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The Gucci outlet at The Mall Firenze, about 30 minutes from Florence in the hills of Tuscany.

Bernadette Morra/The Globe and Mail

When friends invited my husband and me to vacation at their villa in Tuscany, it felt like a dream come true. When I learned the villa is 20 minutes from the world’s most renowned designer outlet mall, the news sent me into fashion orbit.

Factory outlets in rural Italy are a decades-old tradition, thanks to the country’s long history of fashion production and design. But in 2001, Kering – parent company of Gucci, Saint Laurent and other coveted brands – built The Mall Firenze and it no longer became necessary to roam the countryside looking for a Gucci outlet here, a Prada outlet there (although Prada is not officially a mall tenant and still maintains the Space Prada outlet a half-hour away in Montevarchi). With 40 luxury brands in a park-like setting 30 minutes outside Florence, the mall is the pinnacle of outlet shopping.

Hunting for designer bargains is a long-time passion of mine. Last fall at Woodbury Common Premium Outlets outside of New York, I scored silver leather Fendi boots for US$216, knocked down from more than US$1,000. But like many off-price malls, Woodbury Common is a blend of high/low (Dior and Disney are steps apart). And too often, flimsy basics mass-produced specifically for the outlet stores are planted amidst the true bargains: previous seasons’ merch marked down once, twice and, if you’re really lucky, a third time to rock bottom.

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The Mall Firenze, on the other hand, is clearly aimed at luxury connoisseurs from around the globe. The environment is chic and spotless with granite pathways leading past lavender gardens and over serene pools of water. Brand-wise, Emporio Armani, the house’s lower-priced line, is about as “low-end” as it gets.

With so much temptation at hand, it helps to have a strategy. As we laze by the pool back at the villa, my friends and I plan our attack. Everyone agrees a Saturday would be deadly for crowds. We debate whether it’s better to tackle the largest stores – Prada and Gucci – first because the chances of finding something are greater, or the most expensive boutiques such as Tom Ford and Bottega Veneta, where full-price really stings. One of our group would like a Pomellato ring identical to the one she bought at the mall last year. My husband is on the prowl for a cashmere hoodie (inspired by Axe from Billions) and white corduroy pants, both from Loro Piana.

But as any seasoned bargain hunter knows, it’s better to be open to whatever treasure you might unearth.

A car and driver wait for shoppers outside the Prada outlet.

Bernadette Morra/The Globe and Mail

We arrive around 5 p.m. on a Thursday, which turns out to be ideal. It’s easy to find parking, and we pull in near an SUV with Russian plates. We’d heard horror stories about lineups at Gucci – markdowns in their regular stores became limited after Alessandro Michele took over as designer in 2015 – but we breeze right in. The decor feels as plush as a regular Gucci, with crimson carpets and velvet walls, and the sales staff is just as attentive. I am tempted by a ruffled silk chiffon blouse, down to €625 ($920) from €2,500. But I feel like I shouldn’t buy the first thing I try on (wrong!) My husband nabs classic bit loafers for €250, instead of the $870 he would pay at home in Canada. After a quick ice tea in the sleek black Gucci café on the roof, we move on.

Burberry is a disappointment, mostly stocked with benign plaids and trenches. At Marni, most items are discounted only 50 per cent – I can do better than that at an end of season sale at Holts or Saks. I’m sniffing around for price tags with red dots – retail’s way of saying, “I surrender. Take another 20, 30 or 40 per cent off.”

Except for the prices, it’s easy to forget you are at a discount mall. At Loro Piana, where my husband finds his lusted-after white cords for €290, light jazz plays while I pet the double-face cashmere coats. Tom Ford’s boutique is as sexy as you would expect, yet the killer sequinned minidresses from the fall 2018 runway are marked down 64.99 per cent. We walk away scratching out heads - why not 65 per cent?

We meet up with our friends at 7:30, closing time. They’re on an endorphin high, juggling purchases from Gucci, Prada and Bottega Veneta. But they ran out of time to make it to Pomellato, so 2½ hours wasn’t quite enough.

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Me? I come away empty-handed, but not for lack of trying. I fell head over heels for a velvet Gucci jacket (down to €1,250 from €2,500) but it was one size too large. My heart nearly stopped at Alberta Ferretti, where a rack of chiffon gowns was slashed to €591. But the lace hems would have made shortening impossible. And as much as I wanted to squeeze into the crystal dotted minidresses at Saint Laurent, down to €472 from €2,490, that Cinderella moment just wasn’t going to happen.

But that’s outlet shopping. Even in Italy, the hunt can yield a feast, or not.

Your turn

Coach buses travel back and forth to Florence every half hour, dropping shoppers at Gucci’s doorstep for €13. A premium seven-seat van service offers hotel pick-up/drop-off for €35. Visit firenze.themall.it for information.

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