Nonini does not maintain an oﬃce. Preferring the vitality of public places, she conducts her daily research in the 19th-century library at Milan’s Philological Society and her meetings at the café of the city’s Triennale design museum. She also involves herself with sponsoring the arts so that she can be credible, she says, when persuading brands to do the same as part of her plan for them. “Art is much more relevant in our daily lives, and for these brands, than people imagine,” she says.
Nonini’s agency appears to be a world apart from the quixotic treasure hunts of her problem-solving days, but pragmatically it’s another opportunity to capitalize on her wide-ranging knowledge, her intricate web of contacts, and her hyper-developed understanding of human desire. “When we create a plan for a brand, we imagine it ﬁrst as a person—who would Hermès be, for example? She would be attentive, ironic, animated, tasteful. You need to understand a brand’s personality to understand exactly what it is that’s needed”—just as she formerly did with her bored rich clients.
We slide neatly into a petite parking space, but the car jerks once and my pen slips from my hand and falls between the parking brake and its plastic chassis. Nonini starts to feel around on the ﬂoor, then tugs at the chassis, sticks her ﬁngers inside, and bangs it a few times, all in vain. The pen is lost forever, and a ﬂicker of panic ﬂashes across Nonini’s face as she feels the imperative to problem solve. She grits her teeth: “I’ll get you a pen.”
Inside Altalen, we’re greeted by owners Elena Todros and Antonina De Luca, in identical red and black striped tops. “Helen,” they mur-mur as they stroke her arms and kiss her cheeks. Among the legions of wire hat stands and wooden shelves are framed pictures of Nonini. She wears birdlike turbans, her headdresses folded and pleated into soaring, winged creations, her expression direct and scorching. Meanwhile, in real life, by a bouquet of lilies and pussy willows, Nonini is rummaging through the drawers of the shop’s counter.
“Don’t you have any pens with caps?” she beseeches. Finally, Nonini hands me a bald Bic ballpoint. It’s one of her practical substitutions and a deﬁnitive step down from my lost Japanese ﬁne-point pen, but the problem is solved.
Decompressing, Nonini tries on the lime-green turban she’ll match with a borrowed Missoni outﬁt for a dinner later that evening. Her connection to turbans is stylistic, not religious or traditional, but she tells me proudly that she feels justiﬁed in her choice—the turban was born in Iran, her grandfather’s homeland.
Before we leave, Nonini pulls up a photo on her phone of the Suzuki sisters, eccentric Japanese twins with matching ﬂamingo-colored bobs and coordinated pink furs, snapped on their way to the Gucci show. “Look at them! I had to photograph them—people need to pay attention to these two.” The Altalen designers purr their approval.
We head off to Missoni. “People see me as some sort of trendsetter, but I’m not,” Nonini insists as we arrive and slip between the clusters of journalists and PR people gathered in front of the show. “I’m simply someone capable of looking at reality from diﬀerent viewpoints—of zooming in and zooming out. It’s my outsider specialty.” Consumed with understanding an ever-changing physical and social landscape, she has adopted a perspective of ﬂexibility, of inﬁnite inspection.
“To be a free thinker is truly the greatest luxury,” she says, before a photographer leads her away to the photo op wall where, astonishingly, the Suzuki twins are waiting (apparently summoned by the Missoni team after spotting the pair on Nonini’s Instagram account). They ﬂank Nonini as the photographer takes their photo—a striking woman in a simple oversized knit cardigan and a high turban holding court.