Inside Planet Brioni

Amid the pricey real estate of Milan's Via Gesù, the house of Brioni has created a universe of luxurious shops, ateliers, and even its own hotel suite for overnighting. Lee Marshall reports.

In the Brioni bespoke atelier on Milan's Via Gesù, the company's senior tailor, Mauro Stracci, is telling me about the day a Japanese sumo wrestler came in to have a suit made. "He challenged us to come up with a suit that not only fit him but also looked good," Stracci recalls. "We had to use eight meters of material instead of the usual three, and the fabric for the trousers took up the whole of the central worktable. But we did it."

Listening to a new customer who steps in through the discreetly marked door of the inner sanctum to the Brioni cult is the first thing Stracci and the five other tailors try to do. "We let them talk," Stracci explains, "while we form a mental photograph of them—the way they look, but also their character and taste."

In one corner of the studio hang the paper forme, also known as the tailor's models, from which the custom suits are created. Each is marked with the name of a famous client: Maestro Luciano Pavarotti, Mr. Pierce Brosnan—Bond, and Presidente Nelson Mandela (a neat, dapper outline). "The forma is more than just a record of a bespoke customer's measurements," Stracci says. "It's the blueprint of a personal style."

Next to Pavarotti's ample, dismembered silhouette is the workshop's most sacred relic—the forma of company CEO Umberto Angeloni. Impeccably elegant, Angeloni is a walking testimonial to the Brioni look—like his suits, he is tailored but not rigid, suave without being remotely unstructured. One of Stracci's most demanding clients, he is a firm believer in the importance of the bespoke operation within what he calls the Brioni archipelago.

Made-to-measure accounts for an impressive 25 percent of Brioni's annual turnover, and its relevance is reflected in the company's 2003 decision to move the custom shirt-making operation and create a men's atelier in the courtyard of 2A Via Gesù—the main "island" of the Brioni archipelago, where both showroom and offices are located. "Meter for meter, this is some of the most expensive real estate in Milan," Angeloni says, "so using it as a place where eight formidable seamstresses can sew collars on shirts may seem a little extravagant. But it's important to have some human warmth in an area that's dominated by cloned boutiques."

Though only two years old, the shop looks as if it has been around forever. Even the leisure area of the atelier, where preferred clients can relax over a flute of Dom Perignon, has an air of old-world luxury. It comes across as a London gentlemen's club that has undergone a subtle makeover by a globe-trotting luxuriant (one of Angeloni's favorite words).

French artist Gilles Dupuis spent three months decorating this intimate space. The trompe l'oeil flourishes, plush leather armchairs, and antique Sicilian marquetry cabinets help create a sense of unhurried calm, even at the busiest times of year, such as Milan's fashion week. "We're about being slow," Angeloni says enigmatically, "not because it's idle but because it's rich."

Brioni's colonization of Via Gesù continues along the road at No. 3, where the off-the-peg men's store occupies a circa 1890 building, with an original painted ceiling on the upper level. The women's shop at No. 4, designed by Pierluigi Cerri, has a more contemporary, minimalist feel. But this is minimalism deluxe.

The handleless drawers on the cabinetry are all silver-plated and the covered courtyard that forms the Spazio Brioni at the center of the shop looks austere. That is, until the floor is removed to reveal a pool, which, for a recent presentation, was filled with lotus flowers and koi. Even the Four Seasons hotel, Via Gesù's other star attraction, has not been immune to creeping Brionization. The Brioni Suite, inaugurated in April 2004, is no shallow branding exercise: The side suite nestled against the roof tiles has long been Angeloni's home away from home, in the heart of Milan. "I've stayed at the Four Seasons around sixty nights a year for the past eight years," says Angeloni. "It would have been cheaper to buy an apartment."

In addition to being the CEO's pied-à-terre, the Brioni Suite boasts a multitude of unique features. Its custom bath amenities can't be found in any other room of the hotel, or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world. Ditto for the decor, which consists of extraordinary pieces, among them a marble bust of a blindfolded "god of luxury" by sculptor Pieter von Balthasar, a rebus puzzle in inlaid wood by contemporary Sicilian artist Giuseppe Amato, and a painted stool from central Africa in the dressing room.

Angeloni also compiled 22 love poems by writers from around the world. Published by Brioni Books, the label's publishing arm, the volume is given exclusively to guests who stay in the suite. "If you have a copy," Angeloni says, "it means you have slept in the Brioni Suite."

With the Brionization of everything Milano, one may be tempted to call Angeloni a master of marketing, especially when he makes scathing remarks about other designers' entries into the hotel, restaurant, and lifestyle markets. To him, Ferragamo, Bulgari, and Armani's moves in this direction are merely "branding exercises with little added value." He would say this of course—but the comment carries more authority when you consider that Angeloni would say no to a proliferation of Brioni Suites.

Yet, more islands are about to be added to the Brioni archipelago on Via Gesù. In spring 2006 (Italian builders permitting), Brioni will launch its first restaurant venture, a collaboration with Milanese superchef Gualtiero Marchesi. As with the others, a lot of thought has gone into this one-of-a-kind project to make sure it will be right for the brand: It will be inside one of the city's most charming museums, the Museo Bagatti Valsecchi. The Bagatti Valsecchi brothers were art collectors who filled this neo-Renaissance palazzo with a mix of exquisite original works—a Santa Giustina by Giovanni Bellini, for one—and clever replicas. The ground-floor restaurant will include a Brioni room, where everything from the table linens to the choice of whiskey will be sourced or supervised by Angeloni.

By autumn next year, the final piece will fall into place with the opening of the Brioni room at the Four Seasons spa. According to Angeloni, the idea is to re-create the "flairof ancient Roman baths, which were vibrant, uninhibited, international places."

While he is a man of considerable business sense, there's no doubt that Angeloni is dedicated to the luxury lifestyle he so persuasively promotes. "It's a state of mind," he says. "Part of the essence of luxury is to always be curious, inquisitive." That's his excuse, at least, for leading this writer into a serious comparative tasting of well-aged single-malt whiskeys after lunch. So if an island named Brioni suddenly emerges off the west coast of Scotland, just remember: You read it here first.

Brioni atelier, 2A Via Gesù; 39-02/7631-8718; suits from $3,600. Brioni women's shop, 4 Via Gesù; 39-02/7639-4019. The Brioni Suite at the Four Seasons, 6-8 Via Gesù; 800-819-5053; $3,475 per night.


Island Life: Brioni off the Croatian Coast

It's no coincidence that Brioni CEO Umberto Angeloni uses the word "archipelago" to describe his company's lifestyle universe. As any self-respecting island bore knows, a real Brioni archipelago does exist: BRIJUNI ("Brioni" in Italian) is a scattering of flat, forested islands just off the Istrian coast of Croatia. Between the two world wars, these islands were aristocratic Europe's favorite summer playground, with tanned, blue-eyed earls on the polo fields and Hungarian countesses with unpronounceable names swanning down to dinner in little Balenciaga numbers.

So when enterprising Roman tailor Nazareno Fonticoli and his business partner Gaetano Savini founded an innovative luxury menswear company in 1945, they decided to call it Brioni. The two were selling more than just suits—they were offering a dream of effortless, moneyed elegance. The hope was that some of the shine of the ultraluxe archipelago would rub off on the company. The islands eventually lost their varnish, however, when former partisan leader Josip Broz, otherwise known as Tito, became president of Yugoslavia and turned the Brijuni Islands into his private fiefdom.

Now Brioni the firm wants to give something back to Brijuni the archipelago. "The Brijuni Islands need Brioni to regain their status," says Angeloni, "and we need their history and heritage." Working in tandem with the Croatian government, Brioni plans to build a luxury spa resort on Veliki Brijun, with a maximum of 400 rooms, spread out among two hotels and several villas. Already the firm has instituted the Brioni Polo Classic, a three-day international tournament. The debut in July 2004 saw the return of polo ponies to the islands for the first time since the thirties. After the 2005 season ended, the islands closed for a massive 18-month makeover. When they reopen to select visitors in 2007, they will be, promises Angeloni, "a Capri or Davos in the Adriatic"—the kind of place where Pierce Brosnan would feel perfectly at home in a Brioni suit, sipping a shaken-but-not-stirred martini.