Costume Party

Playing 21 has brought good luck to Ennio Capasa.

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Costume National is coming of age.

With a string of events and projects on tap, the Italian fashion house known for its street-cool tailoring is celebrating its 21st birthday. Some might consider it an unlikely anniversary to celebrate, but it is significant for Ennio Capasa, who founded the Milan-based fashion house in 1986.

“The number 21 and its reverse, 12, have coincidentally always been part of our history. I’m fascinated by this number, which in ancient times was considered the number of protection,” said Capasa.

To prove the point, he reels off a list of dates: “I was born on March 12, my dad on April 12 and my brother Carlo on Jan. 21. Our showroom is at 12 Via Fusetti and our store in Milan at 12 Via Sant’Andrea.”

In 2006, sales accounted for $138 million. The brand has six directly owned stores and is carried in such specialty stores as Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and Harvey Nichols in London.

As part of the celebration, Capasa teamed with Alfa Romeo to design the interiors of a model called 147 C’N’C 21. C’N’C is the house’s diffusion line, which was launched in 2004.

The car is being presented at the Frankfurt car salon.

A 246-page book called “Costume National 21” (Assouline) will be presented in Paris during fashion week and will be available on Amazon.com. The $166 tome is a recap of Capasa’s fashion career through snapshots of his shows and images by Terry Richardson, Juergen Teller, Peter Lindbergh and Craig McDean.

The number 21 is also the name of the firm’s unisex fragrance, launching by the end of the year, that is a heady mix of — you guessed it — 21 essences from milk to saffron, bergamot to patchouli.

Costume National Active is a limited edition celebratory sneaker that offers both artisanal workmanship and high performance. Made with napa, the shoe is adorned with tone-on-tone crocodile details and real silver hardware, and just hit the stores with a retail price of $650.

Born in Lecce, in the Apulia region, Capasa compares his fashion journey to a unique adventure begun at a time when financing wasn’t as available, and at an age — 24 — characterized by a free spirit.

This story first appeared in the September 20, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“You didn’t need much at that time to strike out on your own. Everything was much easier, less calculated,” said the designer.

After graduating from the Brera Fine Arts Academy in 1982, Capasa joined his Swedish model girlfriend Pia Fritioff in Tokyo. He landed a job chez Yoji Yamamoto and was the only foreign assistant among a team of 250 Japanese.

He founded the company with his brother Carlo, chief executive, who garnered managerial insight in the Eighties during a stint at Zamasport, when that manufacturer produced Romeo Gigli. Capasa showed his first collection in March 1987 where he highlighted slim, high-buttoned silhouettes à la Charlie Chaplin, and immediately drew attention from such top retailers as Joyce and Barneys.

“I was so excited that I didn’t sleep for 72 hours. It was like taking your First Communion — a moment you never forget,” recalled Capasa.

In 1991, the company moved its show to Paris, a city Capasa judged more open to upcoming talent.

Capasa’s edgy, skinny silhouettes were an antidote to Eighties power dressing, where everything was big — shoulders, hair, jewelry.

“At that time, only about 20 percent of what a designer showed on the runway actually went into production, so there was a huge gap between the catwalk and the showroom,” he said. “My clothes were more modern, practical and street-oriented with smaller shoulders, drier silhouettes and sartorial details.”

Capasa has always shunned too many bright colors because, he asserted, they are “like dessert — too much is hard to digest.”

By his own definition, Capasa is a “minimalist, not a purist.”

“There’s always a sexy approach to my clothes because I like to enhance a woman’s body,” said Capasa.

He also admits that as much as he is a stick-to-his-guns designer, he isn’t trendproof, so he aims to weave new fads into his collections judiciously.

Costume National’s strength is tailored pieces like coats, jackets and trenchcoats that Capasa has honed via research, craftsmanship and creativity. His pants and skirts are normally straight and lean.

Among the company’s milestones at the top of Capasa’s list are a fashion show in Florence in January 1997 in front of Italy’s president, and the opening of his first store in New York in January 1998.

From 1998 to 2006, the English merchant bank 3i bought a 50 percent stake in the brand. But after countless sleepless nights, Capasa said he and his brother agreed to buy their stake back to become fully independent.

“In the end, we decided to stay independent because I was afraid of losing my identity,” he said.

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