Seeking bargains in lap of luxury

In land of Gucci and Prada, discount designer boutiques offer alternative to retail

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Shopping in Rome can be eternally frustrating for the retail-intolerant. Sales — or “saldi” — occur only twice a year in January and July, and the flaccid dollar doesn’t do us any favors.

But savvy fashion fiends avoid Gucci and Prada shops on the pricey Via Condotti and scour the designer outlets, vintage stores and weekly markets for the best deals on exquisite clothes and accessories.

“The deals at the outlets outside the city are fabulous, and the people mostly speak English, so it’s easy and worth the effort,” says Suzy Gershman, author of the international “Born to Shop” book series. “Southern Italian women are bigger than women in Paris and Milan, so you have a better chance of finding sizes there that aren’t tiny.”

To reach the most storied of designer outlets, you’ll need to rent a car or sign up for a chartered bus tour. At Castelo Romano (mcarthurglen.it/castelromano), just 15 kilometers south of Rome, there are 110 boutiques and labels that include Etro, Zegna, Burberry, Salvatore Ferragamo, Bruno Magli and Dolce & Gabbana.

“In the Valentino shop there, you can find gorgeous cocktail dresses, fine women’s coats, bags and shoes,” says Lorenza Strini, who leads shopping tours in Rome. On a guided excursion, she can escort you to secret designer discount boutiques within the city or outside Rome (€400 for a half-day or €600 for a full-day group rate; theshoppingstylist.com).

The nearby Max Mara factory outlet, Diffusione Tessile (difusionetessile.it), carries the fashion house’s myriad brands like Max & Co and plus-size line Marina Rinaldi at up to 60% off, but the labels are often snipped out. At the 150 boutiques at Valmontone Fashion District (www.fashiondistrict.it), you can score Frette robes and linens, Byblos dresses and Missoni knitwear. Lastly, the Bulgari Outlet on the outskirts of Rome (1052 Via Aurelia; 06-661-7071) sells the luxe label’s overstock including crocodile purses, diamond jewelry, scarves, sunglasses and even small home furnishings. The Bulgari building is unmarked, so don’t expect a sign.

Within the city, you can nab deals at the “stock houses,” which carry designer leftovers from previous seasons and irregulars. Keep in mind that your efforts could lead to a boon or a bust, as inventory wildly fluctuates.

At Il Discount dell’Alta Moda (16 Via di Gesu e Maria, near Spanish Steps), Prada, Fendi, Krizia and Roberto Cavalli sell for 50% off. Natives flock to Il Discount delle Firme (27 Via dei Serviti) for their variety of Gucci bags as well as Jil Sander, Alberta Ferretti and Salvatore Ferragamo racks.

Outlet Gente (246 Via Cola de Rienzo, near the Vatican) offers discounted Miu Miu, Chloe and Burberry, while Antonella e Fabrizio (247 Corso Vittorio Emanuele, near Piazza Navona) caters to men and women with a selection of designer’s lesser-priced bridge lines like Armani, Just Cavalli and D&G.

Ex-pat Megan McDonnell, who leads Context Travel’s Artisan shopping tour (contexttravel.com) to hidden boutiques, has a few favorite thrift shops like Miss France, which sells classic Pierre Cardin, Pucci and Yves Saint Laurent from the ’60s.

“It’s open very late at night and only admits customers one by one,” she says of the boutique (Via della Scrofa near the Piazza Navona; open 11 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.). She also recommends Vintage, No Vintage (6 Via Ormisda in the Prati), which is, in essence, a corner of a beauty shop with accessories from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

West of the Piazza Pasquino, Via del Governo Vecchio is ground zero for bohemian dress shops and great vintage boutiques. Strini scores antique ornate kimonos, costume jewelry and accessories at Moda on that block. At 22 Via de S. Dorotea in the Trastevere, Frankenstein is another vintage shop beloved by the chic set in Rome.

Finally, bancarelles (market stalls) at Rome’s best flea markets can be a trove for the vintage maven. The traveling bazaar, held at hip hotels and known as Mercato Monti (mercatomonti.com), features peddlers of ’60s and ’70s clothes and accessories and designer crafts. Skip the well known Porta Portese flea market, as the fare is mostly cheap contemporary knockoff shoes and clothes. Instead, hit the high-end market known as Borghetto Flaminio (32 Piazza delle Marina) on Sunday and choose from designer vintage clothes and bags. Be sure to boldly mention that you want “fatto un affare” — or a great deal.