In the late 1920s Frenchwoman Luisa Jaquin opened a Parisian boutique selling straw hats, with the help of her Italian husband Lido Panconesi.
After Panconesi, who loved to bet on horses, lost all his money at the Arc de Triomphe, the couple fled to Brazil, where they accrued a small fortune before returning to Europe. Settling in Florence, Panconesi's home town, in 1930, Luisa once again opened a hat boutique. Demand was great; this was a time when women changed their hats three times a day – in the morning, for tea and again in the evening. The business gradually expanded, and Panconesi introduced lines of apparel, building his own factory in which to produce the garments before it was deemed too much of a commitment and sold off in the late Sixties.
It was at this time that the couple's young nephew, Andrea Panconesi, a college undergraduate, became involved with the family business. He learnt the ropes as a window dresser before flying over to Paris on his first buying trip. Through his connections in the fashion world, he learnt of a Japanese designer who was showing innovative and avant-garde designs. Intrigued, Panconesi decided to take a closer look at this designer's work. That designer turned out to be Kenzo and subsequently Luisa Via Roma became the first European store to present the designer's autumn/winter 1968 collection.
Since that first Kenzo collection, Luisa Via Roma, named for the road in central Florence on which the flagship boutique is situated, has grown a world-wide reputation as a champion of emerging and avant-garde designers. As well as sourcing the best and freshest in design talent, the team behind the boutique, led by Andrea, now CEO, has embraced new technology as a way of spreading the ethos of the brand to worldwide markets.
In December 1999, Luisaviaroma.com was born – a reaction to the demands of global customers who wanted the same service and quality that they would receive on a visit to one of the physical stores. Andrea Panconesi explains: "The only difference between online and reality is quantity and space – online there is no limit, but in reality we cannot fit more than a certain amount of designers, we have to give them rotation. Online you can see the whole collection. The clients are the same – even the ones in Florence buy online.
"A year and a half ago we were celebrating 10 years of activity online and decided to invite our friends from all over the world, including all the bloggers we were collaborating with. As they were coming from all over, we thought, "let's give them a chance to do something useful." Because they are young and many are inexperienced, and without the backing of a publisher, they don't have photographers or access to garments to make professional editorial content. For 40 years we have tried to promote young designers, and now they are famous names when 20 years ago they were just kids coming here to shop on Saturdays. The bloggers are a new, independent voice; tomorrow they will hopefully become influential. I'm always excited for new things. That's part of our mentality in Florence – we live for new adventures."
For the inaugural event, christened "Firenze4Ever... it's magic", an invite to the city was extended to 40 bloggers – chosen for the quality of their blog's content and their popularity with followers – who are all part of the store's affiliate programme: a way for bloggers to build a relationship with Luisa Via Roma as well as to create revenue from their site. Now in its third season, Andrea thinks that the attention that Firenze4Ever brings to the city is priceless: "Florence is not Milan, London, New York – nothing much happens here. So Firenze4Ever and Pitti Immagine Uomo [an annual menswear trade show] are events that bring the city a lot of attention, and the whole city responds.
"This year for the first time, we decided to open the city – we opened a pop-up Red Valentino greenhouse nearby where the bloggers can do their photoshoots and the people can satisfy their curiosity because it's all glass. Before, the fashion world was closed, but now thanks to the web people are able to share their passion – it becomes a form of art, a universal language."
The invited bloggers are each provided with a professional make-up artist, hair stylist and photographer and given free run of the new collections from a diverse selection of designer names, from Gareth Pugh to Lanvin, Haider Ackermann to Givenchy and the choice of using a professional model or putting themselves in the picture. Bryan Yambao, better known to his 110,000 Twitter followers as BryanBoy, was one of the bloggers invited to attend the inaugural event and now returns every season. "I started blogging seven years ago and was an early supporter of the site because living in the Philippines we don't really have the shops that sell all the brands they have," he explains. "For somebody who's interested in fashion, the brands that they have are always top of their game, they have all things new.
"Now the shopping in the Philippines has changed, luxury consumption is really big in Asia and people are getting sick of the same big brands, while people are becoming more aware of the options they have, thanks to the internet. Of course, everybody still wants to buy something identifiable, hence the big brands, but it's great that people are supporting young designers."
Someone who knows the support that Luisa Via Roma can provide to brands is Laudomia Pucci, the daughter of Emilio Pucci – one of the city's most famous design houses. "Luisa Via Roma is an institution of Florence. When my father died in November 1992, they exposed a beautiful window of Pucci prints with all the mannequins dressed in black – that was a lovely homage. From a fashion fan's perspective, the store is one of the successes of Italy because it has been able to integrate not only a concept store but a whole way of servicing clients internationally, keeping a very unique profile. Heritage is an important part of the profile – there needs to be good roots but wings at the same time."
In fact, Andrea Panconesi talks of plans to bring the event to London to coincide with London Fashion Week. "That will be the next step. London has a different personality from the rest of the world. We like differences in personality and approach so we'll try and find a new formula for London, concentrating on British designers and collaborating with the British fashion school – different but with the same result: to give a service to the young people who are passionate about fashion."