Italian's Opinion: Bespoke Tailoring in Milan (2003)

Near where I live in South London there’s a gent’s outfitters which specialises in the ritzy clothes West African men like to wear to go clubbing at Peaches or Scenarios on a Saturday night. It has racks of brightly-coloured suits and flashy shoes, a riot of gold buttons and two-tone patent leather. Its name? Italian’s Opinion. The teenage boys eating chips outside my house are wearing knock-off Versace. My publisher rides a vespa. In Britain men of all ages and classes seem to all agree on at least one thing: when it comes to style, Italy is important. An Italian’s opinion counts.



Near where I live in South London there’s a gent’s outfitters which specialises in the ritzy clothes West African men like to wear to go clubbing at Peaches or Scenarios on a Saturday night. It has racks of brightly-coloured suits and flashy shoes, a riot of gold buttons and two-tone patent leather. Its name? Italian’s Opinion. The teenage boys eating chips outside my house are wearing knock-off Versace. My publisher rides a vespa. In Britain men of all ages and classes seem to all agree on at least one thing: when it comes to style, Italy is important. An Italian’s opinion counts.



This obsession with Italian men’s fashion has a history. As Gregory Peck persuaded Audrey Hepburn onto the back of his scooter in Roman Holiday (result!) jealous cinemagoers at the Gaumonts and the Odeons were noting the soft lines and perfect fit of his beautifully-cut suit. Mod London ran on Italian clothes and shoes, and since the early eighties the football terraces have been ruled by brands like Sergio Tacchini, Stone Island and Dolce & Gabbana. Today lad mags are still dressing up models as Marcello Mastroianni and no gangster geezer or true garage playa would be without some Armani in his wardrobe.



So where does it all come from? Why Italian’s opinion, rather than Spaniard’s or Swede’s? The answer, in brief, is Brioni. Gregory Peck’s pulling suit was cut for him by a tailor on Rome’s Via Barberini, opened in 1945 by Nazareno Fonticoli and Gaetano Savini. They had chosen to call their firm after a chic resort island, and in 1952, while the movie was in production, they held the first ever men’s catwalk show. As Umberto Angeloni (the firm’s present day CEO) puts it with characteristic sweep, “that day we invented modern men’s fashion.” During the fifties Brioni dressed Clark Gable, Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn and John Wayne. Its designs became the epitome of American cocktail cool. The peacock look parodied by Austin Powers was their flamboyant late-sixties creation. In 2003 they’re opening a bespoke tailors in London and have offered, very generously, to dress me.



Which is how I come to find myself standing before a full-length art deco mirror in Brioni’s ultra-discreet atelier on the via Gésu, in the heart of Milan’s fashion district. Outside pairs of fierce fox-furred matrons patrol the boutiques and seventeen year old models carry their books to the next casting. Inside a group of men are staring, with professional solemnity, at my arse.



As a wizened senior tailor takes my intimate measurements, I make conversation with Brioni’s Umberto Angeloni. Mr Angeloni, a softly-spoken fifty year-old, presents himself as a man of sensibility, in the mode of one of Huysmans or Visconti’s aristocratic aesthetes. He has written a book (Style in One’s Lapel) on boutonnieres. He has written another called Single Malt Whisky: An Italian Passion, inside which the reader can find pictures of his favourite tipples, his ‘hand-engraved seventeenth-century tasting glass’, and some turbo-charged writing: “I was immediately infatuated. I enjoyed caressing its soft glass curves, sliding my fingers in its hollows, in search of tactile pleasure…” That’s about a bottle of twenty-five year old Glen Avon – just the bottle, mind you. By the time he’s tasted what’s inside, he’s really pleased. “Again, my Muse invades the experience. I am immediately enraptured envisioning this ultimate sophisticate, impossibly difficult to please, aroused and seduced…” Mr Angeloni, appropriately for a man in the luxury goods profession, lives for living well. This, he says, is “not a question of price, but of style, not a technique, but an art.”



For the lucky few who have the style to buy a bespoke Brioni suit, Mr Angeloni has designed a bespoke environment. The Brioni atelier has an atmosphere which is part den, part hunting lodge. Horned antelope skulls flank an abstract oil on the wall. Bolts of material sit on shelves inlaid with aromatic woods. The whisky is kept in a pair nineteenth-century Sicilian cabinets. Diverted for a moment from the aesthetics of the three button jacket, he gives me a guided tour of the fixtures and fittings. The ceiling is painted by one Gilles Dupuis, “whose family have for three generations been the only ones allowed to retouch or restore Versailles and the Elysée”, the parquet floor is two hundred years old, taken from a Piemontese castle. The Parisian woven horsehair fabric on the screens which block the view from the street is “hugely expensive, more expensive than vicuna”. He seems most enchanted by the bathroom, whose walls are covered with white leather, embossed with a traditional floral design.



In this room, Brioni’s bespoke clients can choose from a range of over two thousand fabrics. Their fitting will be the first of three. There is, of course, no advertising. Those who need to know will find out. “It is,” says Angeloni darkly, “about the passion for having things made especially for you, about the moment when you are the master.”



Angeloni explains that Brioni are the guardians of a century-long craft tradition, which had its unlikely start in the generosity of an Italian expat in Victorian London. Composer Francesco Tosti was born in Abruzzi in Italy and settled in London in 1880 to become music tutor to Queen Victoria’s children. In 1908 he was knighted by his lifelong friend Edward VII. As a court figure he had his suits made in Saville Row, and when he had finished with them, instead of throwing them out or giving them to his servants, as was customary, he sent them back to his home village of Ortona. There the local tailors ripped them apart, and discovered some of the secrets of Saville Row construction. By the 1950’s Abruzzesi tailors were pre-eminent and most of the major tailors in Rome, including Brioni’s Nazareno Fonticoli, hailed from this one region. They had taken the Saville Row suit and adapted it to their own needs, so when the postwar actors and playboys arrived, they found, says Angeloni, “creativity in several ways. There were new fabrics. The suit had become much lighter, with less padding, less canvas. It had become more fitted – before it was a sack, very shapeless.”



There was also the question of embroidery. Roman embroiderers, having supplied bling-bling to the papacy for several centuries, had developed extraordinary skills. Brioni still employs women (the work of making a suit is rigidly gendered, with men keeping hold of the scissors) trained in this tradition. “At the moment,” says Angeloni with genuine pride, “we have eighty women only doing buttonholes. Each one takes ten minutes. Mine are doubled, so it takes twenty minutes. Among these women there is one who has been doing it for forty years. She is the best. She is the only one I allow to do mine.” Together we peer at the buttonholes of his plain grey suit. They are, indeed, very beautiful, almost architectural. Not a loose thread or an uneven stitch in sight.



For fifty years, Saville Row has looked at Rome with scorn. In his book The Englishman’s Suit, Hardy Amies writes with mingled admiration and derision about the postwar Italian invasion. “They publicised their bespoke tailors, men of great skill if somewhat dubious taste – dubious because there was no real sense of tradition behind them. The cultured Italian gentleman still wanted to look like an Englishman.” When I read this out to Umberto Angeloni he just laughs - and goes on the counter-attack. Brioni’s tradition, he points out, is kept alive by its tailoring school, where several hundred students (of which only three are women) spend four years learning their craft. This, he says sets them above Saville Row. “In Italy there is continuity. In London they have to take tailors from abroad. You see one from south America, one from Asia. There is no consistency of vision.” He is dismissive about today’s London tailors, both the crusty traditionalists who lack Italian flair, and the new generation who are attempting to modernise. “You find a tailor who attempts to make a fashion statement, you think of a Boateng, really they are not doing that, just because they have a yellow or a purple jacket, or huge flaps, or five buttons instead of three, they are only mimicking in a rather pathetic way, true designers who have their own vision.”



I think it wise at this point not to mention that I own a Boateng suit. Instead I allow myself to be guided through various fabric samples, to decide on a two button double-vented jacket, and be persuaded that cuffs on my trousers would be appropriate. The experience is an extraordinary one, and has ruined any future pleasure I might take in ready-to-wear suits. Mr Angeloni shakes my hand and glides off to his next sensory pleasure. I stand in front of the mirror in his perfumed room and examine a more sophisticated, more tasteful version of myself.