A Temple of Tailoring: The Timeless Elegance of Brioni
A Temple of Tailoring: The Timeless Elegance of Brioni
- Words Andrew Craig
- Date March 12, 2018
If you've ever seen La Dolce Vita, you know Brioni. The dark, elegant, powerfully shaped suits worn by Marcello Mastroianni's character throughout the iconic film are beautiful, but not over the top. They impart a strong sense of masculinity without feeling like a costume. They're elegant, understated, and undeniably Italian.
A now legendary tailoring house—one of the finest in the world, let alone Italy—Brioni began as a humble boutique in Rome. In 1945, tailor Nazareno Fonticolo opened the shop alongside entrepreneur Gaetano Savini on Via Barberini 79. They named their store after the luxurious Brionian Islands (then part of Italy, now part of Croatia), in the northern Adriatic Sea off the coast of Italy. One of several players in the burgeoning Italian tailoring scene, like many contemporaries they drew heavily on British tailoring, the pre-eminent style of the era. While the heavily structured, military-inspired suits with strong shoulders and stiff canvassing were fitting of English nobles, the staid style was not an adequate reflection of the Italian way of life. As Italian tailoring grew into its own, though, different styles began to develop. In Naples unstructured whimsical Neapolitan suiting took hold. In Rome, where Brioni was born, the style evolved more subtly. The structured British style was made more voluminous, body conscious, and free-flowing without losing too much of the signature Saville Row shape.
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Brioni led the pack, pioneering Roman tailoring. An industry leader, in 1952 the brand decided to show off its talent by staging a fashion show at the now legendary Sala Bianca at the Palazzo Pitti, Florence. The first brand in history to present a menswear collection at the venue, the affair was more than simply about clothes, but rather the concept that men's clothing could be an attention-worthy cultural touchstone. Following the landmark show, Brioni opened a new production facility in Penne to meet growing demand in 1959. With their small warehouse in the ancient, cobblestone-clad, 35 square-mile town in central Italy, they were able to expand production to an international level. As the brand expanded overseas, it simultaneously became closely associated with both the Italian and American film industries. First through the aforementioned La Dolce Vita, and shortly after with American film icons including Clark Gable and John Wayne. The tradition has since continued, with both Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig clad in the Roman tailor during their respective turns as 007—though Craig switched to Tom Ford following Casino Royale.
"There should always be a balance between sartorial principles and the fashion of the moment...with the final result so balanced that its beauty goes beyond times," said Francesco Pesci, Brioni CEO, in an interview with Mr. Porter. To be sure, try as they may Brioni has fallen short of that sentiment in recent history. Some of Brosnan's three-button, extra-long, generously-cut Bond suits from the '90s and early '00s are quite clearly dated, proving that even Brioni isn't above the occasional misstep. Still, while the suits may not always be on the cutting-edge of men’s fashion, the house’s fabric and construction have never wavered. In order to keep that craft alive, they opened a the Scuola di Alta Sartoria, a tailoring school in Penne. With the hope of educating new generations of tailors in the nuances of handmade suits and the Brioni house style, the school teaches that "tailoring is a cultural legacy, that takes decades to transmit from a seasoned master to a young talent."
The brand's academy was the sole tailoring high school in Italy when Brioni's founders opened it in 1985, and admission is extraordinarily competitive: only sixteen students are selected every four years. Those who are admitted board in a historical dormitory in Abruzzo's town center and are taught, slowly and carefully, the nuances of not just Brioni's house style but the broader cultural import of Italian tailoring. "With an ethical and artisanal mission," Brioni says, "the Scuola di Alta Sartoria exceeds the mere training of the next Master Tailors: it is imbued with the belief that a meaningful future comes from the transmission of a deep-rooted heritage." The model has proven successful both from a practical standpoint and an artistic one, and other famed Italian tailors like Kiton, Bottega Veneta, and Ermenegildo Zegna have followed suit (so to speak) by opening schools to train the next generation of their staff.
The suit making method itself speaks to the unprecedented skill of these young tailors, and the house’s steadfast commitment to craftsmanship. Brioni requires every suit to follow 220 steps with over 6,000 carefully hidden stitches through 22 hours of work—a great deal of which is by hand. As with any high-end suit, most of the handwork is hidden into the suit's construction to subtly aid the jacket's fit, longevity, and beauty—hand work can help a jacket perfectly hug your shoulder, or let a lapel roll more gracefully, for example—but some elements are purposefully left visible, like subtle and neat pick stitching and hand-sewn buttonholes. When paired with Brioni's Roman cut—a lightly padded, softly angular shoulder and a medium-length, trim-but-not-tight profile—you arrive at a suit that whispers its quality rather than shouting.
Brioni continued in this vein for decades, producing simple and elegant suiting that's been favored by conservatively styled politicians, businessmen, and other members of the world's elite. In late 2011, Brioni was acquired by French luxury group PPR (since renamed Kering), a notable shift for was was for generations a family business. The acquisition suddenly placed Brioni's tailoring firmly into the international luxury spotlight, and foreshadowed a larger market trend of traditional tailoring brands merging into the luxury fashion space.
Despite the acquisition, the Brioni business remained relatively unchanged, producing the same luxury suiting they had been making for decades. Though the brand boasts a rock-solid base of tradition and craftsmanship, Brioni was slow to adapt to the needs of the growing men’s fashion community. While contemporaries like Zegna hired big name designers and creative directors, Brioni steered clear of the fashion front pages, perferring to stick with their core business. Clearly a missed opportunity, considering Brioni’s failure to attract younger customers, the brand was eargly looking for a way to modernize. Even true suiting obsessives are often dubious that the brand's suits are worthy of their sky-high price tags. While off-the-rack luxury suiting prices have no doubt ballooned with the slow demise of made-to-measure services, Brioni’s starting price point is still staggering. A standard off-the-rack Brioni suit costs between $5,500 to $6,500—that’s for standard wool. When you explore other fabric options and customizations, that number can easily bump well into five digits. While their quality and handwork-driven construction is exceptional, suits with comparable or only slightly diminished attention to detail can be found for much less.
So while Brioni was renowned for doing what they've always done best—sewing simple and beautiful suits for fashion-wary wealthy types—with slipping sales figures and a quickly aging customer base, they opted for a change. In April of 2016 newly appointed CEO Gianluca Flore (who joined the company in 2014) tapped Justin O'Shea as creative director. Widely recognized as women’s fashion director for German e-commerce site MyTheresa, the appointment raised many an eyebrow considering O’Shea had zero formal training or design experience. O'Shea, long a streetstyle fixture, has an exceptionally distinctive look: heavily tattooed arms, a pointed beard, and a badass rock-and-roll casualness mixed with loud, extra sharp bespoke tailoring. He brought much of that to Brioni, completely up-ending the brand's direction by focusing their team of master tailors on making crocodile skin dusters and chinchilla fur coats, printed silk shirts, rocker-inspired shoes, and an entirely new house cut of suit: the Continental.
A three-piece, one-button, no-vent, deep gorge, heavily contoured, peak lapel suit with cloth-covered buttons and wider waistband and lapel proportions—the Continental was a peculiar mash-up of suiting styles, and decidedly not Brioni. "They didn’t understand at first," he says of describing his vision to Brioni's master tailors. "They were thinking I was gonna get something quite classic. And what I was doing was merging something historical from the ‘70s with a modern-day fit." It is more narrow, trim and loud in nearly every way.
O'Shea's new vision was launched with a bang. First there was an ad campaign featuring Metallica clad in tuxedos and a brand new Brioni logo. Then followed a media blitz of interviews, with O'Shea's excited and expletive-filled discussion of his new appointment and vision, and finally his Fall/Winter 2016 “Paris One” runway show during Paris couture week. Filled with varying shades of brown, cognac, and a pale bluish “battleship” grey, O’Shea presented a wildly different Brioni, primarily still rooted in the brand's tailoring history but with a completely new cut, proportions, and styling.
The reviews from the fashion crowd were generally positive, if a bit taken aback, but Brioni's reinvention was short-lived. After only six months in the position, O'Shea was let go in October of 2016 with no public explanation, before debuting SSS World Corp, a lower-priced spiritual successor to his vision for Brioni featuring a similar rock-meets-tailoring aesthetic, less than a year later.
His departure was likely due alienating pre-existing clientele. Since the house was founded, Brioni has built a stable of clientele interested in fitting in—albeit in the most luxurious way possible—not standing out. Employing the likes of Metallica and staging a high-end fashion show with “pimp furs” was certainly not what they were interested, much less expected of Brioni. Clearly the silk shirts, gargantuan tie knots, and rail-thin trousers was not what the majority of Brioni customers, many of whom are in their sixties, were interested in.
Since O'Shea, Brioni has gone back to basics: understated, elegant, play-it-safe tailored clothing for the very wealthy. When O'Shea was appointed, Gianluca Flore, then Brioni's chief executive, said that he wanted to "make [their] current customer feel even more special," attract a new customer and double the brand's annual revenues to 300-400 million euros within three to five years. O'Shea's direction may have been a creative step too far for the brand, but that ambition seems unlikely without some sort of jump forward in the Brioni identity.
Newer changes to the brand's leadership are just now starting to cement. Flore left Brioni in February of 2017, just four months after O'Shea, and was quickly replaced by Fabrizio Malverdi, a former executive at Dior Homme, Givenchy, and other luxury brands. After months of silence from the brand and speculation among the fashion community, Nina-Maria Nitsche was named O'Shea's replacement this past June. Nitsche was previously a 23-year veteran of Maison Martin Margiela, working directly with the house's namesake and serving as creative director after Margiela's resignation in 2009, and more recently worked briefly at Vetements. She is perhaps O'Shea's polar opposite—female, of course, but also steeped in a long career of design experience and highly media-averse, two things which Mr. O'Shea was very much not.
Nitsche's first collection for the label, Fall/Winter 2018, recently debuted during Paris Fashion Week and featured a kind of return to normalcy for the brand, though with a very light touch of bravado—a turtleneck sweater underneath a green velvet dinner jacket, a thigh-length, shawl-collar, cable-knit cashmere cardigan, an outstanding couture saphire blue embroidered coat made from vintage Japanese tapestry. “It’s not about a nationality or a kind of physique. It’s deeper than that, it’s a man who is independent, who is not influenced by trends, he has his own opinion about things,” Nitsche told WWD of the collection.
How Nitsche will continue to develop the brand's aesthetic, and how Brioni's management will fare after the turbulent past years, remains to be seen. Regardless of redesigns, though, Brioni's tailoring excellence will surely stay intact. While the price may be astronomical and the creative direction squarely focused on the more conservative side of the menswear spectrum, there's little doubt that the brand's master tailors are some of the best in the world—and their excellence at a very particular style of sleek, simple suit making will never go out of fashion.