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The Style and Quality of Brioni Menswear

A Half Century After Sparking a New International Look in Menswear, Brioni Is Still at the Forefront of Style and Quality
By G. Bruce Boyer | From Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

Today we tend to take it for granted that men can wear pink shirts, grass-green sports jackets or plaid suits with pastel overchecks. We wear suits blended of silk and wool, linen and cotton, silk and cotton; we don silk dinner jackets; perhaps a pastel-hued blouson or safari jacket. And we are very much interested in softer and lighter-weight clothing. But less than 50 years ago these were startingly new concepts--ideas that emerged first out of the Via Barberini shop of Brioni in the 1950s.

Like any idea whose time has come and is well executed--in Brioni's case through the marriage of fine tailoring, innovative styling and sophistication--the new look that Brioni wrought drew a formidable coterie of customers. The firm's clients include a virtual who's who of men of the post-Second World War era: Robert Kennedy, Anthony Quinn, Donald Trump, John Wayne, Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Tony Bennett, Jim Belushi, Robert Wagner, Peter Jennings, Johnny Carson, Gary Cooper, Pierce Brosnan (Brioni did his complete wardrobe as James Bond in Golden Eye and Tomorrow Never Dies) and Al Pacino. The relationship between Brioni and its clientele is a symbiotic one to be sure: these impeccable and elegant men gain luster

from the fine, polished hand of Brioni, and in turn greatly contribute to the firm's prestige.

Brioni continues to present its elegant menswear in fashion shows from Stockholm to San Francisco, Dallas to Dusseldorf, and has not forgotten its own heritage. The latest menswear collection from the estimable firm is dedicated to the great Italian man of letters and of taste, Gabriele D'Annunzio. By the time he died at age 74, in 1938, this dramatic and grandiose personality had lived the fullest life imaginable.

Writer of some 50 works of literature--plays, poems and novels--a hypnotic orator, fearless aviator and military adventurer, aesthete, and great prodigious lover (he seems to have favored great actresses, high-society hostesses and the occasional duchess), D'Annunzio has been described as a modern Cyrano de Bergerac. He was, to put it simply, a man known for appreciating the higher and finer things in life.

"D'Annunzio was the great inspiration for this collection," explains Joseph Barrato, chief executive officer of Brioni USA, "because, to me, he was a dandy who epitomized the best of both the Italian and English traditions of elegant dress."

Perhaps inspired by the variety, quality and refinement in D'Annunzio's life, Brioni, long a maker of top-quality tailored clothing, continues to broaden its own horizons, and now produces quality sportswear, formalwear, dress and evening shirts, and other haberdashery such as luxury pajamas, robes, and smoking jackets. The firm is living the life of total quality wardrobe production.

Opulence continues to reign at Brioni this fall, with precious fabrics and dramatic colors much in evidence. This season, the silhouette is slightly redefined, with a decided nod to the modern English dandy. Fabrics--with an emphasis on the cashmeres--are rich in color and subtle in texture. Shades of brown (bronze, raisin and dark black-browns) counterpointed by vivid emerald green, sapphire blue and burgundy. All done in covert cloths, herringbones, twill diagonals, cashmere twists, antique checks and banker's stripes. The more dandified silhouette, meanwhile, is the three-button model with a slightly higher button stance. It has a more bespoke feel because of a slightly narrower shoulder and chest.

We simply take it for granted now, living in the Age of Designer Menswear, that wardrobe styling for men has always been with us. We tend to believe that all clothes, if they are to have any credibility, will bear a logo, a recognizable label, a name imprimatur. A name that implies a certain standard of taste, style and quality.

As it happens, all the defining innovations in menswear in the past half century go back, in one way or another--and usually the route is direct--to Brioni. The bold use of color and texture in fabric, the international approach to silhouette, the emphasis on the telling and meticulous detail, the men's fashion showings, the celebrity customers, the very idea of "name" recognition itself. Brioni not only changed the face of Italian menswear, it helped redefine contemporary luxury.

Almost at mid-century, a war-weary world was poised for change. It had recently witnessed the testing and deployment of the atomic bomb, which both ended an era and ushered in a new one full of controversy and fear. Realism had become the mode in the cinematic arts with films such as Noel Coward's and David Lean's Brief Encounter, Roberto Rosselini's Rome Open City and Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend enlarging the possibilities of what film could do. Bebop was giving rise to a new form of jazz. Advancements were occuring every day in science and medicine. Perhaps not one of the most important, but one of the most pervasively telling indications of this change would come in the area of men's clothing.

In the decades prior to Brioni's founding, the approaches to buying, making and wearing men's clothes had gone virtually unchanged: gentlemen in Europe and the United States either went to their favorite haberdasher or to a tailor to purchase business attire and sports suitings. Both establishments had been dominated since the previous century by the highly traditional look of the English School emanating from London's Savile Row. In America, Brooks Brothers and several other Madison Avenue retailers, with their Ivy League, natural-shouldered look, broke away from the Row, particularly after the Second World War. In Italy, events were taking place that would have a more far-reaching effect on the future of men's wardrobes. A revolution was in the making.

"The most striking postwar phenomenon in men's fashions has been the emergence of Italy as the world's chief center of sartorial influence," noted GQ in 1959. "Rome has replaced London as a Mecca for the well-dressed." This of course was long after the pertinent revolutionary aesthetics had swept across Italy itself. What had happened between 1945 and 1959 is that a postwar generation of men with new sensibilities had discovered Brioni, and Brioni had discovered them.

It's not stretching things too much to say that Italian tailors, having a history of fine and sumptuous craftsmanship going back to the Renaissance, were among the first to realize that the war had produced a new world in which much of the old provincialism was swept away. Americans were becoming increasingly aware of European culture and style, and an age of modernism and internationalism was about to dawn in menswear. It was a revolution not unlike Christian Dior's "New Look" for women in 1947--except that Dior, it may be argued, was looking backward (to the time of more substantial garments that preceded the pared-down wardrobes of wartime), while the driving forces at Brioni were looking decidedly forward.

In 1945, Nazareno Fonticoli, an innovative master of the fine Italian tradition of custom tailoring, founded the Brioni atelier in Rome with Gaetano Savini, a natural talent for public relations. With a great respect for the classic contribution of Savile Row, but a sure feeling that the English had ignored the new attitudes towards men's clothes, Fonticoli and Savini set about to create their revolution.

It was a historic moment. By the late 1940s, most men had more leisure time, disposable income and access to consumer goods than their fathers had ever dreamed of.

In clothing, the English-influenced "drape" look of the prewar period, with its oversized chest and shoulders, had become something of a caricature of itself. Jackets with enormous shoulder pads and inches of extra fabric in the chest and shoulder blade area began to sag and droop under their own weight. Trousers were being cut higher and higher, wider and wider, until they drowned the shoes and covered the torso halfway up the chest. It was a style particularly exaggerated in the United States as far as it could go by Hollywood heroes in the film noir genre and zoot-suited jazz hipsters. Clearly, the idea of drape styling could go no further.

Fonticoli and Savini began to attack most of the 1930s and 1940s ideas of what a suit should be, to systematically change its very line and expression. They cut away at the heavy silhouette that no longer conformed to the body, drastically reducing the bulk and padding. They seem, in retrospect, to have been among the first to realize that contemporary men, who lived in climate-controlled homes and offices, drove cars, and were slimmer and healthier, didn't want or need yards of heavily stiff and padded clothing.

The thinking was to reflect a thoroughly modern sensibility. Fonticoli and Savini began, in contemporary parlance, to "deconstruct" and completely redesign the garment, to emphasize lightness and trimness. But this was not merely a revolution of line and form. There was a decided movement away from the drab and somber uniformity of traditional business gray worsted toward a whole new liberating palate of brilliant colors and untraditional fabrics.

The silhouette they devised eventually came to be thought of in the United States (although not by them) as the Continental Look, and it swept away both the hyperdrapey style that was so prevalent before the war and the sack-cut look of the Ivy League style that was gaining prominence after the war. The result was a pared-down approach to tailoring, with a dash of flamboyant color and texture for good measure. It was indeed a revolution.

Technically, the Brioni jacket of the 1950s sat closer to the body, shoulders were narrowed and the chest tightened and smoothed. The waist was subtly shaped. The skirt (the part of the jacket from the waist down) sat closer to the hips and was imperceptibly cut away in front in two graceful arcs. Backs were either ventless or had short side vents, sleeves were narrowed, pocket flaps were often eliminated in favor of simple besoms, and a two-button stance was raised slightly to provide a longer line.

Trouser legs were trimmed, pleats and cuffs abandoned, and quarter-top pockets were often substituted for on-seam ones. In effect, Brioni experimented with the whole silhouette and all the details until everything worked together to produce a new harmony of slimness and spareness of silhouette, played off against more vibrant colors and a sense of texture.

It was a reaction to the top-heavy, supermuscular look of the past. There was nothing retro or nostalgic about it. The Brioni approach was clothing for a new age. It made a man look slimmer and younger and more vibrant. How could it miss? The shop on the Via Barberini grew from 10 tailors to 50 in its first decade in business. The Brioni look came to define modernism in menswear.

The vibrancy came from the new look in fabric and color advocated by Brioni. Apart from a few tropical worsteds and summer cottons, most men were still wearing the traditional twills, tweeds and flannels that their fathers and grandfathers had worn, and they were wearing them in the same Victorian suiting shades of dark gray, navy and brown--and in the same weights: even summer suits would weigh in at several pounds. A seersucker sports jacket, blue blazer or tan linen suit were the only exceptions to that somber Anglo-Saxon wardrobe.

"But why shouldn't men be more colorful?" Savini asked. "Why can't a man be elegant without being either dull or foppish? That's what we're interested in." Why, for example, couldn't a man wear a suit of silk shantung, and why couldn't it be in a flattering pastel shade, or rich tobacco brown? Or perhaps a cream-and-chocolate minicheck-houndstooth business suit in a super-lightweight tropical worsted? Why not?

Perhaps you can see where all this was leading. In 1952, Giovanbattista Giorgini organized the First Italian High Fashion Show for the international press and buyers that included men's fashion. Brioni was the first menswear company invited to show a complete collection. On the runway in the beautifully rococo white hall of Florence's Pitti Palace, Brioni made its first presentation. The result was "the great awakening" in menswear. And the name Brioni became international coinage.

Savini made his first foray into the American market with a trip to New York in 1954 to stage the first men's runway fashion show in the United States, to considerable media attention. In the fall of the following year, the firm took the U.S. menswear market by storm with fashion shows in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York, as well as the smaller cities of Columbus and Dayton in Ohio, and Minneapolis.

Of the New York show The New York Times commented: "Brioni offered the Columnar Look, which should give men a breather after too many seasons of suits that seemed to compress the chest [a pointed reference to the narrow confines of the Ivy League look]. The Italian's new cut might be considered a postgraduate version of the Ivy Leaguer because it is still tall and slim in concept....Fabrics are superb." The Boston Herald's more regional viewpoint was equally favorable: it found the handsomely colorful blue, red and green sports jackets "wonderfully comfortable and beautifully detailed." In April 1957, invited by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Commerce, Brioni mounted a fashion show at the prestigious Park Lane Hotel in Manhattan. Of its impact Town & Country magazine said Brioni's "influence has changed the whole direction of men's fashions, and whose announcement of a new collection means men's fashion news all over the world." Brioni filled the fashion pages of every newspaper and magazine in the United States.

In retrospect, the Park Lane show had three immediate results: it initiated a furor for Continental styling in the United States; it began the supremacy of the Italians over the English in menswear; and it created the Peacock Revolution of the '60s and '70s and the designer movement that followed in its slipstream, and which is still very much with us.

The Fall 1998 D'Annunzio Collection, representing a spirited sartorial excursion, will undoubtedly be a source of pride and further inspiration for Brioni. Known for its unsurpassed quality and personal service, pursuit of style, perfection of cut and art of fine detailing, Brioni's commitment to making fine hand-tailored men's clothing will continue. For the well-dressed men of the world, however, it may merely represent a slightly smug touchstone of assured sophistication and quality. As it always has done.

G. Bruce Boyer is the author of Eminently Suitable.