The long history of Ditta Guenzati begins during the Duchy of Milan under the Habsburg government (1714-1796), when in 1768 Giuseppe Guenzati in the ancient Contrada dei Fustagnari at the Fondaco no. 1677 (which will disappear from the city topography following the great work of redesign of the ancient Cordusio Square in the late nineteenth century) founded his homonymous company.
At that time Milan was considered one of the most important silken centers in Europe, and Giuseppe, determined to take advantage of the extraordinary opportunities offered by the Milanese market, decides to dedicate his own business to the trade of silk and moleskins, which in the years to come will make the fortune of his company.
At his death it's the son, Agostino, already working in the family company as shop boy, to follow his paternal career and take on the father business in order to guarantee his continuity and commercial address.
In the beginning Agostino is alone to run the shop, because his two sons don't deal with the family business. Francesco, in fact, after ending school decides to become a priest, while Agostino is still carrying on his studies. Although boasting a strong experience in the field of fine fabrics and counting some of the most illustrious and wealthy families of the city among its customers, the Guenzati at the beginning of the 1800s is still a small shop with a modest turnover. It is only during the Giuseppe's management, starting to work in the company around 1831, that the company finally achieves that leap of quality so much hoped for with the consequent economic consolidation of the family, which will allow Guenzati to conquer a prestigious position in the fine fabrics' Milanese trade.
The craved success comes not only for the natural entrepreneurial skills of the Guenzati in the textile industry, but also and above all for the fame acquired by Giuseppe "junior" in the forties of the 19th century thanks to its appreciated quality of intermediary in the silk trading transactions. At that time, the young Guenzati, in fact, joined his merchant profession with a "sensale", that is a mediator between silk buyers and sellers, whose task is to ensure that the parties have the economic means to make business, representing them, if necessary, in signing the contracts. Here is the fact that his name is on the list of the top 24 silk sensalis operating in the city listed in the Guide of Milan in 1844.
But besides being a good merchant, Giuseppe is also a dynamic intellectual, who has a certain reputation in the Hapsburgs of Milan. In the "Journal of the Italian Imperial Institute of Sciences, Letters and Arts and the Italian Library of the year 1847", among the texts recommended reading, two are written by Giuseppe. The first one, published in 1846, is titled "Handbook of silk cultivators" and dedicated to mulberry cultivation and silkworm breeding, followed by a comparative study of the various silk fabrics in the milanese market, analyzing in detail the variety of silk quality; the second, on the other hand, concerns the cultivation of potatoes (The Grower of the Pomi da terra, Milan, Valentini 1847). With their publication Giuseppe gains such popularity as to assure the approval, not only of the Habsburg authorities in Milan and throughout the entire Lombard-Veneto Kingdom, but also of the governments of some Italian States such as the Kingdom of Naples and the Kingdom of Sardinia. (quotations by G. Coltorti).
By exploiting the notoriety so acquired, the Guenzati family decide to extend his fabric trade outside of Lombardy, alongside the retail sales made in the shop, the wholesale business made through a network of agents active in different Italian States. All this contributes to significantly increasing the wealth of the Guenzati family, whose substantial financial resources allow in those years to acquire not only the contiguous Rogorini fabrics shop and their home, but even the entire building in Via Fustagnari belonging to the rich aristocrat Spanish family De Leila, where Guenzati has been doing their business for more than seventy years. In this particular period of economic prosperity, Giuseppe gets acquainted with an illustrious and somewhat charismatic character: Don Giovanni Bosco.
The profound friendship with the priest is widely documented by Monsignor Arturo Murari's "Biographical Memories" and his book "Don Bosco in Milan". Fervent Catholic practitioner, Giuseppe and his family regularly attend the nearby San Sempliciano Parish and know very well Don Allievi, who at that time is responsible for the Oratory of San Luigi in Via Santa Cristina founded to welcome the city's lowlife . And right at that oratory, where the Saint finds hospitality during his first trip to Milan in 1850, which Giuseppe meets with Don Bosco, a fleeting initial encounter that will give a start to a packed exchange of letters and a deep friendship to last until Giuseppe's death.
Two are the salient facts that remain in the annals of Guenzati as a testimony to the close relationship between the two: the first concerns the time that in 1865, during his second trip to Milan, Don Bosco found hospitality at Guenzati's, where he obtained a miracle from the Lord in favor of Marietta Pedraglio, Carlo's close relative who was employed in Guenzati company as a salesman at that time. For years the young lady was afflicted with an incurable illness and on that occasion she had achieved complete healing thanks to the intercession of Don Bosco. 44 years later Carolina Guenzati Rivolta, Giuseppe and Rosa Casati's daughter, will testify to the miraculous event in the family house of Via Fustagnari 1 during the Canonization Process for the Sanctification of Don Bosco launched in 1909, which will end with his beatification in 1929 and the following proclamation to Saint in 1934.
The second one happens in 1866; that year Don Bosco passed by Milan for the third time, but unable to leave the station in order to continue his journey towards Monza and not wanting to renounce to see his dear Milanese friends, he warned the Guenzati to go to the station to meet him. Here, talking to them, Don Bosco uttered these words among many others: "This year, Mr. Giuseppe gets a great deal of cloth, because you will find a way to sell it very conveniently." After Don Bosco's departure the Guenzati spouses followed his advice and in the following months everything would be as the Holy One had predicted. Afterwards, the spouses will declare that if they had given more credit to the words of the Holy by acquiring higher quantities of fabrics they would have received more revenue.
Meanwhile the decline of Lombard silk in the second half of the nineteenth century forces many fabric traders to change profession or extend their business to other types of commodities, and the Guenzati, experts of the fabric market, don't get certainly unprepared. In fact, in the General Guide to Milan published by the publisher Ticozzi in 1873-74, Guenzati is still one of the main operators of the sector in the city, but it is described as a company operating in "drapes, cottons and wools", disappearing permanently the reference to silk trade.
After Giuseppe's death, in 1870, his wife, Rosa Casati, took over the company's leadership, beginning with the last six years of Guenzati's management. The two sons, Agostino and Carolina, if not occasionally, almost always leave their mother in managing the family business, who in 1876, determined to withdraw from business definitively, decides to leave the whole activity to two of its most deserving employees completely free of charge, provided that they kept the same trade name. Thus after just over a century, the founding family, who had traditionally always handed down from father-to-son, came out of the scene, passing the witness to his two most trusted clerks Giovanni Battista Tomegno and Luigi Meda.
The Ditta Guenzati, which over the course of a century survived the Habsburg domination (1714-1796) and Napoleonic (1797-1815), and subsequently to the hegemony of the Austrian government during the Kingdom of Lombardo-Veneto (1815-1859) (Italian historical period characterized by the two wars of Independence of 1848-49 and 1859), is now facing a period of strong social transformation due to the radical change in the political, economic and cultural situation taking place throughout the country following Italy Unification (1861). Milan in particular, is undergoing a profound modernization thanks to the emergence of large factories and industries that will later become fundamental for the economic and social development of the whole country.
In this historical context, the new Guenzati partners Tomegno and Meda have to face a hard twofold challenge: on one hand the maintenance of the prestigious first-rate position in the fabrics market inherited by previous owners; and on the other hand to expand the range of products in order to keep up with the times.
Despite the fact that this involves a risky financial exposure, the operation is immediately successful and the excellent return on profit is the obvious proof, even when, at the end of the century, the entire textile sector undergoes an abrupt setback due to the growing social discontent among the poorest classes because of the harsh living conditions that the Milanese citizens are forced to endure. The “Stomach Protest”, as it is called by the chronicles of the time, is growing to such an extent that it results in a violent popular uprising, giving rise to the 1894 Moti of Milan, which will be repressed in the blood by the armed intervention of the Royal Army causing over 300 victims in the main streets of the city. These events are the prelude to the deep economic crisis that will hit our country from 1913 and will unfortunately accompany Italy to World War I (1915-1918). And in this baleful year Meda is forced to retire from the shop business due to serious health problems and to leave the complete management at Tomegno, who, after having paid off his partner, assumes total direction of the company. Until that time, Giovanni Battista was brilliantly distinguished in the business conduct, securing the company with discrete margins of earnings, and with some of those profits he could have let two of his three sons study: Domenico becoming a commercial accountant, and Luigi a lawyer, while the third son Giuseppe starts his career as a business associate in the company following his father in the business trips.
Soon the passion for the cloth world pushes the three brothers to join the forces, and thanks to their remarkable individual skills, they manage to give a valuable contribution to the success of the paternal company, which by the end of the nineteenth and the first half of twentieth-century earns great reputation on the Milanese fabric market.
Among the most illustrious Guenzati customers are worth mentioning names such as Galtrucco, Loro Piana, Meda, Rivolta, Crespi; families of the high middle class meneghina such as Ravizza, Borletti, Bassetti, Cantoni, Ponti, Mondadori; and noble representatives of the Milanese aristocracy such as Dal Verme, Lampugnani, Melzi, Porro, Castelbarco, Dugnani and Visconti di Modrone, to name only a few.
Nevertheless, the years following the World War I are far from flourishing, as they are characterized by a growing economic crisis, which is ebbed by growing unemployment and inflation, and increasingly harsh social conflicts. In this troubled socio-economic climate on March 21, 1925, Giobatta dies, and the management of the company goes entirely to the three brothers.
The world finacial crisis of 1929, the difficult Fascist twenty years and the ruinous World War II left indelible signs throughout the country and the entire Europe; the postwar period calls for tremendous efforts by everyone to resume, and yet in this dramatic scenario the Tomegno brothers are not discouraged, as excellent merchants, they are more than ever determined to keep their prestige high on the Milanese market. And so, strong in their fabulous experience in the field of fabrics and their ability in meticulous research of high quality cloths, the three brothers give new impetus to their fabric trade, thanks also to a renewed and efficient network of active agents through the national territory, which in a short time will procure the Guenzati award as official supplier to many religious and hospital institutes, as well as numerous theatrical associations and various automobile factories.
However, at the end of the sixties, the flourishing trade of the prestigious store appears dull and in decline. Giuseppe's death in 1959 seems to sap the family business and, unwittingly to accompany it towards the last act of the Tomegno era in Ditta Guenzati. In fact, Domenico and Luigi, elder and non-heirs, seem to have been managing the most important family affairs tirely, relaying to their trusty staff the direct relationship with their clientele, preparing thus the field to what will be the second time of Ditta Guenzati life will begin between owners and employees, as it had already happened 92 years earlier.
Now satisfied with so many years of success and the cospicuous profits thus obtained, Tomegno brothers decide to quit and give their 200-year-old company over the two youngest loyal employees Vittorio Ragno and Angelo Moretti, who on June 5, 1968 officially become the Ditta Guenzati's new owners, giving continuity to that unusual tradition, which has always characterized Ditta Guenzati: to entrust the business to the most deserving collaborators for free; in fact till today the old company in 249 years of life has never been sold, but only left free of charge to more worthy employees with the solemn incontrovertible promise not to change the firm's name!
Moretti has been already working for Tomegno brothers as a delivery man, when in 1956 Ragno is employed in Guenzati store as assistant clerk. Vittorio is a 19 year old man, who is far from being inexperienced; five years earlier he had learned the profession working as a salesman at Carlo Alberto Fabrics shop, demonstrating excellent quality in the retail sector. Nevertheless by Tomegno's store Guenzati's training seems to be far from easy.
Tomegno brothers have been shown to be inflexible in the customer service and in an interview with Giuseppe Paletta, published a few years ago by the Center for Business Culture, Vittorio recalls the hard work he faced in a work enviroment where older colleagues, jealous of the skills they gained in years, were far from willing to help new arrivals and teach them the "tricks "of the trade. However, commitment, humility and constant dedication to work are qualities that end up rewarding Vittorio and Angelo's efforts demonstrated over the years, enabling them to emerge in a company formed in the mid-twentieth century by nine people between owners, salesmen and delivery men.
So in the late sixties the two young partners have the great commitment to run one of the oldest stores in Milan and to mantain its prestigious fame. They immediately realize that the fabric trade as conceived by Tomegno is too static and obsolete now, destined to be surpassed for sure, if not revolutionized by a renewed way of doing business. Not without fear Vittorio and Angelo accept the arduous challenge of bringing the Ditta Guenzati back to the splendour of a time to return to being competitive in a rapidly expanding market in order to bring back their company to that first-rate role which used to have in the past.
The first step is to abandon the wholesale fabric business that have become too dispersive and far less profitable by concentrating all the available energy in the retail business. This first phase of renewal is decided on the basis of careful observation of the new fashion trends that are investing our country, paying particular attention to the new needs of the customers. In the early sixties strong winds of change blow from the United Kingdom which will soon affect the way and the taste of Italian dressing; and thus, exploiting the momentum of the economic boom and the appreciation of the British style in the high society's Milanese salons, the two young partners appear more than ever resolute to ride that innovative wave.
A series of lucky conjuctions help Vittorio and Angelo to revolutionize their product offering by paying particular attention and investments to the consolidated British market strong in its secular textile tradition. Thus two hundred years after its foundation, beside the traditional dress cloths for men and women, for the first time in the Guenzati's shelves customers also find a large range of Scottish and Irish donegal tweeds, tartans, twisted tweed twists, cheviot, sportex and many other kind of fabrics typical of the across-the-Channel textile production. And at the same time a large collection of clothing accessories from U.K and Ireland are introduced in the bicentenary store that nowadays still characterize the renowned Guenzati style. 1968 is a historic year for the old shop, that very soon becomes a place one of a kind and an exclusive landmark not only for its loyal customers, but also for many tourists, who every year come to visit Milan from all over the world.
The Ragno-Moretti partnership lasts for more than 40 years; during that long period the gradual but necessary business transformation materializes, leading to a substantial decrease in the kinds of commercialized fabrics and at the same time to a significant increase in accessories' offer, especially in the knitwear and headwear sector with a focus on handicrafts coming mainly from the UK and Ireland, but also from Italy and Germany.
At the beginning of the new millennium with the aim of rewarding those commercial realities that have proven to be in keeping with the times for more than 50 years, the Register of Historical Shops is established by the City Council, which aims to protect and enhance all those historic shops that represent the true commercial identity of the Ambrosian metropolis, in spite of the so-called high-end brand names that control most the market. Of course, strong of its more-than-200-year business Ditta Guenzati is registered ex-officio in the prestigious register and between 2002 and 2006 is honoured with several awards by the Lombardy Region, the City Council of Milan, the Chamber of Commerce and the Textile Category Association.
At the end of 2009, after more than 50 years spent in Ditta Guenzati, Angelo Moretti decides to leave the company convinced that the right time to retire from business has come. He quits definitively on February 10, 2010, when Luigi, son of Vittorio, takes over all his company shares and comes up beside his father in running the bicentenary company.
Officially, Luigi joined the Guenzati team in April 1984 after ending military service in the Air Force Arms; actually, he had already completed a short trial period in the father's company between 1982 and 1983 after getting a degree at the Gino Zappa Technical Institute in Milan, while waiting for the National Service call. The first years of apprenticeship under the hard guidance of father Vittorio are far from easy: the total inexperience in sales, the very formal work environment, the austere discipline and the ancient legacy of the Tomegno teachings, are little related to the nonconformist spirit of the young Gigi, who, however, makes them his own in a few years. The precious teachings of Daddy Vittorio, incomparable expert in the field of cloths, and of his partner Angelo soon give their fruits. Quickly Luigi takes part in several meetings with suppliers, agents and wholesalers that soon result for him in an inexhaustible source of knowledge and experience in the world of high quality fabrics and accessories. During the summertime Gigi is sent to England by an English shop in London, called W. Bill, in order to improve his knowledge of English and make experience outside Italy.
With the passing of the seasons, Ragno Jr. is more and more often found to cooperate with his father and the partner to the vision of fabric sample cases and the new collections of accessories contributing actively in the selection of new products, showing a watchful propensity to purchase, which will gradually enable him to take personally care of the whole division. Immersed in such experiences, Gigi starts to cultivate a growing interest in the fascinating Anglo-Saxon world, developing in particular a true passion for the Celtic-Scottish sphere and for everything that recalls tartans. With the advent of the internet, the in-depth research of specific products from UK and Ireland becomes easier contributing furtherly to the specialization of the historic store's style of Via Mercanti. Thus the current activity of the Guenzati Company is therefore the extraordinary result of a long process of renewal which has been lasting for almost fifty years with the specific intention of keeping up to date with the ever-changing modern times.
The oldest shop in Milan, which has made its fortune and high reputation thanks to the trade of fine fabrics for dressing, nowadays offers along with a wide range of tweeds, Scottish tartans and worsted wool materials, an accurate selection of men and ladies hats, scarves, sweaters, ties, stockings, tayloring accessories and several handycraft objects of rigorously Anglo-Saxon production to make the Highlanders themselves envious.