Men's Fashion | The Sharpener

Italian tailoring

Tom Stubbs takes a sartorial tour of Italy’s tailors in search of the country’s snappiest suits and separates

February 28 2014
Tom Stubbs

Italian tailors have always admired Savile Row’s style, but their interpretations are frequently chicer and fresher. “Style Inglese” is notable in the north. I visited the venerable Vitale Barberis Canonico mill in Biella days before they celebrated its 350th anniversary. Barberis produces handsome, lustrous flannels and pinstripe worsteds among a vast library of excellent cloths. “I think the English are the best,” creative director Francesco Barberis Canonico confided as we examined sumptuous lightweight chalk stripes. “A Savile Row tailor once said to me, ‘Barberis does the English look better than the English.’ To me, that is the greatest compliment.” One special flannel comes in a gutsy, sober charcoal grey. “It’s our signature wool flannel. Gianni Agnelli, the original rake, had many suits made in it. He was a huge fan of our fabric.” Agnelli had his suits tailored by A Caraceni in Milan, which also counts oil tycoon Massimo Moratti as a client. With strong architectural shoulders and large lapels, it represents traditional bespoke Milanese elegance (from €5,400 for a two-piece suit).

Interestingly, grey suiting and flannel is very much part of the sartorial landscape this year. For dapper Milanese off-the-peg cuts, Canali (from nearby Triuggio in Brianza) has elongated double-breasted suits in steely-grey wool-mohair (£1,070). That same cut becomes positively debonair in fine stripes (£910) combined with polka-dot cotton/linen chinos (£410). Corneliani, another traditional northern brand, from Mantova, offers magnificent blazers in graphite-grey silk (£1,300) and wool/linen suits (£1,700).

The Venetian Pal Zileri was founded by a group of fabric merchants whose rich cloths had aristocratic panache, with carnival-like patterns and colours in linings and accessories. Pertness around the shoulders is balanced with a light construct and fit. This season’s highlights include a sky-blue wool/linen/silk double-breasted suit (£1,350) and a wheaty gold windowpane-check jacket in wool/linen (£1,074).

Moving south, to Soragna near Parma, quietly eccentric brand Caruso delivers a light, vintage look with jaunty styling. Striped cream cotton college blazers (from £865) or navy merino-wool versions (from £1,075) with ivory gabardine trousers (£215) look rather like Dirk Bogarde’s Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice.

Cinema has also captured the essence of Rome’s tailoring. Fairly structured and ballsy, in luxury fabrics and statement-colour combinations, it conjures up La Dolce Vita. This can be seen at Brioni, which retains a devoutly alpha-masculine house silhouette but now offers sleek silver-checked suits (from £3,614) and micro-checked sports jackets (£2,815) teamed with off-white trousers (£320).

Channelling an entirely softer approach to both Italian dressing and pace of life is Brunello Cucinelli. Hailing from Solomeo in Umbria, the brand is a strong protagonist of separates, mixing tailoring with casual items such as gilets, cargo trousers and lightweight jackets. This season it has gone big on brown: a dusty-chocolate blazer (£1,560) in a seldom-seen hue is spot-on with metal buttons. Earthy Glen-checked jackets (£1,560) are rich-looking but deceptively light, without bulk or excess padding, and suits (£2,390) are relaxed and unstructured in the shoulders. The palette is lifted when teamed with crisp blue cotton and casual chambray shirts.

Naples, the other sartorial epicentre, also majors in separates. It is considerably hotter and more relaxed than conservative Milan, and its style is the foil to the traditional business suit. The look is typified by minimal padding and light canvas interlinings, working alongside cunning cutting and unstructured shirt-like sleeves. This is quintessential Rubinacci, a brand also known for its tiny pleats around the armholes for additional movement. Its exuberant embrace of checks and pattern in jackets (£3,300), sports jackets (£1,900) and suits (from £2,300) smacks of Style Inglese, but patch pockets, overlapping cuff buttons and the barchetta breast pocket, shaped like a little curved boat, are distinctly Neapolitan.

Modernised Neapolitan ready-to-wear brand Kiton feels more international, favouring jackets with more structure in the shoulder, narrower sleeves and tighter angles on lapels. It’s a dynamic look when paired with single-pleat trousers in a narrowed peg-like shape. This season, dressier fabrics bridge the gap between day and evening, such as jackets in matte silk (£3,150) and suits (£5,490) in a mix of cashmere/wool/silk/vicuna.

Harrods’s tailoring department is the best way to peruse many Italian styles in London. New signings such as Isaia from Naples, which uses vibrant tartans, and Boglioli from Brescia, which favours totally unstructured cuts and “washed” fabrics, join the amazing Florentine Stefano Ricci. Its rich colours, in sapphire and navy (from £4,250), are alone worth the trip to Knightsbridge.

Also channelling statement fabrics, Dolce & Gabbana has evolved its take on a romantically charged Sicilian attitude. Consider slick and sexy, super-fitted suits in silk/cotton black, slate-grey and stone in two- (about £1,467) and three-piece (about £1,800) formats.

The two giants of Italian tailoring – Armani and Zegna – have trailblazed a postmodern look, taking elements from the entire Italian peninsula (and all eras) and fusing them to create a new sartorial handwriting. They are effectively the stylistic Mazzino and Garibaldi of their times. In the 1970s, Giorgio Armani changed the global tailoring vista by introducing clean, fluid lines and fresh fabric concepts. Now the designer freely cherry-picks elements to create jackets in faintly metallic cotton/linens with modest leafy lapels (£1,560) and languid three‑piece linen-blend suits in an earthy Puglian palette - stone (£2,557), dusty-pink blush (£2,580) – with sloping shoulders, casual waistcoats and narrowed trousers.

Ermenegildo Zegna also mixes ideas to impressive effect. The brand’s formidable infrastructure and advanced technologies have always allowed it to innovate, but new head of design Stefano Pilati is pushing further. His Zegna Couture debut collection is aimed at redefining Italian tailoring with two main thrusts: the Broken Suit offers six suits with streamlined soft wool/mohair double-breasted jackets (£2,230) and narrow trousers (£830), intended to be effortlessly worn as separates, while After Six Dressing (£2,580 for a single-breasted suit with trousers) is a day-to-evening-function design with a frisson of glamour in silk-sable with re-proportioned lapels.