Roman Holiday

In a large, airy room in the town of Penne, a few hours northeast of Rome, two dozen or so young men and one woman are meticulously basting collar-and-lapel interlinings with hundreds of tiny stitches. The task seems small, even inconsequential, but the mood is profoundly serious, intense. There's no music, and the air hums with concentration. It's the year 2001, but it could easily be decades earlier—everything about this place feels like an anachronism: the slow, careful pace, painstaking handwork, even the notion of having many skilled tailors under one roof. After all, machines could easily do the job, and who knows if the customers would ever notice the difference? But this is Brioni, and cutting corners is unthinkable.

"If a lapel isn't handsewn, it's rigid," insists Gianfranco De Matteis, director of production at the Brioni plant. "There's no give, you see, no roll. The stitching of the hems and the linings has to be done by hand, too, even though the buyer never sees it. It's simply better that way." It is this uncompromising attitude that explains why few companies have a luxury identity approaching that of Brioni. Their suits belong to a particular Roman—and at the same time worldly—heritage. When master tailors such as Nazareno Fonticoli, one of Brioni's two founders, arrived in the Eternal City, they saw and were influenced by how foreign visitors dressed. When they combined this with the Italian passion for newness and fashion, the result was international in scope, but with a sexy, fitted elegance that was more structured than the softer Neapolitan look. So was born Brioni's signature style.

It's more than just a distinguished silhouette, however, that has earned Brioni the fierce loyalty of its customers—everyone from novelist Gay Talese to tenor Luciano Pavarotti to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. It's the sheer amount of handwork that goes into each suit: almost 30 hours in some cases. By the time it is finished, a single jacket will have gone through more than 100 different manual processes, including 40 separate ironings. But while Brioni has always had a firm hold on tradition and quality, what it didn't have until lately was a grip on the future. In fact, say insiders, it was in danger of disappearing.

When Umberto Angeloni (a cultivated and thoughtful man who first joined Brioni in 1982 and is married to a granddaughter of one of the firm's two founders) took over as president and CEO of Brioni Group Worldwide in 1990, the then 45-year-old company was decidedly in retreat. Solely a men's tailoring firm, catering to private bespoke clients and providing boutiques and department stores in the United States and Europe with prêt-à-porter of the highest artisanal quality, it had painted itself into a corner, a niche market with little possibility of major growth. Though the company had long been adored by connoisseurs, it had no wider recognition. With the giants of the international ready-to-wear industry rapidly gobbling up more and more of the global market, Brioni was all too close to being eclipsed entirely.

Angeloni, a business-school graduate raised partly in Somalia (where his father wrote the constitution and legal codes for the emergent Italian colony), saw this immediately. He knew the company, which is privately owned, had to move in new directions or else die a slow death. Eschewing the licensing route, he chose instead to implement a careful strategy that is now coming to brilliant, and highly visible, fruition. Its goal: for Brioni to fulfill its destiny as a powerhouse international luxury brand.

To reinforce Brioni's reputation as the definitive name in hand-tailoring, Angeloni introduced a new and tightly controlled product range produced by artisanal companies such as Erreghe, Sforza, and Burini. As a showcase, a new three-story flagship store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills will open in March. Then, to establish Brioni's presence in the world's most exclusive resorts, a small store will open on the island of Capri in April, to be followed two months later by another boutique (this one five stories), on Avenue George V in Paris. Even more amazing, early this year Brioni launched its new line of haute-couture womenswear, shown on these pages.

Then there was the question of how to reclaim Brioni's place as an arbiter of men's taste. The answer: a series of lifestyle books defining the art of living well, Italian style, from a boutonniere style manual (published last year) to upcoming titles on single-malt whisky and men's watches, in addition to a collection of unique guidebooks to the luxury resorts where the company has recently established retail outlets—places like Portofino and Aspen.

Finally, Brioni's customers will be pampered as never before. The Milan shop on the Via Gesù, for instance, will offer sustenance in the form of Dom Pérignon, Macallan, and snacks from the Four Seasons, so that a client can spend all day there, customizing everything from suits to socks.In the big-city shops (with the exception of Milan, where Brioni is planning a separate ladies' flagship store), everything will be under one roof: everything they make—shirts, ties, belts, leatherwear, knitwear—not only in Penne but also through Brioni-owned companies.

So far, the grand plan is working. "What Umberto Angeloni has achieved is very special," says Wilkes Bashford, owner-founder of the famous San Francisco store bearing his name. "We've come to take for granted the universality of quality Brioni has always offered, its level of expertise, and its responsiveness to its customers. Because of the amount of handwork in their garments, they provide an unparalleled flexibility in developing the product."

Wilkes Bashford, which has carried Brioni for more than 34 years, is now one of their largest customers, and has even established a separate Brioni shop in both the San Francisco and Palo Alto stores. The genius of Angeloni is that he has managed to extend Brioni's reach, pleasing customers like Bashford without sacrificing the company's superb quality—and without turning his back for a moment on its remarkable history.

Named for a chic resort island in the Adriatic, Brioni began in Rome in the aftermath of the Second World War, when two men—master tailor Nazareno Fonticoli and Gaetano Savini, a fabrics expert with a flair for publicity—set up an atelier and shop together on the via Barberini. It was hardly the most auspicious time for a new tailoring business. Rome had become a backwater; materials were desperately scarce; and no one had money, except for visiting Americans. So Savini and Fonticoli began to experiment with whatever they could find: womenswear fabrics, upholstering materials (for ties and waistcoats), even silk. They made casual summer clothes out of linen, and jackets and coats out of jersey knit. In the process, they created their own escape-route from the strait-laced English bespoke style.

Within a decade Savini and Fonticoli had invented, more or less, not only what later came to be known as prêt-couture, but also the so-called Continental Look: soft-cut and streamlined, designed for comfort and versatility, but with a strong element of colorful, peacock pride in elegance. Americans soon took notice. Hollywood stars like Clark Gable, Victor Mature, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne came to be fitted out on the via Barberini. (Today, Brioni continues to be a Hollywood favorite, adorning everyone from Pierce Brosnan's James Bond to Richard Gere.) When Brioni was invited to show its hand-tailored ready-to-wear in Florence in 1952—in what was arguably the first male catwalk show in history—United States buyers and fashion writers outdid each other in their enthusiasm.

Americans recognized instinctively that Brioni was offering a radical alternative to the prevailing Ivy-League look: A style that was neither sloppy nor stiff (like the English style), but that seemed—due to lightweight fabrics and other refinements—to complement both the informality and the renewed exuberance of post-War America. Before long, Brioni menswear was in the windows o B. Altman & Co. in New York. From there it began a triumphal progress across the country.

"The fashion shows were a brilliant and inexpensive way to reach our potential audience," says Angeloni. And reach them, they did. Throughout the mid-to-late '50s, with hand-tailored fashions changing every season, Brioni showed in every major U.S. city from Boston to Green Bay. Savini, who organized the shows, became widely known as the "Men's Dior," the "Caesar of Style." No wonder. There were Brioni men's fashion shows in Canada, Sweden, Finland, and Britain. No venue was too grand or out of the way—from palaces in Iran and Indonesia to cruise ships and even a passenger plane. By the end of the 1950s, with the rise of air travel—for which Brioni was quick to produce crease-resistant gentlemen's traveling clothes—the company, from its little base near the via Veneto, had customers in over 40 countries.

Though the company's reach is still international, Brioni has remained steadfastly tied to its roots: Angeloni's headquarters are across the street from the original shop and atelier on the via Barberini. The linchpin of the company, however, remains the factory in Penne. Founded in 1959—when it became clear that the 90 tailors working away on the via Barberini could no longer cope with soaring customer demand—the plant was Nazareno Fonticoli's brainchild. Since he came from around Penne, he knew the area was rich in artisanal tailors whose small-workshop livelihoods were at risk from machine-made clothing.

Fonticoli wasn't interested in industrializing the tailoring process, but he thought it might be streamlined if he could persuade the tailors to all gather under one roof. He then encouraged them both to specialize in a single phase of production and to supervise the work of other skilled specialists—seamstresses and embroiderers—at every stage.

It was a brilliantly simple idea. Beginning with more than 50 handworkers in what is now the cutting room in Penne, the new system could produce in 20 hours what would take a lone tailor twice as long, and there was no loss of quality. In fact, quite the opposite. "Because of their comprehensive, innovative tailor training program, Brioni produces clothing that is as good, and in many cases better, than custom-made clothing," says Wilkes Bashford. "After all, a custom-made garment is only as good as the tailor who makes it. The expertise that the people at Brioni possess is, in almost all cases, far superior."

All was well at the plant for the first two decades of its operation, until Brioni realized that its well of tailoring expertise was fast drying up. So, in another savvy move, the company created its own tailoring academy in 1978. An institution virtually unique in Italy, it offers local teenagers with manual skills a four-year course in hand-tailoring taught by still-independent artisans. "We're the last custom-tailors left in the area," says one of the two teachers cheerfully. "My colleague here is sixty years old!"

As a result, Brioni—unlike other similar companies—is constantly supplied with fresh blood, ideas, and enthusiasm. But, De Matteis is quick to point out, "based on intimate knowledge both of fabrics and techniques." Graduates of the academy, he tells me, become drawers, cutters, and ironers in the factory. Later they become pattern-makers, deal with individual customers, and preside over trunk shows; one older graduate is even in charge of quality control. But all of them know hand-tailoring from the inside out.

The open-plan plant below the school is enormous, filled with all the trapping of a pre-industrial factory: pattern-drawers' and cutters' tables, as well as areas for lining-sewing, pocket-flaps, and sleeve-and-shoulder assemblage and the garments' final ironing. Nearly 1200 people, many of them women, work in two shifts, producing, by hand, 300 jackets—or 'sleeves,' as they're called—each day. The only people moving around on the floor are tailor-supervisors, who inspect and sometimes recall a 'sleeve' at any stage of its creation.

On a visit to the plant, after talking for a while to some of the buttonhole makers—"Sixty women to each shift, ten minutes per buttonhole," announces De Matteis crisply—and to the men in the pattern-development room, I meet up with Angeloni. He begins to pull out rolls of fabric from the shelves around him: tweed designs in cashmere; linen from Ireland and Northern Italy; Super 150s and Super 200s—the finest wools from flocks kept under shelter in controlled temperatures. "The people from the mills now actually come to me to offer exclusivity when they have something new," Angeloni says, "because they know that we produce in quantity and will do the best presentation."

To illustrate, he pulls out a roll of fabric made from Escorial, the wool of sheep descended from a flock given to King Philip II of Spain and now bred in Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand. Only a very limited amount of Escorial fleece is produced each year. It has an incredibly soft hand and a natural resilience built into the fibers, so that it stretches and doesn't wrinkle. Cashmere is about thirteen microns; the finest wools—the Super 200s—are below fourteen, and Brioni has exclusivity on about half of the fabrics they use. "But then," Angeloni says, almost shyly, "ninety percent of the materials here are so expensive that no one else can afford them."

On our way back to Rome, I ask Angeloni why he thinks that luxury, in the United States and in the rest of Europe, has come to be particularly associated with Italy. "Italians have always had a taste for fine things—rich or poor, it doesn't matter," Angeloni explains. "If you go into the villages around Penne, you'll see that every man has at least one beautiful, expensive thing—a coat, a hat, a special suit.

"Luxury," he continues thoughtfully, looking down at his hands: "It's a poor word in English, isn't it? It suggests something slightly sinful. But I believe that true luxury is not simply a question of money. It has to have a strong element of culture in it, of learning—which is something I think that Americans, particularly in recent years, have come to understand."

Jo-Durden Smith often covers travel, culture, and fashion for Departures.