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A Winning Off-the-Rack Wardrobe

The Best Off-the-Rack Wardrobe
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

(continued from page 1)

"There's an almost mystical relationship between mind and hand when it comes to the work of real craftsmen," muses Joseph Barrato, CEO in the United States for the Italian firm of Brioni, tailors extraordinaire for 50 years. In the famous workshops and apprentice school in Penne, in the Abruzzi region of Italy, 200 tailors handcraft suits of impeccable subtlety. "In Italy, they talk about how long it takes to make something, not how quickly it can be pumped out," says Barrato. "The measure of craftsmanship is quality, which means aesthetics married to function. There is still the tradition of taking pride in doing things the best way, rather than the quickest way."

And how long does it take to make a fine suit?

"A single tailor working in a custom tailoring shop can make no more than three jackets a week--and that's the standard," Barrato says. "In Italy, they talk about garments in terms of hours: 'It's a 10-hour suit,' 'a 15-hour coat' and so forth. The artisans at Brioni make an 18-hour coat, which means as much handiwork as in any custom shop."

And it shows: Each jacket is completely hand-cut with scissors; the chest, lapels, collar, armholes, buttonholes, lining, pockets and sleeves are all sewn by hand. Everything is hand-pressed. It is virtually the same way at Kiton, a firm that employs 170 tailors in Naples to make clothing the old-fashioned way. Both Brioni and Kiton limit the number of garments they make to a few thousand per year--or about as many suits as the large clothing factories churn out in a week using laser knives, conveyor belts, a bit of glue and some pressing machines.

Brioni, in fact, has continued the time-honored artisan tradition of apprenticeship by establishing its own senior tailors school to train young people in the craft, the technical aspects of which have a heritage that dates back more than 100 years. And a visit to the Kiton plant in a Naples suburb shows tailors sitting in small groups, doing the work in their laps, one stitching a buttonhole, another a sleeve head. At a worktable across the aisle, a man hand-presses a lining. Many of the tailors have tape measures slung around their necks; it is very much the Old World in a modern setting of space and light.

That experience holds true with the great shoemakers. At the French firm of J.M. Weston, "production moved into a high-tech factory in 1990, but the old cobblers' benches are still used, and the construction methods haven't changed in half a century," says John Ryan, United States sales director. At least 80 percent of each Weston shoe is made by hand, from cutting the leather pattern to final polishing. The firm, which began making shoes and boots at Limoges in 1865, still has its own tannery, to ensure the proper aging of the leathers. Across the Channel--or through the Chunnel, if you will--in the English town of Northampton, Edward Green & Company has been making shoes since 1890, with the skills of the craft handed down from one generation to the next. The firm continues to make the knee-high boots for the Queen's own Household Guard, a tradition begun with Queen Victoria.

"We simply wouldn't think of using glue," says managing director John Hlustik, in a voice that makes you think he would probably thrash you if you mentioned Velcro fasteners. "In fact, we use wild boar bristles for stitching, instead of steel needles, and we make our own twine because it's both thinner and stronger." That's the kind of dedication to craft I'm talking about!

Neither firm, of course, mistakes the frighteningly trendy for style, choosing instead the tried-and-true cap toes and tassel slip-ons, a classic monk strap here, a calfskin-and-linen spectator there. The tremendous variety they offer comes in the form of leathers, finishes and fittings. Sizes and half-sizes in five widths are the norm, and traditional styles usually are available in several different shadings and finishes.

"We are concerned with welted shoes," Hlustik says, "because they are the only ones that can adequately be repaired." Too true, and while we are on the subject, quality shoe manufacturers will, for a modest charge, rehabilitate and rejuvenate your purchase so that you can be well-shod for years and years. That is value for the money.

Shirtmakers have their own set of rules for perfection. Single-needle construction is a must, so that seams don't pucker, and collars must be sewn in layers, rather than be fused (a polite term for gluing). Only the finest long-staple and lustrous cottons and mother-of-pearl buttons are used.

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