Men's Italian Suits
Italian Suits, Made In
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Luke Mayes is a freelance fashion writer based in New York City.
by Luke Mayes (all rights researved)