The Great Italian Tailoring Crisis

On a balmy morning in June, I arrived early for my appointment with Mariano Rubinacci, whose atelier overlooks cobbled streets that stitch together the very small, very exclusive world of bespoke Neapolitan tailoring. Perched above a flagship store selling shirts and ties, his sartoria, or tailoring shop, is located in the 16th-century Palazzo Cellamare. The Bay of Naples is close enough to perfume its entrance with each gust of wind blown inland from the Mediterranean Sea; inside, the dewy summer air mingles with the smell of good coffee, fine fabric, and old money. Naples is Italy’s third-largest city, but in tailoring it is second to none. Those who doubt this can check the paperwork: In an ornate frame hanging on the wall of Rubinacci’s salon is a weathered document from 1941 addressed to his father, Gennaro, from the Prince of Piedmont, appointing him as clothier to Italy’s royal family.

Gennaro Rubinacci opened the legendary sartoria London House in 1932, as a kind of Italian outpost for Savile Row–tailoring traditions. The heavy English suit was a status symbol in Naples, where British aristocracy spent summers mingling with high-society families like the Rubinaccis. What made London House famous was not its eye for tailoring traditions, which stretch back nearly 700 years in Naples, but rather a willingness to discard some elements of the English suit that were ill-equipped to the warmer Mediterranean climate. Vincenzo Attolini, who was then the head cutter at Rubinacci, is credited with stripping out the horsehair, canvas, and shoulder padding usually associated with the English suit jacket. Attolini, who is considered the father of modern Neapolitan tailoring, added signature touches like barchetta, or “little boat,” pockets, which some believe are named for an angle resembling the bow of a sailboat floating across the chest. He used fine fabrics and little else to create a light, soft, elegant silhouette that soon became a signature of Neapolitan tailoring.

By the time Gennaro died, in 1961, the unstructured, light-as-a-shirt Neapolitan jacket had become an institution—one carried on by Attolini and other bespoke tailors. (The term bespoke refers to the name for the “spoken for” bolts of fabric that had to be ordered ahead when making a custom suit.) Decades later, their influence was apparent in the work of designers like Giorgio Armani, whose deconstructed, oversized suits defined the elegance of the 1980s through adherents including Richard Gere and Eric Clapton. Entering the global zeitgeist was only possible at scale, however, which is why big names like Armani made their fortunes in the ready-to-wear market. Even the most luxurious made-to-measure suits, which combine personalized measurements with stock patterns, fall short of the custom patterns and other bespoke traditions practiced at Rubinacci, where Mariano took over the family business after his father died.

“I was 18,” he told me. “I am very proud of my job and very enthusiastic to follow the work of my father.”

Mariano, who is now 80, has since changed the sartoria name from London House to Rubinacci, and has opened new stores run by his son Luca, in Milan, and his daughter Chiara, in London. When we met in his salon in Naples, he wore brown trousers that matched his spectacles, with suede loafers on his feet and a Rolex on his wrist. The sleeves of his dress shirt were rolled up to the elbow as he stood before a table piled high with fabric samples. Because I had arrived early, he was still busy helping a client: Calvin Klein, who, according to Mariano, first came to Rubinacci years ago on the recommendation of Gene Pressman, the grandson and heir to the founder of Barneys. Lean and gray-haired, the American fashion icon lounged on a sofa at the back of a room drenched in the patina of three successive Rubinacci family fortunes—one in shipping, another in antiques, and, finally, one in men’s clothing. Like most clients, among them actors, tycoons, and royalty, Klein values his privacy. Making suits, Mariano told me, is like being “a doctor,” and to preserve the intimacy of Klein’s experience he asked his daughter Alessandra to give me a tour of the workshop upstairs.

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