In Elizabeth Gilbert’s biographical tome “Eat Pray Love,” the author recalls a conversation with her friend Giulio about how every city has a single word that defines it; not a description exactly, but a single thought that encapsulates the minds of its inhabitants. When it comes to Rome, Giulio declares, the word is “sex.”
No surprise that heritage fashion house Bulgari is chiefly inspired by this capital city — from the architectural B.Zero1 collection that harks back to the carnality of the Colosseum, to the Serpenti jewels that literally coil around necks and limbs. Even for its physical stores, all roads do lead to Rome: in 2014, the brand commissioned architect Peter Marino to reimagine their commemorative flagship store along Via dei Condotti, which has been open since the early 1900s. Bulgari’s Roman outlet is seen as the blueprint for all Bulgari stores in other cities. The eight-pointed star motif acts as the brand’s emblem and is a guiding light of sorts; it’s seen inlaid throughout its boutiques around the world, which now includes Greenbelt 3 in Makati City.
Instead of shops, Bulgari calls its retail spaces “temples,” perhaps because of its heavy references to the architecture of Rome. Heavily veined marble adorns the walls, which recall the earthiness of ancient Roman structures. Adding contrasting warmth to the marble are the multifaceted parquet floors, which not only allude to Bulgari jewelry, but also the mosaic floors of Roman baths. In 2015, the brand financed the restoration of the polychrome floor mosaics in the Baths of Caracalla, whose fan-like pattern inspired the brand’s Divas’ Dream collection.
The store is divided by collection, but also by categories: jewelry flanking each side, the brand’s collection of men’s and women’s watches on podiums in the middle, with a corner dedicated to Bulgari accessories and fragrances. The minimal art within the store, a vibrant Riso print of flowers on a field, pay homage to the brand’s ambassadors and admirers like artist Andy Warhol.
Deep into the store is a cavernous private room for VIP guests, an oval-shaped golden room furnished with pieces from veritable Italian designers. A crushed velvet couch from Osualdo Borsani and a white marble Mangiarotti table greets you upon entering. Sitting on the walls are bust mannequins wearing Bulgari jewels, arranged to look like classical Roman busts. The room itself was inspired by actress Elizabeth Taylor’s visits to the Bulgari store in Rome in the ‘50s, when she would often fly in to shoot during the golden era of Italian filmmaking.
Yet with limited mobility within cities and neighborhoods in the country, Bulgari opening a retail space seems to go against the growth of e-commerce across retail categories. What is the place of a luxury brand’s physical store if buyers aren’t venturing outside? According to Bulgari’s regional managing director for South Asia region Jeffrey Hang, the decision to pursue Bulgari’s first showroom in Makati (there is an existing one at Solaire Resort) was in response to growing market demand. Hang admits that the first few months into the pandemic was “devastating” for the brand, like many other non-essential industries, and sought out the patronage of tourism-led retail (mostly foreign buyers from China) to regain its footing.
But the brand realized that there was great potential among local buyers who were, in fact, keen to spend on luxury. “Within Southeast Asia, our business with local clientele in their home markets, in certain cases, has tripled, versus what they previously were,” Hang says. “No doubt, we’ve had a captive audience, and that many of these individuals were shopping when they traveled. And now that they’re unable to travel, they’re shopping at home.”
Hang goes disclaims that this phenomenon isn’t necessarily exclusive to Bulgari clients, but part of a large movement within the luxury sector of buyers who are purchasing luxury items at their homebase. “By really listening to our clients, and wanting to satisfy their desires related to the brand, we have truly found that this endeavor has paid off,” Hang adds.
While Bulgari continues to be available for purchase across various channels, building a physical shop in Manila’s central business district is a sign that luxury is truly a business of the senses. No wonder Rome’s word is sex, and Bulgari represents the city’s sensuality — to touch and feel the heavy coldness of jewelry, to smell exotic leather, and to bask Italian hospitality with a cup of espresso in a golden, egg-shaped room.
The Bulgari showroom is located in Greenbelt 3, Makati City.