The value of fine Italian menswear is intrinsically linked to its top design firms
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99
The duty of the Italian couturier has always been to provide its customers with modest concealment, protection from the elements, higher social standing and a subtle sexual allure.
Centuries after the cultured men of Rome hung up their paludamenta, or robes, after their last toga party, Italian menswear has boldly marched into the modern clothing forum. Thanks to a heritage that dates back to the mid-1800s, savvy men are able to enjoy the sartorial splendor of Italian menswear design. It's easy to appreciate the generations of dedicated families that are responsible for producing the world's finest wines, cigars, cars and coffee, but we tend to take the traditions of Italian tailoring for granted. The Roman suit wasn't built in a day! Neither was the Neapolitan.
The godfathers of Italian tailored men's fashion are a unique and intriguing breed. These trusted old-school tailors can be somewhat egocentric, even downright stubborn. Yet their enigmatic work habits are the key to their mastery of the trade. The world has been left with a great shortage of these talented artisans; the few who remain form an exclusive group that takes great pride in the meticulous handwork required to create a fine garment. Like their counterparts on Savile Row, Italian tailors cut and sew every lapel, pocket, sleeve and collar completely by hand.
"A good suit is like a good cigar," Kiton president Massimo Bizzocchi declares. "You have to make sure it is rolled properly. You can call a cigar a cigar, but unless it's truly by hand, it's not a real cigar." The same goes for clothing, Bizzocchi says. "You've got to keep the fiber alive." What Bizzocchi is referring to is the way in which a cutter rolls the individual pieces of a garment together before it is sent for 25 hours of tailoring.
The rolling technique, as well as the art of measuring, cutting, basting, sewing, fitting and finishing, takes many years for a tailor to learn. Brioni's tailoring school in Penne, for instance, trains the company's master tailors for a minimum of four years before they are allowed to hand-cut and -sew garments.
While many accomplished Italian tailors can be found in New York City, such as Tony Maurizio, Bill Fioravanti, Nino Corvato, Mimmo Spano and Russell Giliberto, Italy, of course, still boasts the largest number of these extraordinary craftsmen. Their trade is as mystifying and secretive as the magicians' guild and, like the art of magic, the manner in which these maestros create their works cannot possibly be conveyed by textbooks. As a result, very little is known about the history or the minutiae of a handmade Italian suit. Getting direct answers about the internal workings of an Italian suit is like pulling teeth.
But if you spend enough time with these garment makers, you'll find that their enthusiasm and passion for their craft can occasionally get the better of them; some of the secrets that have created today's tailored masterpieces may slowly slip through the cracks.
The history behind Italian designer suits dates back prior to the unification of Italy, in 1861. In 1850, when the Savoy dynasty still ruled the town of Cagliari, in Sardegna, Italy's first tailoring atelier, Castangia, opened shop. This marked a new era in the sartorial personality of Italian menswear, and the word sarto--Italian for tailor--entered the language of world fashion. The Italian textile industry was already well established in the middle of the nineteenth century when a textile company called Somma Spa established a wool-production group in Somma Lombardo, just outside Milan, in 1865. (The transition from the production of raw materials to the manufacture of garments has always been a natural progression.) Somma Spa was destined to evolve into the now renowned firm Vestimenta, whose first manufacturing plant, in Matterello, opened in the early 1960s.
Today, the firm continues to devote its resources solely to production. "We don't think it's imperative to be in the retail market," says Vestimenta president Sandy Symkens. "We've built our business by being a viable resource to high-end stores, not by opening competing freestanding shops. By controlling our distribution, Vestimenta has a certain cachet."
Another mill-to-maker transformation got under way in 1910, when 21-year-old Ermenegildo Zegna, a recent graduate of Scuole Professionale Tessili Di Biella, opened a textile school in Biella. Zegna's original aim was to equal and eventually surpass the English in their production of quality woven textiles. Twenty years later, the Italian opened Oasi Zegna, a textile factory overlooking the district of Trivero, which provided health and education facilities for its employees. The textile trade of Italy was blossoming into a new industry. While the United Kingdom still ruled the world of tailoring, suit making was becoming a very serious business in Italy.
Although Italian clothiers were gaining acclaim, many Italian aristocrats remained loyal to England's tailors. Entrepreneurial Italians examined these London-made bespoke suits to discover the mysteries of the garments' internal construction. Soon, the Savile Row suit was no longer the only option.
"Now I must touch upon a sore spot," the prolific Italian writer Antonio Gramsci wrote to his father in 1910. "You, as regards the suit, have not written to me any more; and I, for my part, when I went to Ghilarza for Easter looked indecent, as you yourself told me. Since you thought that it was my fault for not having Castangia make me a suit." The importance and prestige of wearing an Italian-made tailored suit was slowly becoming a reality.
The suits considered to be the modern classics were created in the 1930s, a period American fashion expert Alan Flusser describes as "the height of elegance." This was the decade that the Triuggio-based firm, Canali, entered the trade. Its emphasis on precision cutting and fully canvased construction, with hand-rolled collars and hand-set sleeves--a benchmark--became an industry standard. It was also the era that spawned Naples-based tailor Vincenzo Attolini, known for introducing the "rag" jacket, the boat pocket and closed sleeve. The '30s also gave birth to the Mantova-based couturier Corneliani, who along with others, made his mark by experimenting with different colors and styles.
During the Second World War, suits quite often needed to be both beautiful and durable. Anna Zegna, a fourth-generation descendant of Ermenegildo, recalls the period: "When it was not so easy to have new jackets made each season, Zegna jackets were carefully undone and turned inside out to be worn anew. In those days it was said that a Zegna jacket was the garment for life."
Life in Italy was hard during the war, but the Italians' commitment to fashioning quality garments never waned. In 1945, as the modern tailoring tradition developed, master tailor Nazareno Fonticoli teamed with Gaetano Savini to launch a company called Atelier Brioni. Named after an island resort in the Adriatic, the company soon created a new modus operandi for a generation of suit manufacturers. Although the catwalks of Europe had never been exposed to anything other than women's haute couture, the company presented its first complete collection of men's fashions on the runways at the Sala Bianca, in Florence, in 1952. Two years later, Brioni dazzled New York, beginning a transatlantic love affair that continues to flourish. The 1950s proved to be a momentous decade in Italian clothing history. The country now boasted more tailors than France and Britain combined, and the world's couture standards, which had previously been set in London and Paris, were now being challenged by Rome and Naples.
As the Italian fashion industry matured, a great deal remained to be learned about the metamorphosis from cloth to clothes. After two centuries of family ties to the wool industry in Naples, Ciro Paone applied his craftsmanship to the ready-made market in 1956. He adopted the name Kiton, a Greek term used to describe tunics worn by the leaders of ancient Hellenic society. It was an appropriate designation, as Neapolitan tailors had a tradition of service to the monarchy and the aristocracy dating back to the nineteenth century. Today, Kiton has more than 180 tailors, one of the world's largest concentrations of clothing artistry.
The already high standards set by Brioni and Canali were met by Kiton, which decided to raise the stakes even higher by using finer fabrics and improving construction methods. Besides stimulating creativity, the rivalry between the northern and southern Italian design houses spurred media hype as the world turned its head to look at a 1950s Rome that fancied itself as the new fashion capital of the world. But Italy's most influential years were yet to come.
In 1972, Vestimenta successfully converted its 10-year-old business into a serious designer-clothing label poised to take on the modern world. The transformation was spearheaded by 38-year-old Giorgio Armani from Piacenza. The world was now focused intently on Italy, and in 1975, 30 years after the Brioni menswear launch, Armani premiered his own collection. With sartorial powerhouses now established in Rome, Naples and Milan, Italy's dominance of men's fashion was undisputed. The styling influence of Italian tailoring reached its zenith in the 1980s, thanks to Armani. The low button stance and strong shoulder became the new benchmark for the modern block pattern.
When examining the intrinsic value and quality of a suit, a number of factors should be considered. First and foremost, the fabric is the critical determinant of a suit's quality, and will most certainly affect the price tag, so it's crucial to make sure that it feels great and looks luxurious.
"It all starts with the fabric," says Kiton's Bizzocchi. For Kiton, fabric quality begins in Australia and New Zealand, where merino sheep are bred in "the most optimum climate to produce the best quality." Some of this superfine merino wool can be less than 14 microns in diameter (cashmere is typically 13 microns), so the "hand," or feel of the fabric, is superb. "Climatic conditions produce fine grass that a small flock of merino sheep graze on. Like a fine vintage wine, the quality of this wool may never be seen again," says Bizzocchi. Kiton's top customers gladly pay $5,000 or more for a suit of quality.
Superior fabric has always been hard to find. Mill space (looms available to weave new cloth) in the famous wool mills of northern England and the domestic wool mills of Italy is always tight. To further complicate matters, Italian mills close shop for the month of August. Castangia's vice president, Dr. Alberto Grilletti, and his ancestors before him have seen many mills come and go. Grilletti still chooses fabrics "from the best suppliers in Italy and England." English mills tend to produce a comparatively matte-finished cloth, while the cloth made by Italian mills generally has a little more sheen.
Despite the annual holiday exodus in August, Canali elects to have the vast majority of its fabric loomed exclusively in the Biella region. Canali sales representatives describe the evolution of their fabric as "avant-garde fibers joining natural ones in a mix conceived with an eye on the future and respect for the past." Having exquisite fabric is paramount and many designer labels invest heavily in the creation of new material. "The degree to which Vestimenta gets involved with developing fabrics is unusual in the menswear business," says Symkens. Vestimenta tries to anticipate its customers' desires by fostering close ties with its retailers.
Another critical factor to consider is the internal construction of the jacket. "The engine, the 12-cylinder, is in the shoulder, collar and chest," Bizzocchi says. This design will affect the way the suit "molds" itself to your body and will determine the life of the garment. Putting on a jacket should feel a little like throwing on a light cashmere sweater, according to Bizzocchi. "Buy with the brain, not with the eyes," he advises.
One should also know whether the suit jacket is fused or constructed with canvas. In a fused jacket, heat is used to glue the interlining to the inside of the garment. In a canvas jacket, fine hand-sewing secures the interlining. A jacket constructed with canvas is lighter, better reinforced, more resilient, and molds to the shape of the body more closely. Not surprisingly, it is also more expensive. Some clothiers fuse the front of the jacket and use canvas in the chest area. Finally, be aware of the attention to detail lavished on the final touches. Hand-sewn lapels, "working button holes" on the cuffs, horn buttons and other fine points lend personality and character to the garment.
As history has shown, the world's great design houses do not survive by resting on their laurels or living off last season's success. Following in the footsteps of the Italian entrepreneurs of the early twentieth century, who learned from the bespoke tailors of London and added flourishes that were uniquely theirs, today's Italian tailors have continued this tradition. Taking the best from America's preppy look of the 1950s, Italy is reinventing modern style. Modern style should reflect a "global look," one that acknowledges a contemporary touch without looking like a high-fashion statement. The styling should also be suitable to and appropriate for business on either side of the Atlantic. An American-Italian hybrid is emerging, featuring a higher button stance and a softer shoulder with a pinch more room in the chest for today's man. This new image and design are so appropriate for the American market that Corneliani was recently awarded a manufacturing licensee agreement for Ralph Lauren for the upcoming fall/winter season.
With dress-down Fridays and casual-dress mandates increasingly becoming the mode, the next sartorial advances remain a mystery. "The future of menswear will be characterized by a great attention, not to the trademark, but mostly to the quality of the product," predicts Castangia's Grilletti. "This is determined by the fabric, the technique of the manufacture and by the style, which have to follow the new trend." According to Canali, that means many jackets are now being constructed with a more defined waist and trousers are becoming more straight-legged and slim.
Brioni's worldwide chairman, Umberto Angeloni, has been described as the ambassador of Italian fashion. Brioni won the contract to dress the James Bond character for Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies. Angeloni regards actor Pierce Brosnan as an excellent example of modern fashion. "He will be the new Gary Cooper," he predicts. Brioni's new suits feature plain and fancy weaves, herringbones and covert wools in banker's stripes and antique checks. The firm sees the three-button single-breasted models with a slightly higher button stance as the dominant style in today's clothing collections. Giorgio Armani's spring/summer 1999 collection is described by the company as "the expression of a desire for correctness, a good fit and ease; of the memory of a certain traditional style and sophistication; of a move towards new frontiers."
For Atelier Attolini, it's not a move forward, but rather a firm foothold in the past. The firm builds on its tailoring heritage, creating, as the Attolini family puts it, "a perfect marriage: a style for today's man based on yesterday's elegance....The jackets will always have boat pockets and the buttons on the cuff will still be close together." The company's motto, borrowed from the nineteenth century French writer Alexandre Dumas, is "all for one and one for all."
Another view focuses on the "mind style" of tomorrow's man. "Attention to the customer's lifestyle evolution is of the utmost importance for us, so that we are able to offer our customers products that answer their needs even before they have fully defined them," Anna Zegna says. "This is why we prefer to talk about 'mind style,' a way of life that has not yet been translated into action but belongs more to the realm of dreams and desires."
The Italian entrepreneurial spirit never wavers. Assessing today's market, Corneliani says, "Now that stylists work on an industrial level and the consumer is no longer prepared to accept something just because it carries a designer label, the winning card appears to be the entrepreneur-stylist, [who is] capable of guaranteeing taste and creativity but first and foremost the quality of the product." Jack Ferrari, Corneliani's former executive vice president, says, "The future requires a commitment to service. Specials to save the sale. [Corneliani is] currently developing technology with an aim to turn around a made-to-measure suit in three weeks."
Whether a made-to-measure suit can be made in three weeks or not, one thing is certain: being sold a fine tailored suit by an Italian couturier who's passionate about his product is a truly pleasurable experience. If you're not just an average man, the godfathers of Italian menswear are more than happy to give you a small slice of the action. To quote Massimo Bizzocchi, as I felt a beautiful Kiton jacket being placed on my shoulders for the first time, "Welcome to the family."
Luke Mayes is a freelance fashion writer based in New York City.
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