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Last updated: May 19, 2012 12:14 am
Obsessions usually stem from random events and the beginning of mine was no exception. My parents worked full time and during the day I was left with my godmother. To keep me quiet while she sewed, Giuseppina gave me boxes of buttons to play with. Of course one can never be sure, but to me this childhood memory represents the start of what later grew to be the passion that compels me to collect every button I find – or rather can afford. Today, after decades spent rifling the dim corners of antique shops all over the world, I own about 10 million buttons.
I store them all in my vintage clothing showroom in Milan. Not only hundreds of fellow button collectors, but all the big names of fashion – from Miuccia Prada and Karl Lagerfeld to Tom Ford and Dolce & Gabbana – have passed through to take a look at my collection. Some of them are searching for inspiration, others for special samples to use on a collection. There are also people who are simply curious and just want to take a peek. I don’t really mind who it is, because as I watch people hunch for hours in a small room and scrutinise button after button, it just reminds me how special my place is.
But it did not come easy. I went from owning a small bookshop in Vercelli, a town in the north-western region of Piedmont, to running an art gallery, to finally, after selling the Vercelli business, opening up the showroom I own today. When I entered the fashion world at the end of the 1980s, the industry started changing from boutique to prêt-à-porter. Craftsmen, tailors and specialised shops slowly lost ground to a more industrial mode of production. In Milan, many boutiques were forced to sell up, so I seized the opportunity. By selling the land my grandfather had left me, I bought several of the showrooms.
These old shops turned out to be incredible treasure troves: in their basements, under piles of clothes and utensils, I found hundreds – no, thousands! – of buttons. It was incredible: some of the samples were from the 19th century; others from the 1920s and 1930s. As I slowly uncovered the variety, colours and shapes of all these buttons, what had up to that moment remained a hobby became a craze. I started hunting around old shops everywhere in Europe and the US. And now every year, I attend the National Button Society meeting in America, where some of the biggest collectors on the planet meet up to buy and trade.
But as a true collector, I keep the most precious items for myself and, needless to say, at home I carefully preserve 70,000 examples. Here, I showcase buttons in wall-mounted display cases, as well as having drawers and every possible storage tin filled up to the brim. At times I wish I had a larger house to display more of this collection but unfortunately, at least for the moment, it’s impossible. Over the past couple of years, the luxury market (at least that of buttons) has been hit hard by the recession: sales have steadily gone down, the fashion enthusiasts have disappeared and I have had to finally understand that not everybody is willing to spend £30,000 on 70 rare Italian handmade buttons that belonged to a 17th-century aristocrat. After all, even my family finds it hard at times to share my passion.
My wife often reminds me that she is not that interested in my collection, and my older daughter and son are not particularly enthusiastic either. They consider that spending £1,000 on an ivory French revolution button that depicts a peasant tugging a nobleman is a bit of an eccentric gesture. The only exceptions in the family are my younger son, Edoardo, 24, who helps me out at the showroom, and my little five-year-old niece, Eva, who is the most enthusiastic of them all. Every time she comes to visit me she takes my hands and demands a story for every button she sees. This simple gesture makes it all worth it.
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