Just over a decade ago, Vicki Vasilopoulos made a dramatic change in her career path and left fashion journalism to transition into documentary filmmaking. Her first movie, “Men of the Cloth,” marries both her passions. It features an up-close-and-personal insight into the lives and work of Italian master tailors Nino Corvato, Joe Centofanti and Checchino Fonticoli. The film shows that the greatest fear among these Old World craftsmen is that the art they have perfected will die with their generation. But “Men of the Cloth” offers hope for the future by introducing the audience to Joe Genuardi, a young tailoring apprentice who learned the craft at the feet of Centofanti and is now working for Martin Greenfield in New York.
The documentary, which had its unveiling last November at the DOC NYC film festival, will have its theatrical premiere on Thursday at the Village East cinema on Second Avenue and 12th Street, before showings at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, N.Y., on Jan. 14 and The Picture House in Pelham, N.Y., on Jan. 25.
Here, Vasilopoulos talks about the movie, the craft and what’s next.
WWD: You were a fashion editor. How did you wind up on this path? Did you have a film background?
VICKI VASILOPOULOS: No, I didn’t. My interest in film developed while I was still working as a fashion editor [at DNR, WWD’s former brother publication]. I went to Italy to do a story on luxury and had the opportunity to tour the Brioni factory in Penne, Italy, which is about three hours outside of Rome. That was really where the seeds of the idea for the film were planted. I met the master tailor, Checchino Fonticoli — he’s retired now — and his passion and his love for the craft really moved me. I had started taking classes at the New School and going to seminars and one day, I was sitting in the audience watching these two filmmakers discuss their process and it was literally like a lightbulb moment where I thought, “Oh my God, I have to make a film about Italian master tailors.” For me, it was like the last tribe of the Kalahari, except it happened to be about Old World artisans. After I met Checchino at Brioni, I thought, who else is doing this sort of thing? I started to check out what was going on in the U.S., and I realized pretty quickly that it was a disappearing craft, it was on the wane. Eventually I found out about Nino Corvato on Madison and 47th, and Joe Centofanti who was in his 80s when I started filming him, just outside of Philadelphia on the Main Line. And I thought, I’ll make a film about tailoring.
WWD: What was the original topic of the film?
V.V.: It was going to be a topic-driven film. But as it took shape, and especially when we finally sat down to edit it, my editor convinced me to make it more of a character-driven film, and that’s what it is. It’s really about the lives of these artisans: their motivations, why they do what they do. And getting to know them as human beings — it’s as much a portrait of them as of the craft. You get to know the past, the present and the future of the craft as seen through their eyes and their experiences.
WWD: How long did it take you to complete the project?
V.V.: It ended up being an odyssey. It took 11 years. I didn’t anticipate that when I started, but I know now, that was the length of time that it needed to take. When you’re following real people, things happen and you have to let it all unfold in the way that it’s supposed to unfold. I thought I was done several years ago and then Joe Centofanti acquired an apprentice and I thought, this really changes everything now. I have to go back and shoot more footage and shoot young Joe’s trajectory. And editing the film, because we now had four characters, was far more complex and took even longer. But it made it a more nuanced, complex film, and I think now it ends on a hopeful note.
WWD: Why did you choose Italy instead of another country?
V.V.: Tailoring for me is such an intrinsic part of Italy’s patrimony. People ask me: “Why didn’t you make a film about Savile Row tailors or Chinese tailors or Polish tailors?” and I say to them: “Italians have a very special relationship with clothing and the art of dressing.” The film opens with a scene in Sicily and prior to that scene, there’s a title on the screen that tells you that tailoring as we know it has its roots in the Renaissance and the rise of humanism and respect for the human body. So that’s the reason I chose Italy.
WWD: How did you decide on the men to feature in the film?
V.V.: Not only are they world class — which, of course, was a prerequisite — but they’re incredibly articulate so they’re great on screen, and they’re very generous with their time, explaining what they do, how they do it, why they do it. And their love and their passion really telegraphs in every move they make. The charisma just fills the screen. They’re similar enough yet they’re distinct enough that once you put them together, the pieces of the puzzle come together. I could have made a film for fans of bespoke tailoring or men’s wear mavens, that certainly would have been a lot easier, but to make it more of a human story really gives it more universal appeal. I think the heart of what “Men of the Cloth” is about is what it means to find your true calling in life. We can all relate to that as creative individuals. Nino says in one scene: “You’re never a full tailor until you die.” Well, I feel like you’re never a full filmmaker or artist until you die because it’s something you’re always going to be learning and trying to perfect.
WWD: Are you working on another film?
V.V.: It’s still in a very nascent phase, but the next film is going to be about a nonprofit organization called Little Dresses for Africa. They have volunteers in every state who create these beautiful little dresses that they take over and donate to needy children in African countries and Third World countries. I’m going to explore what they do on the ground, what impact it has on the children and also the transformative effects on the volunteers themselves. It gives meaning to their lives.
WWD: You’ve made the transition now, you’re not going back to fashion, I assume.
V.V.: I’ll always love fashion, and actually, I do have two films that I’m starting to develop that are essentially profiles of very well-known fashion personalities, but I can’t say who they are yet. But I see documentary filmmaking as kind of an extension of what I used to do. I have a journalism degree so I know how to interview people and how to do research, which is a part of the job, and having spent all those years doing photo layouts, of course I understand composition and lighting and how to make something look pretty on screen and how to work on location. So it’s very similar skill sets, except now you know that an image is worth a lot more than just people talking a lot. Even in the editing, people can talk and talk and talk, but sometimes all you need is a look and a shot of them doing something and it’s more than enough to make a direct emotional connection with the viewer.
WWD: How did you raise the money to finance the film?
V.V.: I used Indiegogo and then a Kickstarter campaign at the very end to raise money for post-production. The majority of the funds came from individual contributions — even way before I did the crowdfunding campaigns I had a Web site and a nonprofit fiscal sponsor so people would literally send me money from all over the world or would make a PayPal contribution. I guess because they liked the idea of the film and it started to build a grass-roots following. With indie films, it’s so important to have a direct connection with your audience. We don’t have giant marketing budgets and people want to feel invested in something. They can say: “I helped make this happen and I’m one of the reasons this film got out in the world, and that’s a beautiful thing.” Unless you have a way to communicate with your audience — now, with social media it makes it so much easier — it becomes an uphill battle when the film is done and then you begin the process of trying to let everybody know. It’s a little too late.
WWD: You first screened the film last year, is that correct?
V.V.: That was the festival premiere, which happened to be in New York since it’s DOC NYC, which is now the largest documentary film festival in the country. But this is the theatrical premiere.
WWD: How does that make you feel?
V.V.: I’m a little nervous but I think it’s going to be great. We’ve screened theatrically in Washington, D.C., at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute outside of Philadelphia and Toronto and done other screenings at the Australian Film Center in Melbourne. It just won an Audience Favorite at the Three Rivers Film Festival in Pittsburgh, which is really cool, so I think it’ll be good. It’ll be kind of a mix of the Italian-American audience, bespoke fans, men’s wear mavens, people who are interested in craftsmanship and artisanship, people who love Italian culture, documentary film lovers — all those niche audiences. Then we will screen in other cities: Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and we’ll be releasing it on Video on Demand, iTunes, Amazon, all those platforms, and then in the U.K., Italy and other countries. It’s just a little documentary, but it resonates with people and that’s a nice thing.
WWD: Who are you expecting to join you at the New York premiere?
V.V.: Nino will be at the premiere and Joe Genuardi will be there as well. He works at Martin Greenfield and has fit President Obama. He’s moving up in the world. He’s a very accomplished young man.