Explorer: Venice

High water mark

In many ways, Venice could easily be used as a metaphor for the current state of retail. Like the tide that laps against its palazzos, the city is ever-changing, over the years it has been forced to use its initiative, it works hard to maintain a distinct identity, and it continues to rely on innovative ideas in order to survive. This is a place where water and ingenuity is plentiful.

Venice has long been a favourite destination for tourists. The maritime city is idyllic, with its own romantic charm. Views here have changed little since the original Canaletto architectural paintings of the 1700’s. Now, only time and the ravages of weathering have altered the scenic splendour – the once pristine rendered and stucco painted facades, revealing more of their red brick inner core closer to the waterline. The rich wooden and stonework features now with a patina of dirt, grime and centuries-old rot.

But what is the city like as a destination for retail?

With no cars, taxis, trucks or motorised vehicles of any kind, the city arguably offers the perfect environment for shoppers to enjoy their retail travels around the stores that Venice has to offer: calm, peaceful, tranquil and sedate – in fact, almost completely noise free.

Here, the corporate world of architecture is not celebrated. Those who adore glass towers and views from 50 floors up will be disappointed. You’ll find no retail street signs, neon, LED or digital screens shouting for your attention either. It’s transformative, restorative and harks back to a quieter life and times. And it’s not needed. The scenery speaks for itself.

The biggest space for retail is reserved for the department store Fondaco Dei Tedeschi, one of the most famous buildings in Venice located at the foot of the Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal. Like most Venetian building with a grand waterfront, signage is not allowed. Shoppers chance upon and discover this place via one of the narrow cobbled streets that make up the streetscape.

Inside, the building pulls plenty of surprises. Most Venice buildings are small, low ceilinged affairs with beautiful historic interiors. This store opens up into a vast central atrium, like a roman amphitheatre. Stone built with massive blocks, its is cut through on every floor with half moon windows, like stone made festoon blinds opening views to every floor. It’s a story of complete luxury. The finest clothing, accessories and beauty brands are arranged in beautifully crafted mini boutiques around the central atrium. In fact the store is notable for the space it does not use for merchandise. If ever the term less is more applied, it is here.

Perhaps the most refreshing reason for visiting the city is to escape the homogenised streets and malls that greet your every turn in most European cities. Make no mistake: chain store retail is here, but it is very limited in the number of outlets and brands. It really does make a change not to see the usual suspects of brands, names or things we see everywhere, and all the time.

Luxury retail, as you would expect, dominates. But few of these retailers offer little in the way of newness or inspiration for those hoping to spark their imaginations. For that, you have to venture into one of the many high quality independent family retailers that can be found across the city, producing beautiful artisan Italian goods. From handcrafted leather and shoes to deliciously tempting confectionery.

Whether you have a sweet tooth or not, Venice itself is a real treat – in the most subtle of ways. It’s humble, unassuming and grand (by default) at the same time. But above all, it feels like slow and personal. A place that’s clearly content to go as its own (gondola-like) pace and maintain its traditional values and conservative lifestyle, while the rest of the world speeds on by. A place to relax, contemplate and take in the sights while recharging your soul, and possibly buy something unique and memorable too.