The History of the Italian Suit
There was a time, not that long ago, when almost every man wore a suit to work, whether he was the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a teller who tested TV tubes down at the local five & dime. Since the dotcom boom, more casual work attire is now acceptable. However, despite this unseemly fashion trend, the suit is still a staple in every executive’s wardrobe, no matter what his profession may be.
Every day you can see a successful investment banker dressed in a fine 3-button Italian suit, or observe a high-profile corporate lawyer presenting his case in an elegant double-breasted Super 150 wool suit, and certainly appreciate the elegant image of an American politician debating his views on national television wearing a formal navy suit, white shirt and bright red satin-striped tie. All these members of today’s modern nobility depend on their image and personal packaging to gain them instant acceptance in their public and professional lives.
The suit, though, is not just for members of the aristocracy but also for those who society might decree lead a more mundane existence. No matter what your station in life, the suit is important. For example, a job interview requires a suit; that is if you actually want to get the job. Visiting your place of worship requires wearing a suit; well, it should. And for those special moments in a man’s life such as his daughter’s wedding, he must wear a suit. After all, even a convicted felon shows up for sentencing in a suit; frankly, if he had really wanted to win over the jury he should have worn a suit throughout the trial. No matter the circumstances, the suit is still seen as a way to gain instant respectability and influence.
Today, the world recognizes that the Italian suit as the premier dress garment for men. One notices the impeccably cut suit, achieved by the fit of a perfectly sculptured shoulder and accent on a slim body contour, and crafted by the world’s finest fabrics. Italian artisans over the decades have honed their skill so now they are considered the world’s true master tailors. High-end luxury men’s clothing retailers such as Barcelino, Wilkes Bashford, and Mitchell-Richards have gone almost exclusively with hand-crafted men’s suits made in Italy.
Interestingly though, the Italian suit was not always the first choice among the world’s elite. The history of the Italian suit goes back a long time, and its evolution makes for interesting reading. The first time the suit surfaced as business attire was in Europe. It was in England at the renowned Savile Row where the noble gentry, who would demand bespoke clothing, would shop. But over time master tailoring skills developed in other parts of the world, most notably in Italy during the early 1800’s. Soon, some of the best clothing began to be tailored in this country.
Famous artisans of the time such as Italian tailoring pioneer, Giuseppe Ravazzolo, were wooing the world’s leaders to Italy. By the mid 1800’s, manufacturers like Castangia and Somma Spa started custom making exquisite, elegant fabrics just for men’s suiting’s. However, despite their expert craftsmanship, Italian tailors still held a somewhat shady image, thought of as producing mostly shiny fabric garments and skin-tight silhouettes; welcome the association with mafia dons and Italian gigolos. The quality was comparable, but the cachet of having a suit made-to-measure on Savile Row remained too convincing.
The Italian suit began to reach prominence in 1910 when Ermenegildo Zegna opened a textile school in the Northern-Italian town of Biella. By the 1930’s, Savile Row had a serious rival. That was buoyed when Italian clothiers, Giovanni and Giacomo Canali, started making the first precision-cut Italian suit with canvas-support, hand-rolled collars and hand-set sleeves. The house of Canali immediately jumped to the forefront of not only Italian men’s suit manufacturers but quality clothing houses world-wide. In this same decade venerable clothiers such as Vincenzo Attolini and Corneliani arrived on the scene. The Italian suit was now the suit of choice.
Though the war years of the 1940’s devastated most of Europe, the Italian suit-making community steadfastly went about their business. By the end of World War II new brands entered the market. Zegna was now a strong competitor to Canali. And a new sartorial master joined the world landscape, Atelier Brioni. From an exclusive tailor shop in Rome in 1945, two men, Gaetano Savini, a well-connected Roman socialite, and Nazareno Fonticoli, a master tailor trained in Savile Row, would join forces to develop what is arguably one of Italy’s most famous designer suit brands. By the 1950’s Brioni had revolutionized the men’s suit industry. Hollywood royalty - Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda and John Wayne - all sported fine wool suits made in Italy by Brioni. Runway fashion shows now featured men’s collections; New York was taken by storm.
Over the next two decades, Italy’s mastery of the men’s clothing industry was cast in stone. No more did the aristocrat seek out his favorite Shoppe in Savile Row, now he wore Italian. The exportation of Italian products into the international marketplace, especially the United States, had begun. High-end luxury retailers in the United States quickly switched their allegiance from American brands to meet the ever-increasing demand for Italian menswear.
In 1957, after a nearly 150-year family tradition of exquisitely tailored men’s clothing, Giancarlo Ravazzolo and his brother Silvano, updated their remarkable tradition by using all the technological advances available at the time, without sacrificing their old-world dedication to hand-made quality. This concept allowed the Ravazzolo family to instantly become the market leader in men’s fashion both in Italy and abroad. As technology became more sophisticated, Ravazzolo shifted to include its most important elements. The new suit was now a combination of hand and machine offering the distinctive buyer the same quality and Italian styling, but now with added value, a reduced cost.
In 1964, Mino Nicoletto introduced Belvest to the Italian suit market. Founded in Piazzola sul Brenta, in the Veneto region of the Doges, a land with a culture profoundly rooted in textiles and tailoring, Nicoletto would soon turn the Belvest name into the ideal of international style: refined but functional clothing. As with Ravazzolo, Belvest maintained the perfect mix of hand and machine that is now standard in the industry today. Belvest’s name in Italian reflected its ambition and ultimate destiny. “Belvestire” means the art of dressing well: style, quality, a couturier tradition and a look that’s constantly up to date. Today, famous designers such as Prada, Louis Vuitton and Hermes of Paris, turn to Belvest to produce their clothing collections.
Then, in 1975, Giorgio Armani, along with his partner, Sergio Galeotti, formed a new company, Giorgio Armani S.p.A., and launched a new revolution in fashion with their unconstructed and unlined suit jacket. It was completely loose and informal. A new breed of Italian tailoring was born.
The Italian suit today comes from a long and prestigious heritage thanks to a cadre of creative innovators and artists with fabric. The term, “Made in Italy”, evokes the subtle guarantee that you are buying the very best the world has to offer. Most Italian suit companies are still family run and it makes a world of difference especially when it comes to setting tailoring standards. Each family has their own style of tailoring; how they hold fabric or sew the stitch and all these family secrets are well guarded. The most defining difference with Italian tailors is how they revere quality. The Italian tailor’s job is to conceal every human flaw. The gentleman must look fit, elegant, and stylish even if his physique doesn’t agree - armholes are higher, the silhouette trim, and the suit more carefully proportioned so the vision is balanced.
Donning an masterfully hand-tailored Italian suit is a statement of affluence and impeccable taste; a suit for the discerning man who subscribes to style, not the impermanence of trend. His statement is made without saying a single word and it is universally heard.