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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

(continued from page 1)

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.  

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