Instagram story game and love playing around with the fisheye and wide angles. ($100)

Barbie conquers Rome #BarbieTheIcon

"Dress me up, make it tight, I'm your dolly", Barbie Girl, Aqua 1997

I am not a Barbie girl.  More like a frenemy. Sure, my sisters and I had a few Barbies- from a basic Barbie to the more particular, but they were worse for the wear.  Malibu Barbie was left in the sun for days and then locked in a drawer for weeks to mess up her tanning skills. I over-spun the arm on Growing Up Skipper to see how fast I could reverse the effects of puberty. We tried to erase the make up on Angel Face Barbie, and every Barbie got a buzz cut.

We didn't hate Barbie.  Not at all. We just liked changing her.  And more than that, we loved her lifestyle- the fabulous gear in day-glow colors, 1970s vibe and that distinctly Barbie plastic smell.   It's probably that thinking about that sickly sweet smell that brought me to the Barbie The Icon exhibit at Rome's Museo del Risorgimento.

Wedged in the back of the Vittoriano, the oversized white monument in the very center of Rome, the Barbie show is a a chronological catwalk in miniature- 380 dolls in five areas of full Barbie immersion, beginning with Semplicemente Barbie, a visual history of evolution of the doll, and then to areas covering careers, divas and Barbie representing different nations.  The Barbie is easy- she has been, well, Barbie, since 1959 and for the record, she started off life as a brunette named Barbara Millicent Robert.  She has friends, a serious range jobs and has traveled around the world.  The show is worth it just to see the collections in their entirety - hello, Bob Mackey! Most of the dolls come from Antonio Russo, Barbie Italia's No. 1 and one of the world's top collector.

The best part of the Barbie the Icon show? The Barbie Life section, a Mattel flashback to my Age of Barbie with homes, cars and pools.  While my sister and I never achieved DreamHouse heights or camped out with the Country Camper, we had three fundamental Barbie products that to this day bring a smile to my face:

  • The Townhouse. For one day only, we set up and played with that Townhouse , a slick plastic multi-leveled apartment with yank-pull elevator, until we grudgingly gave to my mom's friends after a fire destroyed their home.
  • The Afghan Hound. My sister owned the Afghan Hound, a long haired, long legged, long snout pooch which she heroically saved after a mysterious deep sea dive to the drain at the bottom of the Faris’ pool.  Its hair never recovered.
  • The ‘Vette. My gorgeous 1980s hot pink Chevy 'vette (I did not have the Ultra) that I rolled through my house while I singing Prince's Little Red Corvette.

What's your favorite Barbie gear?

BARBIE: THE ICON through October 30, 2016.

MI OLA: my bikini bitch just got a new look

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You're not going to believe but theBikini Bitch has just had a bit of a lift, thanks to Facebook.  Yes, Facebook.  For a long time, I've been quite content maintaining friendships the old fashioned way - visits, calls, letters, emails, not really using Facebook for anything more than a post or like. [I am pretty shy too].  That all changed with the social serendipity of stumbling into my university friend Helena through that trickle down via mutual friends, and the "confirm" button.  Next thing, I know I'm wearing Helena's bikini.

Wait a second. Back it up.

Helena's name appears on the screen and out of character, I make a friend request and suddenly, I am full immersion in a world of gorgeous photos: family life, sunsets and surfing, and a never-ending parade of sexy, kick-ass bikinis. Helena, a pre-Med midwesterner, was not just living pura vida in Costa Rica, it turns out she was making it and putting it on your body as designer and founder of MI OLA, Sexy Bikinis that Stay On-   Mind-blowing and awesome, so of course I had to try the bikinis.  I spent the entire summer in her bikinis.   I tested them out in every scenario- from sunbathing and cocktails to paddle boarding and rock jumping, they don't lie.  MI OLA suits stay up, even with a six-year-old pulling on them.  My summer was also all about the underbum-  it was me and the flirty Super Cheeky bottom.  I loved how tiny it was, but yet covering up the butt perfectly.

If you've heard me talk Bikini Bitch, you know that bikini shape is key for whatever your body type is.  It's all about cut and confidence.  Helena totally gets it.  She has an incredible eye for body types, which she shows off with the MI OLA  range of styles and fun palette of colors and prints meant to mix and match.  But I am old school and was caught up in Pescadito (black metalic fish scale pattern) for both the Pin Up top and Super Cheeky bottom.  I felt sexy, sporty and ready to make some mischief.  Maybe I just loved the bikini or maybe the bikini just loved me...

#dontgosummer… we just jumped in! || swan dives with @insta_susi by @kkbrunvaer || #getoutthere #miolawesome

A photo posted by MI OLA (@miolasurf) on Sep 16, 2015 at 5:39am PDT

The Q & A:  an email interview with Helena to find how she went from Ivy League and Chanel to bitchin' bikinis.

I know we were out of a touch for some years but weren't you a biology major? And then you worked with Chanel? How did that happen, what's the story? All true! When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a fashion designer or an architect. But growing up in the Midwest, with a lawyer as a dad, I wasn’t really sure how to make that happen. So, I got into Penn and went. And, because I was at an Ivy League, I felt like I should be Pre-med, Pre-law or business. That seemed like the the thing to do.  I took art classes on the side… and tried to find my way towards a career.   I am not from a wealthy family…so practicality won over!  Ultimately I decided I’d be a terrible doctor, so I finished my degree in Neuropsychology and got a job in medical publishing. How fun is that? Hey, it paid the bills and got me to NYC. I sang in punk bands on the side and had fire engine red hair, before I shaved it all off, that is.

   **fast forward, Helena springboarded  to an interactive agency where she led Avon and Bloomingdale's businesses.  She launched the first e-commerce site for Avon, won several awards, which brought her to Hearst Publishing, where she was led the digital team on Harper’s Bazaar, CosmoGirl, and a few other magazines and TV shows.  She got an MBA and hit high fashion...Chanel.

I was always working on the business and marketing sides, though, never actually in design…until now.  And I’m only doing it now, because there’s a need for chic, sexy bikinis that stay put… what we stand for with MI OLA.   Our goal is get more women feeling good and empowered, and doing more of what they love (without worrying about losing their tops!)

I'm guessing Costa Rica was a getaway, when did it become The Destination? Gradual evolution or epiphany? I went to Costa Rica a long time ago and thought “been there, done that.” Then, I learned to surf in Maui after my MBA, and became obsessed. NY beaches were flat that summer, so I booked a trip to Costa Rica (to Witch's Rock Surf Camp – my FAVORITE place).   I loved it. I went down to WRSC a month later with friends. Then again. And again. I returned approximately 17 times over 3 years.

In late 2008, I thought I was getting promoted. Instead I got laid off. I threw a killer New Year’s Eve party, and then headed to Costa Rica for a few weeks. My travel buddy was trying to convince me to stay in Costa Rica, at that point. Instead I went back to NYC and there were no jobs or interviews to be had. At all. So I booked a trip back to Costa Rica for a month, to see if I could actually live in a town of 3000 people.   Loved it. I went back up to NYC and packed my stuff into storage, rented my apartment, and moved down to Costa Rica with my pooch. I wasn’t sure how long I would be here. And I wasn’t sure if I would stay in Tamarindo. But 4 months after moving here, I met my husband… and here I am. 

#miolagirls are mysterious || sly style with @lenamahfouf in our Reversible Wrap Top in Pescado || #getoutthere #miolawesome #sundaystyle

A photo posted by MI OLA (@miolasurf) on Aug 16, 2015 at 10:56am PDT

Tell me about completely switching gears to MI OLA and  bikini: when did you start? When I moved down to Costa Rica, I was surfing 4 hours a day, every day.   And I was constantly adjusting my bikinis.   You get into a rhythm… paddle paddle paddle, duck dive, pull up your bottoms, paddle out to the break. Get to the break, make sure your top is in the right place before sitting and waiting for a wave.   Then catch a wave. Adjust your suit. Surf, and do it all over again. Every time I went out to surf I was thinking “dude, why aren’t there better sexy, chic bikinis?” I didn’t want to start a bikini company.   But I had to. I had to make bikinis that would free up women to do more of what they want to do, with less stress and worry.

When you think about it… we’ve been pulling up our bottoms and pulling down our tops since we were 18 months old. Believe it. I have a 4 year old and this is when she started. Why do women put up with such an inferior garment? To look cute?   Well… with MI OLA, you can look and feel terrific without having to adjust your suit.

Do you have experience in design and sewing? is that a bad question? Ha! It’s not a bad question!   I do not sew!   And I did not have experience in designing clothing, but sometimes you need someone from outside the industry to come in and think about making things a different way….to really change what’s being done. Each time I work with a new factory, they question what we’re doing and think they can do it better. But we’ve actually considered and tested every stitch and material, and we’re making our suits this way for a reason. Making swimwear the way it’s always been done is not working well for the women who wear it. So we’re doing things differently.   I am the designer. I sketch every style. I also work with a great team of people that are able to translate my sketches and my direction, into actual suits that we can test and fit, who are experts in garment construction and sewing.).

What are you bikini-swimsuit inspirations? Our baseline requirement in MI OLA is that our styles must make our women look and feel terrific. I’m more inspired by fashion, than by other swimwear. I’m always inspired by Tom Ford Gucci and Alexander McQueen. Add in there a color palette that’s heavily influenced by my tropical environment and an obsession with layers – whether we’re talking armor, mermaid/fish scales, birds feathers, etc.



You had me at Sexy Bikinis that Stay On.  I have this working theory I call "Bikini Bitch philosophy".  Part philosophy and part way of life that comes from spending most of my life around Italian women who know that to love your body doesn't mean it has to be perfect but a bitchin' bikini and great accessories help.  Do you think Mi Ola bikinis fit the bill? (I do)I love the Bikini Bitch Philosophy! From working in fashion, I know if you’re going to wear something, you should own it. And being in Costa Rica… and being a mom… I don’t have time for body shame and not wearing a bikini. I do it and expect that my confidence, happiness, awesome bikinis and accessories will outshine any extra lumps.

Women pretty much rule the world. So let’s stop worrying about the basic stuff: “Am I the cutest?” “Does my butt look big in this?” “Am I sexy?”… and focus on what’s important…. Living the best life.   It’s very “Oprah” but seriously… who’s having more fun?  Let’s care for ourselves (inside and out) a little bit more. And when you go to the beach, put on a great swimsuit!

I just have to tell you, both my sister and I tried your bikinis this entire summer and in every element.  We paddle boarded, rode waves, kayaked, rock jumped, sunbathed and fought of small children who pulled every string they could reach. Your suits really stay on.  I absolutely love this. Thank you for letting me know. That makes me proud.

We're the same age, do you think I could still learn how to surf? Better yet, do you have room for me and my 7 year old mini-me later this year? Yes, and yes. I would LOVE to have you two visit. I’m serious.

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If there is one thing I love more than an incredible bikini, it is an incredible woman who does her thing, and in Helena's case, that thing just happens to be making the world a better place for bikini wearers. And I am not the only one who know this. MI OLA has been a guest star in Sports Illustrated, Elle, Seventeen and Self magazines, and are the tops (and bottoms) for professional athletes (and wannabes like me!) in and out of the water. In fact, MI OLA's Instagram gallery is filled with on-site and in-action photos from a gang of ambassadors who are #MIOLAwesome, just like the suits.



Palazzo Parigi: The Luxurious New Retreat in the Heart of Milan's Fashion District

This article first appeared in Fathom, March 2015.
Oh, hey, come on in. All photos courtesy of Palazzo Parigi Hotel & Gran Spa.

Oh, hey, come on in. All photos courtesy of Palazzo Parigi Hotel & Gran Spa.

All eyes are on Milan as it the city gears up for Milan Expo, which opens in May and runs through October 2015. Fathom contributing editor Erica Firpo checks out the excitement at the new Palazzo Parigi Hotel and Grand Spa.


From the outside, Palazzo Parigi Hotel & Gran Spa looks like any of Milan's modern office buildings — glassy windows, metal frame, business-y. Just take a deep breath and walk inside. If the magnificent Murano glass chandelier doesn't blow your mind, then the "I wanna wear a ballgown and traipse down this luscious marble staircase" will. Palazzo Parigi is neoclassical luxe with a French twist throughout its ten floors. Its vibe is cosmpolitan and stylish, shown off by its staff, a well-heeled team of polygots straight from the runway. Location is key: Turn the corner, and you're in the Fashion Quadrangle, the very epicenter of Milan's finest.

What's New

Palazzo Parigi is what's new. This is the very first of Milan's next generation hotels — a large-scale boutique hotel. It's in the thick of things, just around the corner from Via Solferino, my favorite street in the city, and an easy to walk to Piazza del Duomo.

Palazzo Parigi suite

A room with a view.

In the Room

All 98 rooms and suites are styled to be mod Milanese or chic Parisian, which means either Italian design touches (dark wood and metal) or French ornamental details accenting the overall neutral tones by architect and owner Paola Giambelli. Somehow, Giambelli is able to fight the Milan greys to make the rooms bright, airy, and luminous. If you think the minibar is well stocked, the Clarins lineup in the bathroom will make you never want to leave.

Room with a View

I stayed on the fourth floor with a view downtown and a balcony facing the garden. This was perfect. I'm not a fan of the inner courtyard views, though anything above floor six is great.

What's on Site

The third floor spa is poised to wow. Ground level lounge bar Caffé Parigi feels like Daddy Warbucks' study, while the restaurant is a neoclassical homage to a catwalk. The garden is where you want to head to for afternoon/evening cocktails in warmer months. WiFi connection is a bit tricky but easy to get after a few tries.

Palazzo Parigi restaurant

Palazzo Parigi Hotel's Milanese-inspired restaurant.

The Food

Old-school cocktail bar with excellent vintage drinks. Palazzo Parigi's restauranti is all about traditional Milanese dishes.

This Place is Perfect For

A weekend of fabulousness. Palazzo Parigi is like lathering up in luxe.

But Not So Perfect For

Anyone looking for a cheap escape.

Palazzo Parigi garden dinner
Palazzo Parigi entrance


Neighborhood Vibe

Very Milanese. In other words, quiet and stylish. The hotel is just around the corner from Giardini Pubblici, one of Milan's large public parks where you can hang out, picnic, work out.



Fishbar de Milan Via Montebello, 7; +39-02-6208-7748Clever little fish joint whose sister restaurant MeatBar is right around the corner.

Open Baladin Via Solferino, 56; +39-02-659-7758 Artisanal beer and burgers, the sister to the Roman eatery of the same name.

La Briciola Via Solferino, 25; +39-02-655-1012 Old-school Milanese.

Pisacco Via Solferino, 48; +39-02-9176-5472 Fancy pants bistro.

Bar Brera Via Brera, 23; +39-02-877091 Historic bar, best for people watching.


Galleria Arte Moderna Via Palestro, 16; +39-02-8844-5947

Villa Necchi Campiglio Via Mozart, 14; +39-02-7634-0121

Antonio Colombo Galleria Pinacoteca Brera Via Solferino, 44; +39-02-2906-0171


You are walking distance to the best shopping and window shopping streets — Via Montenapoleone, Via Pontaccio, Corso Como, Via Manzoni — and just around the corner from Matia's (piazza Carlo Mirabello, 4; +39-02-6269-4535), an excellent multi-brand designer outlet.


Palazzo Parigi Hotel & Gran Spa 1 Corso di Porta Nuova, Milano, Italy 20121 +39-02-625-625

I Vestiti dei Sogni: Italian Costume Designers and the Silver Screen


I am going to make this very brief. If you are in Rome, or planning to be here before March 22, go to Palazzo Braschi for I Vestiti dei Sogni RIGHT NOW .  If you like fashion, film and Audrey Hepburn, you need to see this exhibit celebrating Italian costume designers incuding Piero Tosi, Gabriella Pescucci, Milena Canonero (she just want another Academy Award!) and Danilo Donati.  From avant garde ancient Rome to Audrey Hepburn, the costumes are beautiful and showcase the very best of Italian design and creativity.  There are a few bonuses-- Elizabeth Taylor's gold shoes from Cleopatra and my personal favorite, the dresses from Age of Innocence.  I'm sharing my highlights, including a shot of my mom as an extra in the film Age of Innocence.  (My mom wore Gabriella Pescucci's hand made dresses that were originally intended for Winona Ryder. I guess Winona didn't like them?).

Bread, Love and Dreams
Bread, Love and Dreams
Age of Innocence
Age of Innocence

Excelsior Hotel Gallia, Milan's Great Gatsby


...and to this conception, he was faithful to the end

The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925)

I will admit it. I am a Gatsby, a wide-eyed dreamer with ideas of sky scrapers and all-night parties, luscious marble, loose morals, endless cocktails, and theatrical architecture. Milan is  the perfect setting for a Fitzgerald rhapsody, from its art nouveau buildings with gorgeous moldings and sharp art deco palazzi to the shiny new towers.   The city has the uncanny ability to transform itself from quiet and reserved to decadent,  bombastic and monumental.  And lately, I've noticed that Milan architecture is living up to the most fundamental of Gatsby creed - if you want to woo a Daisy Buchanan, you have to bring the best to West Egg.

Case in point: Excelsior Hotel Gallia, the latest hotel opening* in Milan.


For years, I've had my eye on the Hotel Gallia.  Each time I walked around Stazione Central (Milan's central train station that is immediately in front of the hotel), I studied the Gallia's art nouveau/art deco facade wondering what was going on inside.  Would it be left to the vultures of railway hotels? Would it subdivided into offices? Would it become an H&M?

While I thought the Gallia was hibernating, architect Marco Piva was renovating, gutting the 1932 historic hotel to its marble lobby and  columns, and then rebuilding it into a modern Art Nouveau/Art Deco luxury using only the very best materials.

Daisy, you're home.

Gallia is all marble, light and lines.  When I visited last week, I bumped into Piva in the orange-blossom scented lobby and had the pleasure of talking with him about flow, furniture and font.

Piva was inspired by Art Deco and incorporates its elements throughout the entire hotel, while avoiding creating a period piece by decorating with 21st century design and furniture.  He worked with Poltrona Frau, Flos, Fendi Casa and Cassina to create Gallia unique pieces that show off the very best of Italian design, meanwhile he had his eye and finger on every color and  material (marbles, metal, leather and woods) used throughout the hotel.

This is clearly Piva's West Egg.

The seven-floor hotel is ....  lush and luminous.   The sprawling ground floor area is  a 21st century  Gatsby hang out area of high ceilings and marble, with a lounge, well-stocked library, cigar bar,  restaurant and cocktail bar accented by light hues, warm fabrics and Poltrona Frau furniture.

From floors two to seven, its 235  rooms are beautiful and smart -  with technology and style. I loved the outlets,  nightlights, Trussardi amenities, Marvis mouthwash, Domori chocolate bars, the marble and glass bathroom, and of course the view of  Stazione Centrale, my favorite train station in the world.  I even loved the "lobbies" on every floor with their fluorescent yellow accents and Barbarella-reminicent sofas.  The suites were delicious.  My favorite is in the Art Suite which swims in light and has butter-colored leather quilted accents.  Piva's love for architecture and design is most obvious in the five suites he dedicated to Itlaian architects Gio Ponti, Achille Castiglioni, Vico Magistretti, Luigi Caccia Dominioni and Franco Albini.  Yes,  he brings in elements from each architect in to each suite, with Piva style.

At the time I visited*, the spa and palestra were completed but not yet open. On floor six, the Gallia will have Shiseido spa, a state-of-the art gym, a virtual golf course, while its 7th floor will have a rooftop restaurant and bar aiming to stake its claim in the city's no bar and restaurant scene in a futurist art deco homage.  I walked through the penthouse Katari suite, though yet to be decorated, it looks like it will be amazing.  The restaurant was almost complete-- though chef has yet to be announced.

Hotel Gallia is a  lost weekend waiting to happen.

*The Excelsior Hotel Gallia is still in its soft opening phase.


Sunday in Milan



*Giorgio strolling Via Monte Napoleone this morning.

Though I love Rome's fashionable and financially astute sister in the North, I visit Milan visit with the frequency of the fiscal calendar's quarterly reports.  About once a season, day-trip or a few night stay-over.  Most of the time, I am as focused as on-floor trader with the things I have to get done.  I run in and run out out of taxis, trains and appointments but recently I've decided I just need a few Sundays in Milan to [pretend that I] live here.

It's sunny, it's raining, it's cold, it's hot.  It doesn't matter. I have an unstoppable routine. Milan's vintage trams- I hop on a tram to Via Monte Napoleone, the fashion high street.  Thankfully it's early, the shops are closed and the neighborhood residents are fabulously dog-walking or strolling.  It feels like that scene from 1961's One Hundred and One Dalmations, or an en plein air/street style cat walk. I spy white-on-black-velvet and I'm pretty sure it is Giorgio Armani. Why not? His hotel is around the corner and he is Milan incarnate.

The Brera.


Thanks to the requisite Art History 101 class and a painting by Andrea Mantegna, the Brera gallery became a second home that I have to stop by every time I am in Milan or I feel guilty.  Sala VII: A gallery shuffling and renovation placed Mantegna's Il Cristo Morto ~ The Lamentation of Christ, (1480s) at the end of a hallway in Sala VII-- a room of its own, a dark cave--  hanging at knee level.  Eery and mesmerizing.

Sala VIII, or as I like to call it, The Room of Looking at Monumentally Big Paintings.  This room is my second favorite for watching people watching art and then also for me to take a long breath to enjoy painting.   Gentile e Giovanni Bellini's La predica di S. Marco ad Alessandria (Sermon of St. Mark of Alexandria) is the center piece- and I love entering from the main hall but since the new setting of the Mantegna, I suggest chronological order-  just for shock effect of dark and light/ tiny and huge.

Sala XVIII: The restoration lab. This is another reason why I love the Brera-- a glimpse into the technical, painstaking and painterly process of restoration.

~ Coreggio, Crivelli, Pisano, Zenale, oh my!  I make my way through the XXs to Sala XXIV, low lit and kind of sparse. I'm looking for Piero della Francesca, Luca Signorelli, Rafael Sanzio and Donato Bramante. [No photo would do justice] ~

Sala XXIV: A Caravaggio party ~ Luca Giordano, Orazio Gentileschi, Carracciolo and of course, Michelangelo Merisi and Supper at Emmaus (1606).  There is no elbow room where there is a Caravaggio painting.

Sala XXXVII:  That seafoam blue, those white arches, those chairs!... and Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo's Fiumana (1897), a pre-painting to his famous Il Quarto Stato, a painting that I have been obsessed with since 1992 which now hangs in the Museo del Novecento.

I'm done. I'm out. I need to think. So I sit myself down at the crossroads of art and fashion, the corner of Great Paintings and Gucci, aka Bar Brera and I pull out the FT's weekend insert. Really. And then I start people watching. I'm in Milan and it's Sunday.

Thank you, Principe di Savoia for giving me the opportunity to enjoy a care-free Sunday in Milan, before a few long days of work. The Ambassador Suite has been the perfect haven and hideaway to get back to.

Grande Bellezza: Palazzo Sacchetti

The world revolves around Rome.

Is Rome a fairy tale? No. It's chaotic and surreal existence of contradiction, beauty and argument - a test of true grit with a pretty reward, if you know where to look. So it makes sense that the Eternal City’s unyielding beauty and unforgiving personality are constantly used as backdrop and setting for films.

Case in point: Academy Awarding winning film, La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty, 2013), by Paolo Sorrentino, about an overgrown and overripe literary playboy, Jep, whose lives unfulfilled in 21st century Rome. The city plays silent protagonist to the has-been writer by juxtaposing the relentless beauty of Rome to the fathomless emptiness of Jep’s life. Scenes are shot all over the city and showcase every area and era—ancient and modern, panorama and palazzo.

In April, I had the opportunity to visit Palazzo Sacchetti, Great Beauty backdrop and just another one of Rome’s amazing Renaissance-era palazzi. Rome runs rampant with them, and they all come with a pedigree. Palazzo Sacchetti probably has the best. Location is key. Via Giulia is a quiet thoroughfare that connects the Campo de' Fiori area to the Vatican in a beautifully lined street of mid and late Renaissance palaces. The palace was designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (of the da Sangallo architect dynasty) in 1542, right after the renovation and beautification of Via Giulia by Pope Julius II, and is home to grottoes, chapels, gardens, sculpture and paintings by legends like Pietro da Cortona. Since 1648, it has been the property of the Sacchetti family who, to this day, live on the piano nobile, while the remaining floors are rental apartments and offices.

The Sacchetti Family apartment is a glimpse into a forgotten aristocracy where majordomos follow you through out the rooms, tea is served on vintage Meissen and da Cortona frescoes grin at you. And from the moment I entered the piano nobile, I saw red-- a luxury rosso moves you throughout the apartment from the upholstered front door, the papal crest and chair in the main entrance, the details in frescoes in the Mappamondi and the accents in the dining room, salotto and other galleries. Visit organized by Italian Ways.

For more of my photos, please visit my Momentage article.