It’s 11 on a Thursday morning in the newly opened Marchesi 1824 in the heart of London’s fashionable Mayfair. Two Japanese tourists sit opposite each other sipping cappuccinos, silently scrolling through their phones, while an English businessman is standing at the bar downing an espresso. An orderly queue has already formed next door outside Maison Goyard, the leather-goods emporium, and across Mount Street limousines slide up to the entrance of the Connaught. Welcome to a rarefied world where high fashion meets higher calorie counts. And it’s going global.
If you have ever stumbled upon the original Marchesi, on Milan’s Via Santa Maria alla Porta, you know it’s a charming spot. Founded in 1824 and known for its pastries, cakes, sweets, and panettone, it’s a popular local pit stop for a coffee or an aperitivo. But in 2014, a slightly unlikely fairy godmother in the shape of an Italian luxury-goods conglomerate materialized to secure its future: the Prada Group.
It was a canny buy. Prada opened another branch in 2015 in the Via Montenapoleone, in the heart of the city’s Quadrilatero d’Oro, or “Golden Rectangle,” while a third followed next door to Prada in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the 19th-century shopping arcade.
Back at the first international outpost, which opened in late May, Marchesi London’s Instagram-ready interior takes its design cues from its Italian siblings. Underneath the glass of its sparkling counters sits an assortment of delectable brioches, croissants, and cakes, while shelves behind the bar display jars of pastel-colored sugared almonds and boxes of candies and jellies in jewel-like hues that wouldn’t look out of place in one of Prada’s runway shows.
Not Such Unlikely Bedfellows After All
In the tradition of the grandest Italian cafés, there are cherrywood glass cabinets, black and yellow Siena-marble floors, fern-green velvet chairs, and marble-topped tables set off by vases of peonies, the fashionista’s favorite bloom. The original decorative tiles and hooks on the ceiling hint at the site’s previous occupier, the historic butcher shop Allens of Mayfair, which had traded there since the late 19th century.
The pastries, like the light-as-a-feather brioches with crunchy sugar on top, are as expertly crafted as a hand-stitched handbag. These are made onsite by a team of Italian-trained pastry chefs, overseen by Marchesi’s new head of production, Diego Crosara, two-time Gelato World Cup winner and the world champion for pastry at the 2006 Culinary World Cup, who is helping to lead the global confectionary charge.
Food and fashion are not as unlikely bedfellows as they might first seem, and Prada is not the only one wanting a piece of the pie. The year before Prada invested in Marchesi, the French luxury-goods conglomerate LMVH acquired the equally historic Milanese Pasticceria Cova on Via Monte Napoleone and is busy rolling it out all over the world, with 22 branches across Europe and Asia so far. (Cova also has a summer partnership with the Alpemare Beach Club in the Italian resort of Forte dei Marmi.) Ralph Lauren presides over restaurants and bars in New York, Chicago, London, and Paris—which are seen as a culinary extension of the brand—and has just opened a pop-up coffee bar in its New Bond Street store in London. And last year, the Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura, from the three-star Michelin chef, opened in Gucci’s flagship space in the Palazzo della Mercanzia, on Florence’s Piazza della Signoria. (Even Starbucks, a company better known for expedience than luxury, opened its first, and very opulent, Italian café in a historic palazzo near Milan’s Duomo.)
The pastries, like the light-as-a-feather brioches with crunchy sugar on top, are as expertly crafted as a hand-stitched handbag.
Provenance is another buzzword for luxury brands, which explains Marchesi’s allure. According to Claudia D’Arpizio, a partner at the management-consulting firm Bain & Company, there’s a clear consumer trend toward singular experiences—including expensive food and drinks.
“Customers are attracted to brands that have a story behind them and that are able to emphasize their unique heritage,” she says. “In a way, the development of high-end food is a continuation of the strategy that has proved to be successful for core luxury products; building a narrative and bringing a story to the customers rather than just a bag or a cup of coffee.” As Prada begins a new chapter in Marchesi’s history, it seems brioches and bomboloni make perfect fashion-business sense.
Aoife O’Riordain is a travel writer based in Dublin and London.