MEN OF THE CLOTH Featured on Image Granted Blog

My documentary film, MEN OF THE CLOTH, was recently featured on the Image Granted blog, which ran a lengthy interview with yours truly, producer/director Vicki Vasilopoulos. He mentioned my recently launched crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo to raise funds to finish editing the film this fall. And we also discussed my inspiration for the film, the target audience, the challenges of making an independent documentary, and my love of handmade things.

A Revival in Custom Tailoring

My pile of clippings unearthed yet another encouraging article in The Wall Street Journal that custom-made clothes are making a big comeback in Europe. Oddly enough, it was under a heading title “corporate news.”

Correspondent Nathania Zevi reported from Rome last February, quoting Rome-based tailor Luigi Gallo, who said “People have come to realize that the expensive designer suit they are used to buying is made to fit a thousand other people. In addition, they’re paying a huge price for that logo sewed into the jacket.” Gallo has been swamped with business, and this is something I hear anecdotally from other tailors that I’m acquainted with.

The Henry Poole shop (above) is located on Savile Row (photo from The Wall Street Journal)

London’s Savile Row has also seen a “steady increase in business.” Mark Henderson, founder and chairman of Savile Row Bespoke, a group of 14 companies formed to protect and promote the art of hand-crafted tailoring on Savile Row, said that orders increased 10% in 2010 over the previous year.

And here’s the kicker: Henderson is convinced the recession has made people question the true value of things. “People have started to look for real quality,” he said.

Amen to that!

Anti-Italianism: Investigating Prejudice

I attended a fascinating discussion and presentation at the Italian American museum last week in the heart of New York’s Little Italy. It was organized for the just-published book, Anti-Italianism: Essays on a Prejudice and featured talks by two of my favorite scholars: Fred Gardaphe, Distinguised Professor of Italian American Studies at Queens College, and William J. Connell, a professor of history and the Joseph M. and Geraldine C. La Motta Chair in Italian Studies at Seton Hall University. Connell said  that he hoped the book would contribute to “the broadening of interest in Italian American history.”

This is a subject I became interested in after I started production on my film and realized that there were few realistic portrayals of Italian Americans in the media. Most Italian American characters on TV or in the movies are little more than stereotypes.

I actually reported a story for the New York Times several years ago about the efforts of some Italian American groups who were protesting against the Mafia-type characters in the animated children’s film “Shark Tale.” This campaign is alluded to in a fascinating video of excerpts from an academic conference at Seton Hall University from which the book draws its material.

My goal for MEN OF THE CLOTH is that it’ll be a nuanced portrait of Italian and Italian American craftsmen — and showcase them as the remarkable individuals that they are.

 

 

Dressing Up is Cool Again

For the longest time I’ve been remarking to anyone who would care to listen that I could never understand why people think it’s OK to wear the same thing out to a restaurant  for dinner that they would wear doing their laundry. I really don’t think everyone needs to go out dressed to the nines — far from it. But I think, frankly, I’ve absorbed the Italian dictum of dressing for the stage, so to speak… And I mean whatever stage you find yourself on.

To take a little care in putting yourself together shows a respect for yourself as well as those around you. That’s what I learned from my mother and her Old World European sensibility.

This article comes from my favorite section in the Wall Street Journal, Off Duty, which runs on the weekend. I’m always clipping interesting stories about menswear and this one really hit home for me. It’s called “Jacket (Not) Required” and it’s about how despite the fact that practically every restaurant under the sun has dropped its jacket-and-tie requirement, “a new generation of formality-loving dandies is choosing (not being told) to dress up.”

According to Tyler Thoreson of the web site Gilt Manual, it amounts to “a rebellion against our fathers, and the casual baby-boomer generation.”

Photo by David Field for The Wall Street Journal

My favorite quote comes from writer Gay Talese. I have to laugh when he says (with characteristic forthrightness) that when he sees people around him at a  restaurant dressed like hell, he thinks “why aren’t you at a  baseball game, or eating popcorn somewhere? Anywhere but here.”

He summarizes my thoughts perfectly: “Dressing conscientiously is exalting in the act of being alive. When you go out on the town, it’s an act of celebration…that you’re here.”

 

A Memoir from an English Bespoke Tailor

I’ve been meaning to write a capsule about this book for some time, but the demands of post-production and fundraising for my film have gotten in the way. Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed is a compelling memoir of how a 17-year-old kid from the London suburbs fell into an apprenticeship at Henry Huntsman & Sons, the bespoke tailoring film on London’s famed Savile Row. More importantly, Anderson recounts how this experience 29 years ago transformed his life and gave him a lifelong vocation and a penchant for perfectionism that he never could have dreamed of as a lad.

At the age of 34, Anderson became the youngest head cutter in Huntsman’s 150-year history. Since 2001 he has been at the helm of his own tailoring firm on Savile Row, Richard Anderson Ltd.

Anderson writes that the first three months at Huntsman caused him “relentless mental and emotional chaos.” The environment was like being in the army, “where one must resist being broken down,” and where your superiors never let you forget that you’re at the very bottom of the food chain.

It’s amusing to read that despite all the miles he had run and all the football games he had played as a teenager, this had in no way prepared him for handling the massively heavy cutting shears in the workroom. It’s also fascinating to learn about the firm’s frequent forays abroad to service its vast American clientele.

Bespoke tailor Richard Anderson (photo by Neil Gavin)

Anderson writes movingly about being inducted into the private world of bespoke:

To put a true and properly made bespoke suit on for the first time is a revelation: immediately you take to its positive influence on your posture…you stand up straighter and feel at once more comfortable and confident…that you have it in you to be a better person, a person of unique capacity, sensibility and class. And for me this was like a drug.

Tod’s: an Italian Success in a Tough Economy

Boy, The New York Times is really focusing on Italian manufacturing lately. Here’s a story on one of my favorite brands — Tod’s. It’s titled “A Shoemaker That Walks But Never Runs” and features an interview with Diego Della Valle, the chairman of Tod’s. (By the way, the company’s web site has a dramatic video of thirteen ballet dancers from Milan’s La Scala Ballet company interspersed with close-up shots of craftsmen hand-sewing Tod’s shoes.)

To his credit, Della Valle has maintained his production in Italy despite the fact that he could reduce his costs in half by making everything in China. I’ve owned a couple of pairs of Tod’s for close to 20 years, so I can attest to the fact that they’re made well, super comfortable, and timeless.

An excerpt from the article brings some much-needed good news from that luxury sector:

For true luxury brands, lowering prices by outsourcing is not something they could really ever consider as a strategy for growth,” said Davide Vimercati, the chief analyst for luxury goods at UniCredit in Milan. On the other hand, he said, Tod’s is “certainly giving up some profitability because they don’t spend less on manufacturing.

Even if outsourcing shoes and handbags could plump the bottom line, the strategy of Tod’s has paid off — and seems likely to keep doing so as long as it stays a premium brand with universal appeal. It was one of the few luxury companies worldwide to increase sales and profits through the financial crisis: profit grew from 77 million euros in 2007 to 83 million in 2008 and 86 million last year.

Analyst Davide Vimercati adds that “Tod’s is proof that if you manage your brand consistently and you build brand equity over the years, you reach a stage where demand remains strong, even in tough times.” Amen to that.

“Men of the Cloth” Featured on the Blogs

I’m excited to report that “Men of the Cloth” has some fans in the blogosphere. In the last several months it’s been featured on A Suitable Wardrobe, United Style, Image Granted, Sew Chicago, Sleevehead and the French blogs Parisian Gentleman and Redingote, among others. I find it gratifying that my small independent film on Italian master tailors could have an audience from San Francisco to Paris, and that several thousand people have watched the new trailer on the “Men of the Cloth” web site and on Vimeo.com.

Carlo Barbera Mill Purchased by Kiton

As an addendum to my post on the Carlo Barbera mill and the Made in Italy label, it was reported a few days ago that the Neapolitan tailored clothing company Kiton purchased “a controlling stake in the mill,” according to WWD. Journalist Jean Palmieri (a former colleague of mine) reported that “Competition from low-cost manufacturing countries has bitten into Carlo Barbera’s bottom line over the past few years.”

Kiton CEO Antonio De Matteis said Luciano Barbera will act as a consultant for the mill and its 40 employees will be retained.

The Tailor Versus the Menswear Designer

Recently, custom clothier Jon Green mentioned me and my film in the Off The Cuff blog. Here’s what he said:

There are those who believe that to be a credible custom clothier one must actually be a tailor and make the clothing …. To me it is impossible to be a great craftsman responsible for making the clothes and a ‘front’ man responsible for sales, marketing, and administration. Artisan craftsmen have very special skills, but they are not all encompassing. However, there persists a tradition in New York of custom tailors who “do it all.”

That got me thinking — so I asked menswear writer Bruce Boyer, my friend and adviser on all things sartorial, to contribute this guest post with some background on the topic:

Ever since the early 1960s, when the Designer Movement in menswear began with Pierre Cardin, John Weitz, and Bill Blass, there has been something of an ongoing discussion about the true custom tailor versus the haute couture menswear designer. As the price of high-end designer gear escalated over the years to approach — and in some instances eclipse — the price of a bespoke suit, that discussion has only intensified. I’ve had this discussion often over the ensuing years with both real tailors and designers (who can be thought of as haute couture “front men”). Each usually feels the other is unnecessary. The designer feels the tailor is merely a technician and has a minimal taste level and therefore can offer no style guidance to the customer. The tailor, on his side of it, feels the designer has no training or technical ability and therefore is more like a hemorrhoid: a needless, painful addition.

Writer Bruce Boyer (care of The Sartorialist)

The old tradition in tailoring was that the tailor simply did what the customer wanted. This was an acceptable modus operandi because most men who frequented tailors knew exactly what they wanted. But as the tailoring firms grew in size and reputation — particularly on Savile Row (at the end of the 19th century, Poole’s alone was employing 300 tailors) — and as those in the middle classes got a bit more money, the “front man” came into his own. Usually these were young, sophisticated men just down from Oxford or Cambridge where they had a wide range of friends whom they were expected to steer to their tailors). The firms employed these young fellows because they were well connected, charming, chic, and spoke well. They worked the front of the shop, and the technicians were called in after the cloth and styling had been chosen.

I don’t mean to obfuscate, but I tend to agree with both sides of this issue, not because I’ve got the world’s greatest diplomatic skills, but because both sides are right. Tailors are highly trained technicians with great skill and craftsmanship. It takes more years of training, apprenticeship, and practice to become a credible journeyman tailor than it does to become a physician. But many (either tailors or physicians) have no sense of taste or style because they simply don’t travel in the same circles as their illustrious clients or understand their lifestyles, interests, or point of view. On the other kid-gloved hand, most haute couture men’s designers couldn’t even sew on a button if you stuck a Berreta up their nose. But they may well have a high level of taste, go golfing with their clients, or be invited to dinner, and have their own exquisitely developed sense of style.

A suit by Anderson & Sheppard

So, what to do? The solution taken by many men interested in the more rarefied heights of accoutrement is to rely on those tried-and-true tailoring firms (Anderson & Sheppard, Caraceni, Poole’s, Nino Corvato, Leonard Logsdail, etc) because the styling is a known commodity, is already “set” (i.e., there’s a house style, and both the customer and the tailor know what this is, which avoids misunderstandings all around). There is a carefree certainty: neither the customer nor the tailor has to make any but the smaller decisions of detailing. When a man thinks about going to a new tailor, what he must know is merely what the preferred house style is.

But, again, should a man need real guidance, he must understand that most tailors will not deviate from their accustomed house style, regardless of what they may tell a prospective customer. They’re accustomed to cutting their cloth a certain way, fitting their customers a certain way, seeing their customers in a certain silhouette. The customer must find a tailor who agrees with him, because the tailor will undoubtedly not be persuaded to change the habits of a lifetime.

Designers are more given to experiment and often more concerned with styling. They also may be more sensitive to aesthetic concerns: does the shade of that blue worsted fabric you’re eying really suit your complexion? Might not a slightly longer or shorter jacket give you a better line and thinner appearance? Should you, at 5′ 4″ and 260 lbs, really be wearing that large a plaid pattern?

Master tailor Nino Corvato

I wouldn’t want to make a case for one or the other. It may simply come down to this: if you know exactly what you want, find the tailor who can do it for you. If you need guidance, you may want someone with a highly developed sense of style. I’m sure this will not endear me to either camp, but there you are. It’s like going to church, isn’t it? Many people attend and there’s a lot going on — but that doesn’t mean everybody understands it all.

Postscript: In my humble opinion, Nino Corvato (a character in MEN OF THE CLOTH) is an exceptional tailor who doesn’t need a “front man” because he’s in the enviable position of not having to “market” his services. And while he has his own “house style” or expression, he’s always willing to try new things to please his clients (within boundaries of good taste and reason).

Writer Gay Talese on the Tailoring Craft

I wanted to share an article I came across not too long ago written by Italian-American writer Gay Talese for Vanity Fair magazine’s web site a couple of years ago. I met Mr. Talese several years ago when I first started working on MEN OF THE CLOTH and was researching my characters and the world they inhabit. I had read Unto the Sons, his immigrant saga of how his family came to America. In the opening pages of the book, I loved how Talese described his Calabrian father and his tailoring trade as “the reputable but precarious life of an artist with a needle and thread.” It’s a phrase I’ve often borrowed.

I also knew that Gay Talese favored Brioni suits and was interviewed for the book Brioni: Fifty Years of Style. I recently watched an interesting video interview with him online in which he maintained that one of the lessons he took from his father was to approach his work as a writer in a way that is “not done quickly or casually, because it had to withstand time.” Needless to say, I share that view, for I’ve spent a great deal of time getting to know my characters and their craft, and building a trust and rapport with them.

In the article for the Vanity Fair site, “The Scion, the Stitch, and the Wardrobe,” he reminisces about his father, and his father’s cousin, Antonio Cristiani, a successful tailor in Paris. Talese characterizes these craftsmen as “an endangered species” — and indeed they are. He writes, “I’m mainly interested in is the aesthetics of the tailoring profession, and my small part within it as a patron, a preservationist, and an advocate of the perfect fit— and the idea that measurements can alter the mind.”

And here he expresses a sentiment I’m trying awfully hard to get across in my film: “When I’m wearing one of my custom suits, I’m in harmony with my highest ideals, my worship of great workmanship.”


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