By  on May 24, 2007

MILAN — Denim is a family business for the Bardelles.

Tato Bardelle dressed countless young teenagers with his hip Americanino and Outsider jeans in the Eighties here. Now his son, Nicola, is edging himself into the business with his Jacob Cohen brand.

Despite the different times they launched their brands, the Bardelles share a common philosophy for valuing quality and longevity over selling large volumes. Father and son profess to have started their businesses entirely ignorant of the industry and out of necessity.

Tato Bardelle, 63, began delivering jeans while driving an ambulance, later launching his business from a ballroom employing his wife's small production laboratory.

Nicola, 40, has had the breadth of his father's expertise from which to draw. Tato was among the first to employ outside manufacturing labs in the late Seventies. At the time, most firms had hundreds of employees cutting and sewing in-house, in addition to a design staff to provide seasonal flashes to freshen up the product offering in stores.

Starting in 1977, Tato went from working with 20 factories to 200 in about five years, indirectly employing almost 5,000 people, producing 30,000 pieces per week and stocking almost 875,000 yards of fabric in its warehouse.

"When I started out, there was nothing and no idea of any kind of industrial culture, structure or business plan," said Tato. "Jeans were basic four-pocket pants, but customers would still tear them off your hands. You would write the orders and then find ways to carry them out."

From 1976 to 1982, Tato went from producing 50,000 to 6.5 million pieces.

Today, there is a strong connection between the comprehensive web of manufacturers, laundries and laboratories in the Veneto region that have made the area one of Italy's main denim hubs. Tato Bardelle's name is often mentioned as a reference point in conversations while visiting the district.

"Tato Bardelle was a pioneer here, with a strong business sense, and [he] created a huge industry, giving work to a lot of people in an area that was depressed before," said Giovanni Petrin, general manager at Veneto-based Martelli, which treats and washes denim for brands such as Diesel, Meltin' Pot, Gucci, Giorgio Armani and Dolce & Gabbana.The Jacob Cohen brand had actually been trademarked by the Bardelles in 1985, but had been dormant until Nicola thought to dust it off. He relaunched it in 2003 as an exclusive line, with sartorial jeans available in prestigious boutiques that also sold high-end products such as Acqua di Parma fragrances and Avon Celli cashmere.

"I wanted to be able to wear them with a beautiful blazer or a cashmere sweater," said Nicola.

In the first season, he sold 700 pieces. "The company was I," recalled Nicola. Just as his father had many years ago, Nicola provided the fabrics to his mother's facility for production and delivered the final products to the agents.

Tato recalled buying 55,000 yards of black denim at an open-air market in Rome at a bargain price many years ago.

"We turned black denim into the hot trend that season," he said.

While those sorts of stories may be entertaining, Nicola acknowledges that the market is much more demanding now and less forgiving of even the smallest of mistakes, especially in the premium range.

"A mistake in the sizing, even an inch off, and you're on the shelf," said Nicola.

Nicola is gradually developing Jacob Cohen into a total-look brand. He differentiates it through the use of precious fabrics, often the same employed for sartorial suits, and handmade tailored pants. Buttons and rivets are made with silver, the label comes in ponyskin and the company provides a set of tools for maintenance, including a pumice stone to redefine the pants after washing, threads for the stitches and a cloth to shine the silver rivets.

Earlier this year, Nicola presented the brand's first jeans made with a cashmere and denim blend that retail for around 400 euros, or $525. The line is currently available at 450 points of sale in Italy and 200 outside the country, from France and Germany to Japan. Nicola said he plans to launch the line in the U.S. with the spring-summer 2008 collection, first testing it in Canada. Jacob Cohen is licensed to Italy's Giada SpA and is made entirely in Italy. The women's line was launched in 2004.

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