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Italian Dressing

The value of fine Italian menswear is intrinsically linked to its top design firms
Luke Mayes
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.  

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