A Tale of Two Tailors

I have long hoped that somewhere in Italy there must be makers of good quality clothes for people who like to dress well but can’t or won’t pay designer prices. But I had never found any – until recently. Even more than in Britain, there is a hole where the middle-market should be. Online searches reveal low-priced disposable fashion – and then the top end. The difference lies in the proportions of the two: less of the former, and more of the latter – at least when it comes to selling online. Classic style is hardly the dominant concern in modern Italy that the rest of the world seems to believe: as the clip below shows, there are plenty who default to the international uniform of jeans/chinos/cargo pants/trainers (and they are not all tourists…), but equally, one still sees more people who clearly do fare la bella figura, certainly compared with the U.K., where it’s no longer done to dress ‘up’ except at weddings.

Maybe we’re just not seeing the whole range. It would not surprise me if the Italian online clothing market is a mere fraction of its British equivalent – and much of what there is seems aimed at high-spending Americans. Whatever the style, in Italy, sartorial purchases are perhaps too important to be made so lightly…

There are department stores and the like: La Rinascente is perhaps the best known – but generally, they seem nowhere near as dominant as in the UK. People there seem more likely to buy from the many small retailers, certainly if they want anything other than the usual globalised fare.

An acquaintance in the trade confirmed my impressions of the top end: the tailors who make Italian menswear the envy of the world seem quite content to continue charging premium prices and see no need to head downmarket just to please we less affluent punters. That would seem more condescending that it is, were it not for the fact that plenty of Italian men seem prepared to spend amounts on clothes that would bring tears to the eyes of the average British bloke – and to be fair, I see no reason why skilled labour should come cheap just to satisfy the likes of me. But this still leaves a problem for those of us who admire the style without being able to spare £950 for the exquisite Canali jacket I saw in a shop window a few days ago…

I’ve tried every which way to solve this puzzle. There are plenty of British clothiers who buy (and flaunt) their Italian fabrics. Moss Bros, for example, offer fabrics from Cerruti, Zegna, Barberis and more – but the problem comes when they get their scissors out: the items they produce are, well, just dull… They lack the ‘edge’ that makes Italian tailoring work. Sadly, the same largely goes for Tyrwhitt. I suspect that such chain-retailers are hardly buying the best quality to begin with: anything so long as they can add a price-hiking label – and they certainly don’t indulge in the time-consuming niceties that give Italian clothing its distinctive appeal. I suppose they would argue there’s no demand for it in this country. But then, they often offer such items only in sizes that would fit a skinny teenager…

A new discovery was Pini Parma, founded by Thomas Pini, an Italian living in Paris. His ready-to-wear clothes are beautiful, and very good value (though still not cheap) – but once again, they are only offered in a limited size range.

I have tried a couple of the growing number of online made-to-measure services, many being based in India and offering (not?) surprisingly low prices. Despite some ethical concerns, I concluded that I might as well cut out the middlemen and pay the makers direct: at least that way, I have a little knowledge of the source. Some are using Italian fabrics, often from previous seasons or ends of rolls to keep the overheads low, and they do allow the buyer to customise items, such that quasi-Italian style might be achievable. I’ve now bought a few pairs of trousers this way over the years: they have all been well-enough made, the fabrics are indeed good, and – importantly – the fit is pleasing. What’s more, they solve the problem of the somewhat more middle-aged north European size that I need. The styling, however – while acceptable – is clearly not done with an Italian eye…

It is of course true that one generally gets what one pays for; the bargain end of the spectrum tends to have synthetics in the mix, which almost always means garments will lose their shape quickly. Pretty much what you would get from a high-street product. Better to stick to natural fibres – though it is still possible to acquire a decent pair of made-to-measure trousers for not very much more than the price of a better high-street pair – and a few weeks’ wait.

This summer, however, having foregone a holiday for the second year in a row, I decided to push the boat out and see what they could do with a higher-quality fabric from a named Italian mill. An order was duly placed with Studio Suits – a company in Mumbai about which I have seen mixed reviews but have never personally had any issues.

A few days later, before these had arrived, I chanced upon the website of Barocco Italia – which describes itself as a digital platform dedicated to supporting Italian artisans and widening their markets. It is in effect a broker for multiple smaller manufacturers – precisely what I had been seeking for so long. Some of the prices are still pretty eye-watering but surprisingly, less so for their trousers: still more than many would consider paying in the U.K., but not for once, utterly out of the question. We need to remember that we are buying custom-made, hand-sewn craftsmanship here… I decided to live dangerously and so also ordered a pair of trousers through Barocco from Neapolitan tailor Massimo Corrado. Each maker has a biog. on the Barocco website. Having spent time working for the big labels, some years ago, Corrado set up on his own: just what I was looking for. Again, measurements were dispatched, and the order duly confirmed.

Both pairs of trousers cost within a few pounds of each other – about double the price of a better high-street pair – and both arrived within a few days of each other. A good opportunity to see how the respective makers compared.

The Indian pair arrived first. Made from super-110 ivory summer wool (though it feels finer), they are indeed a very good item. The fabric by Reda is excellent, almost crease-free. They arrived soft-packed, and needed a careful press, but fit well, have a decent half-lining, feel robust, and left me wondering whether it would be possible for the Italians to do better…

The Indian pair

The Italian pair arrived a few days later, in a carboard carton and nicely wrapped in tissue. They didn’t need a press. In this case they are in super-150 summer wool, something I have not previously come across in person – amazingly fine. I had also decided to push my limits a little and opt for pale turquoise, which turned out to be more intensely err, Mediterranean than expected. A lovely colour – most definitely not your standard-issue British dull…

The Italian pair

As so often, seeing really is believing: only once you have experienced excellence does the merely good become clear. The quality of the cutting and stitching, the attention to finish, details such as horn buttons, really does set the Italian pair a cut above. These fine fabrics must be difficult to work with – almost like sewing with silk. The Indian pair had some evidence of slight puckering on the leg seams, and the stitching is just not as carefully done – nothing I am not entirely happy to live with – but if we are judging these items on sheer craftsmanship, then it becomes immediately apparent why the Neapolitan tailors have the exceptional reputation that they do. Strangely, from exactly the same measurements, the Italian pair presents a distinctly slimmer and (hopefully) more flattering cut – not such that they don’t fit – snugly – but it’s rather surprising that there is so much difference. I don’t know enough about the cutting processes to understand how this comes about.

When it comes to practicality, time will tell. I don’t really do “best” clothes – every day is good enough to dress well for. These will experience regular if restrained summer use (not painting the house, obviously…). I will wait and see whether that slim Italian cut – which is clearly an integral part of the character – really does go the distance when it comes to wear and seam-stretch. I suspect this may be where the Indian-made pair will have an edge. Made-to-measure is definitely the way forward for those of us who – while hardly of Pavarotti-like proportions – do have difficulty with the increasing prevalence of slim and extra-slim cuts on men’s clothing even in the U.K. (It seems as though many retailers have forgotten that men over 25 still exist, let alone that the national average body size is increasing… And if that’s perplexing here, it is doubly so in Italy where fits tend to be tighter, since there are plenty of older Italian men who are not exactly whippet-like either…)

The customer service – almost ‘e-personal’ – that I received from Barroco was also excellent: they are clearly on a mission – and their English is much better than my Italian. Having enquired about post-Brexit shipping issues, I was informed that in the event of unexpected duties being payable (they weren’t) a refund to the equivalent amount would be forthcoming.

The summer wardrobe emergency has now been well and truly addressed; as I’ve said before, I purchase rarely but (hopefully) well. In due course, I shall go back to Barroco – for ultimately the bona fide article has to win out here – but perhaps be a little more generous with the measurements I provide. When the chips are down, those high reputations exist for a reason…

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