Cut from Italian Cloth: A Brief History of Barena Venezia
Cut from Italian Cloth: A Brief History of Barena Venezia
- Words Jacob Victorine
- Date February 18, 2019
While Barena Venezia may not yet have the lineage of Italian juggernauts such as Loro Piana and Ermenegildo Zegna, the small, family-owned company has significantly influenced the way men (and women) dress in and outside of Italy over the past twenty-five years. Before “sprezzatura” and “soft tailoring” became go-to terms of the #menswear movement and “athleisure” became a cringeworthy portmanteau used by basic fashionistas, Barena was showing men how to dress casually and with class via fabric innovation, utilizing knit fabrics for traditionally tailored garments.
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Although Barena was officially founded in 1994, the brand’s history reaches all the way back to 1961 when its founder, Sandro Zara, got his start in the fashion industry. Zara, a Venetian entrepreneur, began his career as an agent for a textile company. Over time, he decided to develop his own clothing based on the kilt and, despite the relative foreignness of the garment to many Western consumers, Zara’s products sold well. However, he wasn’t content and his curiosity, in particular for textiles, led him to begin researching the tabarro, an ancient form of the cape. Dating back to at least the 14th century during the Venetian Republic, before buttons were used regularly for outerwear, the tabarro boasted a rich history that lasted well into the 20th century—Zara’s grandparents wore them regularly. Zara visited places such the Palazzo Mocenigo Museum and the Maritime Museum of Chioggia, textile archives of old closed-down wool mills “and the homes and buildings in and around the mainland and the lagoon areas of Venice, where he uncovered original measurements and fabrics that can protect against the wind and the cold.” In 1990, Zara founded Compagnia Mercantile to produce various models of the tabarro and went on to collaborate with brands such as Levi’s and the Lanificio Cini wool mill in Vittorio Veneto (TV), which he eventually acquired.
In 1994, Zara met Massimo Pigozzo—eventually appointed as Barena’s creative director, a role he still holds—and the two decided to develop a full collection of menswear, now known as Barena Venezia. The initial inspiration for Barena was the style of the rural inhabitants of Venice: “Veneto has always specialized in function-specific materials. Hunting and fishing were important sources of income. Accordingly, the clothing style was influenced by the functional clothing worn for the activities and the traditional materials used to make them. Our collection is still very much influenced by the style of those days. Nothing inspires us more than life by the sea and the lagoon,” Pigozzo said to J’N’C’ Magazine. In fact, Barena derives its name from the term “baro,” which in Italian translates to “salt-water lagoon”—a reference to a key feature of the Venetian landscape.
Yet, over the years, the brand has evolved and now mixes unfinished details (such as raw seams) with knit fabrics and soft tailoring, so that what defines Barena today is its use of and experimentation with material. “We only work with natural materials, with wool, cotton, linen. I find it difficult to characterize the collection any more than that: it’s not sporty, not classic, not casual—it’s a mix of all of them,” Pigozzo said. For instance, the brand still maintains a fabric archive set up by Pigozzo and Zara’s daughter Francesca—who came on board in 2010 to design the women’s collection—which they revisit season after season for inspiration.
While Barena’s particular use of raw materials and fabrics is in line with the ethos of Sandro Zara, it is also reflective of Pigozzo’s unorthodox education and entrance into the fashion industry. He grew up with fourteen siblings, eight brothers and six sisters, and still remembers his mother mending their clothes. At an early age, he began helping her patch and alter garments: “I think that has influenced my development and my relationship with clothing. It aroused my curiosity. I would take things apart, could see the individual pieces and figure out the tailoring,” Pigozzo said. So, while Pigozzo was not formally trained in menswear design, his childhood experience—paired with extensive training as a tailor—helped him develop a “why not?” attitude that allows him “to try out a lot of things that other people might turn down or proclaim impossible for exactly that reason,” an approach that has helped define Barena’s experimental fabric use since its inception.
Barena’s headquarters is currently located in Mirano, around 16 miles from Venice, and includes an atelier and production facilities, where all of the brand’s garments are made. Not only is every piece in Barena’s collection sewn in Italy, but all of its fabrics are also sourced locally and fully machine washable—attributes that reflect Barena’s dedication to Italian craftsmanship, as well as the dressed-down tailoring the brand is known for.
Although Sandro Zara is no longer actively involved in the day-to-day operations of Barena, he and the brand he founded nearly twenty-five years ago continue to thrive. A renowned expert, Sandro wrote a book about fabrics which is used in schools throughout Italy to teach basic knowledge of textiles, and still produces his line of tabarro, Tabarrificio Veneto to this day. Meanwhile, Barena maintains the fabric-first ethos it was founded upon. Pigozzo and Francesca Zara build each collection from the ground up, starting by looking for interesting materials and then basing their designs off the fabrics they find. The brand continues to play with fabrics in unexpected ways, such as turning notoriously stiff Melton wool into softly draped fabric on its Murata Wool-Blend Topcoat. Barena also experiments with unusual processes, such as boiling fabrics or washing them in seawater. In order to create continuity between the men’s and women’s lines, Pigozzo and Francesca Zara use seventy percent of the same materials in their respective collections. Barena’s fabric obsession goes even further—when Pigozzo was asked to name his favorite Barena garment, he replied with the cotton-wool blend Formentera fabric instead.
While Barena is carried in some of the most renowned department stores and boutiques around the world—Barney’s New York, Mr. Porter, UNIONMADE—the brand continues to maintain a humble approach that reflects the origins of its name. “The main concept comes from the past, in the 19th century where the workwear dress code was: ‘elegance even when we are working the land.’ In fact countrymen were working the land wearing three-piece suits: blazer, pants and a vest called a “panciotto,’” Francesca Zara said. Even though Barena has expanded significantly over the years, Pigozzo and the younger Zara have no interest in expansion if it means chasing trends or sacrificing the brand’s commitment to textile development and Italian craftsmanship. When asked about Barena’s goals for the future, Francesca Zara said, “growing naturally and organically following the main line of the company’s success, working with a general sense of quality; not just meaning with regards to ‘product,’ but also in regards to life, relationships etc.” So, while Barena is still a young brand in many respects, its continued commitment to local production and textile development may one day help it join the hallowed company of storied Italian tailors like Loro Piana and Zegna.