Italy's oldest tailoring firm is now challenging Savile Row with its innovative designs
The concept of men's fashion, says American writer Jay McInerney, "was practically invented in a small shop on Rome's Via Barberini." While Dior was busy in post-war Paris creating his "New Look" for women, the new Italian firm Brioni set up in Rome to tempt men with clothing that offered a brighter palette, innovative fabrics and a more relaxed design, challenging the traditional strictures of English tailoring which had set the standards for menswear.
Taking the name of an island in the Adriatic off Trieste which had been a favourite haunt of Italian and European belle-monde before the Second World War, swashbuckling tailor Nazareno Fonticoli and his charismatic salesman business partner, Gaetano Savini, started the company in 1945. These innovators recognised there was a male population desperate to gloss over the privation of post-war life. And that presenting the bella figura was of great importance to the Roman man, explicitly undertaken as a means to display his finery.
Business thrived as Brioni benefited from the economic upturn in the Fifties and was patronised by the glamorous American actors who travelled to the nearby film studios at Cinecitta. Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, John Wayne and Rock Hudson were some of the many stars who stopped by at Via Barberini, recognising Brioni's innovative styling as fresher than the more formal, British-inspired designs they could buy back home.
"The problem with tailoring today," says Brioni CEO Umberto Angeloni, "is that it is considered conservative. It was not always the case, especially with bespoke, which used to be the most avant-garde option." Brioni designs certainly broke the mould: creations included a bright red shantung tuxedo jacket, a pearl-coloured dinner jacket over a double-breasted pink waistcoat and cobalt blue trousers. This appreciation of the glamorous and the theatrical extended into all areas of the business. This was the first men's fashion house to hold a fashion show, in 1952, and at a time when male fashion models didn't exist, Brioni's boys became catwalk regulars as the firm staged almost one show a month for the next 25 years.
Now Brioni is on a roll again. London recently joined Milan and Rome as locations for Brioni ateliers, offering the fusion of production-line and personal customisation which is the backbone of the business today. Before 1960, all Brioni's garments were bespoke - entirely hand-made. That year, the company introduced a ground-breaking technique of semi-automating the production process - another first. Angeloni explains the difference: "Bespoke is where the suit is made from your measurements exclusively, from scratch. We still do this, in Milan and Rome. Everyone now says they do bespoke, but what they mean is made-to-measure. That is where an existing suit design is adapted to your shape."
Bespoke tailoring is what Brioni do so elegantly for Pierce Brosnan's James Bond. It's a perfect collaboration. "The art of living well is the Italian way," explains Angeloni, an urbane fifty-year-old, brushing an invisible thread off his immaculately tailored ivory suit. Is it at all ironic that Britain's fictional embodiment of living well should be dressed by Italians?
Brioni is at 32 Bruton Street, London W1
By Peter Howarth