THE ITALIAN REPUTATION FOR EXCELLENCE IN TAILORING IS ROOTED IN THE SARTORIAL ART OF MEN’S WEAR.
Byline: Samantha Conti
Ever wonder about the origins of the Armani slouch? The hand-sewn buttonholes on the Kiton suit? The hand-stitched collar on a Vestimenta jacket? The roots of Italian fashion are in tailoring — in particular, the tailoring styles developed by the Neapolitans and Romans, who over the centuries have turned the simple act of sewing into what many consider a form of art. Long before Giorgio Armani tore out the linings of the traditional suit and unleashed a fashion revolution, the Neapolitans and Romans were making jackets that — in the words of the Neapolitan tailor Cesare Attolini — felt like “cardigan sweaters, not armor.”
The Neapolitans have been stitching seriously since the 14th century, when the first Aragonese kings arrived dressed to the nines and ready to rule what was then known as the Kingdom of Sicily. In the centuries that followed, the city’s natives cut and sewed side by side with tailors from the Aragon, Bourbon and Hapsburg courts that ruled Naples into the 19th century.
“Our tailoring is a mix of the French, English, Spanish and Italian traditions. We took the best from everyone,” said Antonio De Matteis, the commercial director of Kiton, the Neapolitan suit maker.
The Neapolitan sartorial jacket fits snugly: the armhole is high and small, and the sleeve, by comparison, is wide, allowing men and women to move their arms freely while their shoulders stay put. Lapels join the collar on the collarbone — a trick to lengthen those short Italian torsos — and the padding and underpinnings are minimal. Telltale details of the Neapolitan jacket are breast pockets that curve upward like half moons and hand-sewn eyelets, collars and armholes.
“The Neapolitan jacket has to move with the man,” said Attolini, whose father, Vincenzo, dressed the Duke of Windsor and Clark Gable. Today, Attolini’s client roster is as diverse as German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Oliver Stone and Muammar al-Qaddafi. Both Kiton and Attolini have recently unveiled small women’s collections bearing the same sartorial marks as the men’s collections. Retailer Janet Brown described the jackets made in Naples as “art, not commerce. This is the height of luxury — without being conspicuous. You wait for them to be made, just like you wait for a Kelly bag or a Porsche.”
ICA, whose factory is in the shadow of Naples’ Capodichino airport, is the most industrial of all the Neapolitan tailors, and produces men’s and women’s wear for designers including Versace, Vestimenta, Joop and Nicole Farhi. Owner Michele De Simone said the company’s strength is its ability to work closely with designers and offer a sartorial look and finishing at a variety of price points. De Simone’s in-house tailors work with each designer’s team to develop models, and his seamstresses travel to Milan each season to stitch into the wee hours before fashion shows. While part of ICA’s production is done by machine, the company ensures that sleeves and shoulders, armholes, collars and buttonholes are all sewn by hand.
Another industrial company specialized in sartorial techniques is Herno, which manufactures men’s and women’s clothing for Giorgio Armani, Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton — in addition to producing an eponymous in-house line that’s designed by Rebecca Moses. Buttonholes are hand-sewn, fabrics with patterns are cut by hand, and jackets are crafted with the utmost care.
“A jacket here takes double the time of one made industrially because it goes through at least 10 passages. Nothing is heat-fused, and every single layer is placed and sewn by hand,” said Claudio Marenzi, whose family owns the company based in Lesa, on the shores of Lago Maggiore. Herno is one of Italy’s few sartorial manufacturing companies based in northern — rather than southern — Italy.
Like their Neapolitan counterparts, the Romans wove the fine-tailoring traditions of foreign cultures into their suits. Rome’s tailors made their name during Italy’s postwar industrial boom, dressing swank tourists and American heartthrobs who were filming at Cinecitta — Rome’s answer to Hollywood. Rock Hudson, Clark Gable, John Wayne and Kirk Douglas never left the city without a suit made by Brioni, Domenico Caraceni or Litrico — who were among the first generation of Roman tailors. Umberto Angeloni, ceo of the men’s wear company Brioni, said the foreign invasion taught Roman tailors not to be provincial in their approach to fashion.
“They have always had to adapt to the demands and needs of an international clientele,” Angeloni said.
Milanese tailoring is similar to that of the Roman school. Shoulders are straighter and more constructed and waists are a little narrower than in Naples. Mario Caraceni, whose father, Augusto, moved to Milan in 1946 after a 10-year-stint in Paris, said Milanese tailoring used to be “rigid and militaristic, like the old Savile Row style.”
After World War II, the Milanese began to loosen up and follow the general trend of Italian clothing toward softer fabrics, lighter internal construction and comfort.
“It’s part of the Italian character,” said Mario Caraceni, whose clients include Austrian barons, Italian counts and Milanese millionaires. “We’re gentle people, so it’s only natural that — whether we’re dressed by Neapolitans, Romans or Milanese — in the end, we’re all wearing soft suits.”