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Fantastic Fabrics

The fashion industry keeps raising the bar on fabric fineness, but at what point does it go from the sublime to the ridiculous?
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Greg Raymer, Sept/Oct 2004

(continued from page 2)

If Savile Row suits made of sturdy English cloth that just get better with age is the British way, the world market seems to be responding more and more to the Italian approach, which uses lighter fabric that won't necessarily last as long, but has instant appeal, especially in a climate-controlled world in which comfort, not warmth, may be the first consideration. People have been spinning wool for some 5,500 years, and recognized mastery with the material has passed from realm to realm. At one time the Spanish monopolized the prized merino sheep and had the lock on great wool. By the eighteenth century the torch had been passed to the English, who kept solid hold until now. The Italians have been nipping at their heels, not just with their own spry sensibility, but with a willingness to learn from the Brits and incorporate their tradition into the Italian look.

While solid, smooth cloths took the Italians to the top of the fashion tree, they are now creating fabric with texture and pattern in the British mode, only softer and lighter. Designer Joseph Abboud sees the fashion pendulum swinging away from the "sea of dark sleeves" that dominated menswear not too long ago. He is designing with texture and personality. Nevertheless, he goes to Italy for 90 percent of his cloth. Abboud's Black Label line includes Super 120s, 150s and cashmere/silk blends.

John Kalell, creative director of Southwick, a traditional New England company that makes suits for Brooks Brothers as well, also sees the Italian tech surges. "Much of what's happening in fabrics is related to finishing, and the Italians do it best," he says. "A lot of it has to do with the water and how the wool is washed. But there are secrets they're not telling. The Italians boast, but they don't inform."

Southwick, itself, is on an interesting course. "The key note to suits as we see it is the return of real seasonal suiting," Kalell conjectures. Where the trend had been to year-round weights and looks, Southwick, which makes suits for presidential candidate John Kerry, is producing clothing for fall that is clearly autumnal in the look and feel. Some of it is done in the traditional rough-hewn, short-staple Donegal and Harris Tweed wool, a distinct departure from the softness trend. Other of his garments, however, come in finer cloths such as cashmere blends with patterns that only echo the short-staple aesthetic. "It's a vintage notion that hasn't been seen for a while."

Djordje Stefanovic, fashion director of Italy's Ermenegildo Zegna, agrees to an extent: "The rustic look is great, but the touch and feel must be soft and supple. That's the game."

He further feels that one of Italy's advantages is "we've also been better in marketing ourselves."

He admits that Zegna has gone to England to find out how the English do what they do best. The result, he says, has been a mix of applying new technology to old methods. "There are some old secrets that you just can't replace."

Among the great fabric houses, which include Dormeiul, Loro Piana, Holland & Sherry and Scabal, Zegna is unique in that it is also a fully vertical operation, sourcing its yarn, weaving fabric, tailoring clothing and distributing its products through its retail shops. Stefanovic came up through its textile division, which has a 40-year history of buying merino wool through Australian farms, and played "the very interesting game" of selling fabrics to customers who are also Zegna's competitors on a finished-goods level.

Zegna also creates a number of lines of clothing, the highest of which are Couture and Sartorial. It is in that arena that you'll find its exclusive 15 Milmil 15 fabric sold, which Stefanovic describes as "absolutely our favorite."

Besides the cloth, the other hallmarks of Couture are details like hand stitching, a subtle light interior and working buttonholes as well as a bright color sensibility. "It's not about safeness, it's about a passion."

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