The Timeless Appeal of Kiton
The Timeless Appeal of Kiton
- Words Andrew Craig
- Date November 20, 2017
There's a saying in Italy: Vedi Napoli e poi muori. "See Naples and die."
The idea is that the city is so beautiful and fulfilling that once you've seen it, your life is complete. Settled on the coastline of Southern Italy, Naples has a bay full of pastel-hued buildings dotting its shores and azure blue water lapping in from the Mediterranean. As a city, its history stretches back to the second millennium BC. Herman Melville said of the city, "no equipages flash like these; no beauties so haughty. No cavaliers so proud, no palaces so sumptuous.”
These days, though, its reputation may appear mixed; Naples is often criticized for its high crime rates, significant street pollution, run-down buildings and a general “rough-around-the-edges” feel. Sartorially-minded tourists are more likely to go to Florence—home of the Pitti Uomo festival—or Milan, one of the world's most significant capitals for clothing. But hopping a direct flight to either of those cities might have menswear fans missing out on one of Italy's most prominent contributions to the fashion world: the soft and rakish allure of Neapolitan tailoring. While the playing field in Naples is crowded with tailoring houses that are revered as some of the best in the world, one name usually rings louder than any other: Kiton.
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The brand was founded in Naples in 1956 by Ciro Paone, opening as CIPA and rebranding themselves as Kiton in 1968. It was named after the Greek chiton, a garment akin to a tunic worn by ancient Greek aristocracy. It’s "a symbol of classicism, quality and social distinction," Kiton says on its website. Ciro Paone, the founder and owner of the label, was a fifth-generation fabric merchant but decided to pivot the family business in the 1950s to actually making suits rather than only selling in the wools with which they're made.
There had been tailors in Naples prior to this, of course, but they largely followed in the footsteps of Savile Row traditions. Gennaro "Bebè" Rubinacci, an art collector, opened a tailoring shop in 1932 that he named "London House" for exactly that association–having no true tailoring tradition of its own, the city's suit makers aligned themselves as closely as possible with the prestige of London instead. Ironically, London House (renamed Rubinacci in 1961) would be the ones to pioneer the Neapolitan style. Rubinacci, having taken notice of the softly draped house style at Anderson & Sheppard in London, requested that his in-house cutter, a tailor named Vincenzo Attolini, take Anderson & Sheppard's less severe style and adapt it. He wanted to strip away as much as possible of a suit's traditional build to create an unlined, unstructured, unpadded design that would be more comfortable in Naples' brutal heat and high humidity. Attolini succeeded, creating a style of suit that would come to define the city's sartorial identity.
Kiton, though not part of the origin story, has come to perfect this Neapolitan style in its 51 years of tailoring, earning a prestige among suit obsessives that few brands can match. Kiton’s style is a deft, delicate, softly structured interpretation of classic Neapolitan suiting that, true to the label's fabric merchant origins, is made with some of the finest wools and fabrics that money can buy. The resulting suits are renowned as some of the very best tailoring that the world has to offer. If you want to enter the rarified air that they occupy, though, you'd better bring your checkbook. In the US, its suits start at a cool $8,500 (before tax) and go up from there. Way up.
They're made in Kiton's Naples workshop, settled on a palm tree-lined street in the northern part of town. Inside are rows and rows of work tables with a handful of sewing machines—some seams are machine-sewn, but the vast majority of Kiton's work is done by hand, slowly and carefully. A single suit takes 25 hours of masterfully precise measuring, cutting and sewing.
The work is done in the Neapolitan method, a kind of assembly line for suit making where one tailor will cut and sew the pockets, another one will construct the collar and another will attach the sleeves to the jacket body, and so on. The tailors in charge of the shoulders have perhaps the most important job, as Neapolitan suiting is famed for its unstructured shoulders that softly pucker along the upper edge of the arm, a result of the opening on the upper part of the arm having a greater circumference than the corresponding opening in the jacket (called the "scye"). Kiton's tailors deftly ease as much as two and a half times as much material on the arm onto the scye of the jacket, a process that requires an inordinate amount of skill to perform correctly and results in a beautifully draped shoulder. Extra attention is given to the buttonholes, too, each of which is hand-cut with a hammer and chisel and then sewn with a specific kind of embroidery stitch that the tailors call punto langhe. The resulting cordoncino ("little cord"), a raised border along the buttonhole, is a Kiton hallmark. It takes 137 stitches to complete a single buttonhole—another sign of the microscopic level of attention to detail that Kiton pays to its suits.
The exceptions to the above process are Kiton's Lasa and K-50 lines, which are given an even higher degree of concentration and are handled by a single tailor from start to finish. The K-50 line, the absolute top of the line for Kiton, is handled by only five of the brand's most trusted tailors and takes 50 hours each, double the already significant amount time to make a normal Kiton suit. Only 250 of them are made per year. To note this point, the tailors who make K-50 suits eschew patterns in cutting the fabric, instead chalking measurements onto the wool by hand – something that would be impossible for anyone but absolute masters of the trade.
All of that nimble work from Kiton's cutters and tailors are only half the story, though. The rest of the allure comes from the fabrics, which are unparalleled in luxury. In 2010 Kiton purchased the Carlo Barbera mill, one of the best in Italy, and they source other top-shelf wools from around Italy (and also from England). They favor extraordinarily soft and lightweight natural fibers, relying often on wool with a high S number (a measurement of the wool's fineness), sometimes reaching up as high as Super 220. Kiton is one one of the few suit makers capable enough to work with such delicate wool, as Super 180 and above—aside from being outrageously expensive—require exceptional skill to sew as the fabric is so delicate and shifts easily during the suit making process.
Kiton is also famed for its use of what is likely the softest, warmest, lightest and rarest natural fabric on Earth: vicuña. The elusive animals that produce it live high in the Andes of South America and their wool is supposedly smoother and softer than even the finest cashmere. But given that it can't be easily cultivated (vicuñas starve in captivity) and a single adult produces only 17 ounces of wool per year (barely enough for a scarf, let alone a full suit) the fiber commands a staggeringly high price. Combined with Kiton's already significant tailoring costs, a vicuña Kiton garment can reach laughable price points, costing $40,000 or more.
So, is any of this worth its staggering price tag? Spending $10,000 on a single garment, no matter how artful, is a decision with difficult ethical underpinnings (to say nothing of going far north of that if you’ve chosen increasingly luxurious fabrics). Odds are that the majority of the label's clientele—often exorbitantly wealthy government and business types, basking on their side of the wealth gap—likely value the socioeconomic cachet that a Kiton tag carries far more than the master-level craft behind the suit's construction. Suit fanatics often complain that Kiton receives undue prestige for off-the-rack suit-making that's no more skillful than, say, Savile Row bespoke, which can be had for half the price and is far more customer-centric.
That said, the price doesn't seem quite so obscene once you begin to tally up everything that's behind the finished product. First is the fact that even the most corner-cutting, machine-made suit will likely cost $1,000 or more if it's made with full canvassing (an interlining that allows a jacket to better drape and mold to your body), as Kiton suits are. Now let's add in what makes Kiton special: the time and care of its house cutters and tailors, true masters of the craft with few equals; it’s a difficult variable to “price out”—but one that is sure to keep prices high. Given Kiton's obsession with fabric quality, even the most basic wools used are exceptionally pricey (and likely finer than the corresponding base-level fabrics at many bespoke shops). The company is also said to treat its employees with generosity and warmth too; wages for Kiton workers are notably higher than industry averages, with espresso and an enviable lunch provided to its staff of hundreds daily. In a very old-fashioned Italian way, comfort and artistry are valued over strict adherence to numbers. "Nothing should be rigid and driven by targets," says Ciro Paone. "You could stitch, smoke a cigarette, stitch, drink a coffee.”
Kiton also operates an intensive, highly-competitive tailoring school in its Naples headquarters to train a new generation of tailors. Young men and women enroll in a three year program to learn the trade, stitch by stitch—with tuition, materials, meals and transportation all covered on Kiton's dime, in the interest of imparting and upholding the uniquely Italian sartorial tradition that they've come to master.
Whether or not all of that adds up to $10,000 or more is up to you. There are, undoubtedly, better ways to spend five figures. But to Kiton and its customers, it's about the craft – not the bottom line. Hey, there’s a reason why its tagline is “the best of the best.”