Some things, like satirical journalism and the art of defending in football, are widely considered to have originated in England, but perfected in Italy. Many will claim this is also true of the wardrobe of the well-dressed man. The suit has a particularly British social and cultural history unrivalled by other forms of European menswear—at least, until someone decides to revive the senatorial toga.
Yet close your eyes and think of the walk-in closet of the man about town, and you are likely to imagine the relentless lines and Byronic shimmer of the abito Italiano. That discreet silken-ness! That demanding, tapering waist! And those names emblazoned in sartorial history, from Prandoni to Giorgio Armani, punctuated along the way by Zegna, Attolini and Caraceni—mantras for men’s tailoring. From Gianni Agnelli to George Clooney, the evidence is plain. Other suits put a man on annual best-dressed lists; Italian suits are for the best-dressed of all time.
But tycoons and icons are no strangers to the most famous address in men’s fashion. On Savile Row, centuries of Royal Warrants and world-dominating clients (not for nothing was one of the street’s best-known patrons, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, judged “the best-dressed man in the British Empire”) cannot be overstated. Their customers are not mantra chanters. For such men, “bespoke” begins and ends on the “golden row of tailoring”—quite appropriately, since the word originates from the street’s old practice of customers choosing the bolts of fabric from which their clothes were to be cut, causing them to “be spoken for”.
Con brio: (left) The suave Brioni jacket; and the Kilgour suit marries innovation to tradition.
None of this makes it easy to adjudge the loftier tradition. There is a broad attempt to classify the creative philosophies of centuries of design into handy categories: the English suit for elegance, the Italian suit for fashion. But what distinguishes each?
“The traditional answer would be that the Savile Row suit has a double vent at the back and the Italian suit is unvented,” explains Mark Henderson, chairman, Savile Row Bespoke, and deputy chairman, Gieves & Hawkes (No. 1, Savile Row to you). “The British suit has less padding at the shoulder, is cut snugger, and is made of heavier cloths due to our colder climate. There has, however, been a constant interchange of ideas and now the differences are minimal. Savile Row has certainly mastered the use of the finest cloths, while many Italian suits are vented.”
“We believe that an English suit has more shape and structure, with a defined silhouette,” says Richard Fuller, retail manager at Kilgour (No. 8, Savile Row), “which really highlights the elegance in every piece.”
Bold words when you consider the other corner, with its unforgiving slim fit and a cut so sharp it bleeds, associated with the world’s greatest fashion houses.
“Italian tailoring prefers not to follow rigid aesthetic guidelines,” says Francesco Pesci, chief executive officer, Brioni. “The way we developed the internal parts of the suit, the lighter fabrics and suits modelled for functionality and comfort were a new level of innovation.”
But before you conjure up visions of grim petites mains in the backrooms of British workshops up against suntanned maestros in Mediterranean studios, exclaiming Italian variations of “Surprise me!”, pause a moment. Let’s not forget that no one on Savile Row has publicly claimed to tailor a suit so fautlessly as Enzo d’Orsi, master tailor and creative director at the legendary Kiton of Naples. D’Orsi reportedly makes every custom K50, the most exclusive of Kiton’s designs, by chalking the pattern directly on to his fabric (suits are otherwise cut with the help of a paper pattern).
Golden row: Savile Row is considered to be tailoring at its finest. Suzanne Plunkett/Bloomberg
“The perception that Italian tailoring sacrifices technique for flair is wrong,” Pesci says. “The Italian sartorial school evolved from an established English one, but it did so to improve technique, with textures and fabrics that were not previously easy to work with.” This is true: When Nazareno Fonticoli and Gaetano Savini opened Brioni’s first shop on the Via Barberini, Rome, in 1945, they became the cornerstone of an entire school of Roman tailoring. Innovation remains compulsory. In recent years, Brioni was the first to introduce the “hidden chest” in a suit. “It provides for a fitting and internal texture that is useful in areas with a high level of humidity,” Pesci explains.
Besides, who else could offer that $43,000 (around Rs19.4 lakh) vicuña-wool-blend suit threaded with white gold pinstripes?
“There are some wonderful suit makers in Italy,” Henderson says. “We’d never deny that. But Savile Row is also alive with innovation, in a careful way. There are dozens of young apprentices–cutters, coat makers, etc., who are studying with their masters but always looking to innovate and are alive to London’s fashion buzz.” Coming from an institution that once employed the young Alexander McQueen, this is irrefutable.
Pesci extols the “pure passion of the artisan” that goes into the Italian suit. But to Fuller, Italian innovation has a price. “(Italian suits) have an inevitable fashionability in terms of cut and choice of fabrication. The Italian fabrics tend to be more precious, and have a lustre on the finish that does not aid the process of ageing gracefully.” Kilgour’s mohairs, silks, linens and cashmeres, he says, are themselves supported by the march of technology to have the opposite effect. “We can offer crease-resistant fabrics that recover from a day’s wear simply by being hung in the wardrobe—comfortable to wear, immaculate to the eye.” Just as useful as the revered tendency of Attolini suits to spring back into perfect shape even after they have been crushed into a ball.
When Giorgio Armani created his low-slung, unstructured suit jacket in 1975, he recalibrated the meaning of elegance. Today, the boldness and drama associated with Mediterranean style meets its match on Savile Row itself; the street houses no less a fashion icon than the young Londoner Ozwald Boateng (No. 12a), whose classical tailoring marries a sense of flamboyant colour and cut that redefines the ready-to-wear suit on Fashion Week runways.
Is there a clue as to which tradition might suit the Indian man better? Choosing the destination is no simpler than picking one from that other great Anglo-Italian face-off: sonnet styles. Petrarchan or Shakespearean?
It depends on the cut of your jib.
Britannia vs Italia
Does the man of fashion choose between tapered trousers and tweed? Or do both traditions liberate themselves from stereotypes? The Anglo-Italian argument over the suit acquires more dimensions at the Mint Luxury Conference, where Mark Henderson of Gieves and Hawkes and Francesco Pesci of Brioni will fight their respective corners in a session called ‘Menswear: English Elegance vs Italian Flair’.
The panel juxtaposes English and Italian fashion fundamentals to understand the history and impact of each in a changing world. It will be moderated by Vinod Nair, fashion editor, ‘Hindustan Times’.
Menswear: ‘English Elegance vs Italian Flair’ at the Mint Luxury Conference, The Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, on 26 March at 4pm.