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In Naples, the passage of time seems irrelevant. There are few clocks in the streets, and they are almost always wrong. It's as if Neapolitans were totally unconcerned with plans or appointments, and existed instead in an eternal present where all that matters is the show. Each Neapolitan—and there are more than a million of them—appears completely absorbed in the production of a one-person street theater in which everybody else is either an extra or a foil. Beckoning outside sunlit gateways of Renaissance palaces, they buttonhole each other in a competitive drama of prods and moues and whirling gestures. In the markets, under old walls and ancient fortresses, they barter and banter like stand-up comedians waiting for the opportunity to deliver some knock-'em-dead line. In the evening and on weekends, as if every eye were upon them, they peacock along esplanades and down avenues built by long-dead kings. And on weekdays, pell-mell and wheel-yanking, they defy the narrow street-plan the Greeks and Romans bequeathed the city, willing its squares into circles and treating the grinding, screeching traffic jam that's the inevitable result as if it were both a surprise and a personal tragedy.

They tend to ignore the history all around them, these scooter-hurtling, anarchic, operatic Neapolitans. Instead, they carry it inside, in the blood and in the bone. For however much citizens of the 20th century they may appear on the surface, they are still recognizably the children of old Vesuvius, the threatening volcano that looms over their city—superstitious, fate-full, given to lotteries, the cabala, and books of dreams. They're also the pleasure-loving creatures of a bay that long ago invented the holiday. (The oldest vacation home dug out from Vesuvius' lava dates from the early second century b.c.) So they love idleness and fireworks and dressing up for feast-day processions rooted in pagan times. Even the Italian dialect they speak with bewildering speed and intensity brims over with living echoes of the past. For it has the lazy gutturality of Arabic, the language of the traders and Barbary pirates they once hobnobbed with. And it bristles with a slew of words and phrases derived from German, French, and Spanish, a relic of the city's golden age, when foreign kings and emperors competed for the prize that controlled the central southern Mediterranean, the strategic key to world power in the Middle Ages. However sullied it may be today by its reputation for poverty and corruption, for 700 years Naples was a royal capital, full of castles and palaces, with a powerful local aristocracy. In the 17th century it was the largest city in Europe; in the 18th, the undisputed center of Italy; and even in the 19th—after Garibaldi's unification, when the last king abdicated—it remained the engine room of Italian culture. A proud place, it nurtured philosophers, playwrights, painters, and opera composers; and it was full of skilled artisans who, since anyone could remember, supplied the court with hats and gloves, shirts and bags—all the most up-to-date fashions. It comes as no surprise, then, to anyone who knows Neapolitan history, that today five menswear companies (Kiton, Luigi Borrelli, Isaia, Attolini, and Mariano Rubinacci) are making clothes that set the standard for unforced sartorial elegance in Europe, Japan, and the United States. For what the last half of the 20th century has seen is the successful revival of Naples' ancient but moribund artisanal tailoring tradition—one which led a turn-of-the-century visitor to say with truth, "The young smart-set in Naples is the best-dressed in Italy."

Not only are the largely handmade (or hand-finished) suits that these companies produce paradigms of the tailor's craft: With their high-set armholes, long and lean yet unrestricting silhouettes, and softly defined shoulders they're also touchstones in modern menswear design. The style is as Neapolitan as Pulcinella or Caruso, which is to say it mixes a certain classical formality (the cut was influenced by Savile Row) with a touch of theatricality (the fabrics are chosen with flair) and a decidedly Mediterranean insouciance (the construction is light, the effect easy-breathing). The appeal of the sartorial synthesis perfected by these five firms has proved to be universal; nowadays Neapolitan style is emulated even by northern Italian fashion houses.

The first of these Naples-based companies is Mariano Rubinacci, not necessarily because it's the best—who would dare judge among these passionate, explosive Neapolitans?—but because it's with the Rubinacci family that this story begins. They had been merchants in the 19th century, when they'd traded in Indian silks. "My great grandfather had become rich," says Mariano Rubinacci in his atelier and shop in the heart of the city. But Naples had not, and with unification in 1860 it began to sink into a slow but steady decline. By the beginning of the 1930s, far from being the center of an empire, the city had become a neglected, backward, provincial place.

"Neapolitans were still proud," says Rubinacci. "They tended to dress formally, wearing jackets even in high summer." But the court and its money had disappeared, and with them the high days of the luxury-goods trade. The tailor, hat-, glove-, and shoemaker had gone into retreat, condemned to the general poverty that settled over the city with the Depression. Certainly they were in no position to buy the rich fabrics that were the young Gennaro Rubinacci's special field. In 1931 he decided he'd have to set himself up as what his son Mariano calls "a personal stylist."

"But for this he needed a tailor," says Massimiliano Attolini, standing on the production floor of one of the two large factory-workshops the Attolini family owns in the city's suburbs. "Mr. Rubinacci—'Bebè,' as he was called—was a man of great taste, a connoisseur, who knew everyone. However, he needed someone with the technical ability to translate his ideas into reality. So he advertised in the newspapers. My grandfather, Vincenzo Attolini, who was working as a tailor with Caraceni in Rome, saw the notice and came back to Naples for an interview. He wore his best clothes—a double-breasted suit, spats, gloves—and carried a cane. They thought he was a rich customer!" Attolini pauses, juts his chin forward, flinging his hands wide. "It was a marriage," he says slowly, as the sewing machines whir around him, "made in heaven!"

It was also the beginning of the modern "Neapolitan" style. The fashion of the time was "very much influenced by English tailoring," explains Mariano Rubinacci, walking through his cutting room and waving up at the bolts of cloth piled almost to the ceiling. "It was stiff and constricting, like a uniform, with a lot of canvas and padding. My father created something entirely new: a jacket that had very little canvas, no shoulder pads, and no lining. The suit was draped directly on the body. It wasn't rigid. It was totally supple."

This may not sound like much. But the creation of the giacca was in its way as revolutionary a step as that taken by the first Roman who, on holiday in Naples, threw off his toga to take up the short mantle of the Greeks, the chlamys. It also required the sort of tailoring wizardry that was no longer routine in more industrialized locations. "Look," says Rubinacci, picking up an unfinished jacket from one of his tailors. "You see? The armhole is cut high and quite small; on the other hand, the sleeve is wider than usual, so to accommodate it there has to be gathered pleating at the shoulder. There are also three or four more centimeters' fabric at the back than in the front to allow for freer arm movement. Handsewing is essential to give the jacket greater flexibility. All these things allow it to settle more and more comfortably on the torso it's made for, like a second skin.

"The jacket was a brand-new style—in effect a new style of life," continues Rubinacci as he leads the way to the front of the shop. "It was soft and luxurious, like a beautiful sweater, and like a sweater it allowed for total freedom of movement." He veers aside suddenly to greet two marchesi—one in for a fitting, the other apparently just for a chat—and as I watch them talking, I realize how perfectly adapted to the ethos of the city his father's innovation remains: Appropriately for the climate, the Rubinacci jackets on all three men are lightweight, with almost no apparent substructure, and yet they're so beautifully molded to the body that the fabric stays unwrinkled and smooth. At the same time, I notice that their wide sleeves and high armholes allow the arms free movement, without any wrenching at the shoulder. These jackets elegantly accommodate the second language of Naples: the gesturing hands, waving arms, shrugging shoulders that I see being deployed here too.

The message in all this was not lost on a family called Borrelli—Anna, the matriarch, who handmade shirts for Rubinacci, and Luigi, her son. The Borrellis saw how successful the new style had become, attracting clients like Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III, actor-director Vittorio De Sica, even Edward, the Duke of Windsor to-be. They saw, too, how many tailors had been employed over the years by Bebè Rubinacci to meet the demand. So in 1957 they set up a shirtmaking company, doing what Rubinacci had done more than 25 years earlier: gathering highly skilled craftspeople into a common enterprise.

The atmosphere at the Borrelli workshop in San Sebastiano al Vesuvio is a world away from the plush calm of the Rubinacci atelier. Seventy or so mostly young women are deployed down the length of a long sunlit room, either crouched over sewing machines or bent over steam presses of various configurations. What's happening here is the first part of the shirt's assemblage, explains Fabio Borrelli, who has largely taken over the business from his father, Luigi: "A semi-industrialization" of the shirt's early manufacturing stages via "the perfect control of the machine." After the first four stages, he says, the shirts made under the Luigi Borrelli label are hand-finished by seamstresses, mostly working from home, "whose skills have been handed down from mother to daughter."

The results are extraordinarily beautiful. The shirts are tailored from exquisite fabrics: linens from northern Ireland and Switzerland, medium-weight poplins and dense silklike cottons designed—often in collaboration with the great textile company Riva in Como—for both summer and winter wear. The finish of each shirt is superb, as is its close-to-the-body drape. By the time a shirt is consigned to the seamstresses it has been ironed, in the words of one of the 70 assemblers, "extremely passionately" to preserve its ultimate shape. At this point handstitching is used to attach the collar, sew the yoke, and join the sleeve to the torso, "for flexibility," says Fabio, "and to allow the garment to breathe." The high-throated buttons are handsewn too, as are the buttonholes and those potent signifiers of the 100 percent handmade shirt—the triangular gussets that reinforce the bottom of the two side seams and the bar-tabs that strengthen the sleeve vents between elbow and wrist. All in all, the finished Borrelli shirt is a continuation of the Rubinacci jacket by other means. And it reminds me in an odd way of the Baroque palaces and churches in central Naples. For the best definition I have read of the Neapolitan Baroque is "the fusion of architecture, sculpture, and painted décor, and the absorption of detail into a spectacular and theatrical whole."

"Now," demands Ciro Paone, the owner of Kiton, "do you know Neapolitan history? The Spanish, the French, the coming of the English on the Grand Tour?" Paone could very well be one of the aristocrats who greeted them all in turn—and the Kiton factory his palazzo. For the entrance to the company's main building in the suburb of Arzano is floored and staired in marble, its atrium pillared, and the walls of Paone's first-floor executive offices lined with antiques and old pictures. Largely because of Paone's obstinate insistence on using only the most luxurious of materials and having all tailoring done completely by hand, Kiton (whose name derives from chiton, the Greek word for a tunic) has been the chief international standard-bearer for what Neapolitans call sartoria, or the art of dress. Charging the highest prices and aiming for the most exclusive audience, Paone has persistently refused to take his company down-market, to compromise its standards in any way. (In 1997 Kiton made fewer than 17,000 suits—that amounts to around 55 suits per day—about 3,500 of which were sold in the United States.) He appears to believe firmly that he is the one true inheritor—and curator—of Naples' sartorial legacy, and even recently purchased a morning suit made for the Duke of Windsor as if to prove it. By acquiring part of the wardrobe of Vincenzo Attolini's most famous international client, Paone was, in effect, claiming his mantle.

"Well? Do you want to see my tailors, then?" Paone says challengingly. And for the next hour and more he leads me on a conducted tour of the huge, perhaps 150-yard-long workshop in which 250 people busy themselves, from the cutters at long tables to the handsewers of the final assembly, where "the separated parts of the jacket come together like an old love affair." Along the way—sometimes darting forwards, then backwards, in the lines of tailors and pressers—he introduces me to every stage of the process "that makes the sensibility, the softness, and the elasticity of the real Neapolitan giacca": the soaking of the canvas to soften it; the rest periods that lightweight cloth needs between processes; and above all, the handsewing of the sleeves to the body, of the collar, and of the half-moon-shaped breast pocket, the barchetta, that's a hallmark of Neapolitan tailoring. Throughout the tour he makes constant reference to his city's past. "What's being done here is simply a truthful continuation," he says. "This approach is at least two centuries old. All the nobility, all the court, had their influence." He talks about Lo Struscio, the parade on the days before Easter—dating back to the time of the Spanish kings—when Neapolitans still dress up in their finest. He says he wants to found a museum of Neapolitan costume through the ages—to show the city and the world.

It is an extraordinary performance, in part coolly arrogant, but mostly infused by a quiet, humming, well-justified pride. For Paone—whose craggy, old-coin profile, long eyelashes, downset mouth, and thick, backswept mane are eerily reminiscent of Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman—has managed by sheer force of will to build Kiton into a leading international benchmark of quality without ever cutting any corners. The fabrics he uses—90 percent of them exclusive—are the best in the world: Scottish weaves loomed on old machines; Super 150 and 180 lightweights; even rare white vicuña, made from the chest-beard of the protected animal. Everything Kiton produces, moreover, is of the same no-expense-spared lavishness. Their ties are seven-fold; their shirts have handsewn collar-stiffener sheaths and hand-formed ruching at the top of the shoulders (as well as all the other, more routine detailing found in quality shirts). As he handles one of his shirts, Paone seems like an old Naples merchant-prince, one of those who must once have supplied the court with spices, precious stones, and silk damasks. And I'm reminded, as a further principle of Neapolitan style, of something Luigi Barzini, author of The Italians, once wrote about the southern Italian male: "He wants to be obeyed, admired, respected, feared, and envied."

After the imperial theater of Kiton, Isaia's workshop in nearby Casalnuovo is an altogether more familiar world; it's rather like visiting the early days of the industrial revolution, which Naples, under the empire, never really had. Though, like Kiton, Isaia was founded after World War II—by a trader in fabrics who organized local tailors—the company took a rather different direction. "My grandfather started to mix tail- oring and technology," says Gianluca Isaia, "combining handstitching with simple machine-stitching. Flexibility of this kind—the ability to do everything—was at the time very unusual," and it has since paid considerable dividends: Today Isaia makes clothes for Brooks Brothers, Paul Stuart, and Valentino Boutique (just as Borrelli does shirts for Valentino Boutique). Isaia also produces three separate lines of its own menswear, each with different degrees of hand-tailoring. The small Enrico Isaia line is almost entirely handmade, while the Isaia and Gianluca Isaia lines are machine-made but hand-finished. With Gianluca's collection aimed at the younger, more fashion-conscious buyer, the company covers the sartorial waterfront.

But even though they are top-quality, few of the fabrics used in these lines are exclusive. Gianluca, a dark, intense young man with a degree in economics from Bocconi University in Milan, believes this is unimportant. What is important for him, it's clear as he takes me round the cheerfully humming work floor, is "the look," and finding ways to deliver that look at a reduced cost without losing quality—out-sourcing presoaked light canvas rather than processing it himself, for example, or using old sewing machines that operate slowly enough to act as extensions of the human hand. In this, it seems to me, he's no less a proselytizer for the Naples style than Ciro Paone. But his instinct is that the most powerful tools are marketing and consumer education.

"We're doing better and better in the United States," he says, "precisely because Americans are getting to know more and more about craftsmanship, style, and quality." Certainly it is with Gianluca's help—he has me try on a plethora of Isaia jackets—that I understand some of the subtler effects (rules, almost) of sartoria. The chest of the giacca is rounded, the waist fitted, and the lapel-collar joined almost on the collarbone, which makes the torso look longer. But this combination of design elements also draws the eye to the upper part of the body, where it's seized by the large tie-knot made possible by the fact that the shirt typically has a spread collar. The entire ensemble, in other words, is perfectly adapted to a society that's characteristically involved in close face-to-face encounters—which could be a description of the whole world of modern business: Clearly all old Naples (and Isaia) had to do to succeed internationally was to wait for the new corporate culture to be born.

Which brings us back to the story of Bebè Rubinacci, the stylist, and Vincenzo Attolini, the tailor. By 1971, both men had died, leaving their respective sons to carry on their special legacy. Since then, Bebè's son, Mariano—tall and bespectacled; half-panther, half-owl—has joined the industrial age too. He produces a line of hand-finished, ready-to-wear suits and shirts that are sold in the United States and other markets. But one senses, as he prowls his emporium on Via Filangieri, his heart lies elsewhere; not in off-the-peg garments, however sophisticated, but in 100 percent hand-tailored bespoke suits that allow the exact matching of the individual customer to a fabric, a pattern, a style. Rubinacci remains, in other words, very much what his father was—a "personal stylist." He has added to his father's client list the names of such luminaries as Luciano Pavarotti and members of the Saudi royal family. He is reputed to use, for his clients' overcoats alone, fully 10 percent of the world's annual supply of vicuña.

Vincenzo's boy, Cesare Attolini, however, followed a different path—though his life, too, runs like a thread through the modern history of sartoria. In 1957, after having trained with his father, Cesare traveled north to become head tailor at a large menswear plant in Turin. But six years later, still only 32 but by now an experienced modellista (designer) and technician, he returned to Naples. There, at a firm called Falco, Attolini developed a method of canvas construction and loose stitching that allowed the production of the Neapolitan giacca by machine. Around 1970, because of his awesome tailoring skills, he was taken on by Ciro Paone, at the time Kiton was readying to introduce itself to the American market in 1975. Attolini then joined Isaia as technical and design advisor, further spreading the knowledge of how to produce the jacket by machine. Only in 1989, chivvied, one suspects, by his three sons and encouraged, perhaps, by the success of the other companies, did he finally decide to set up on his own. In the nine years since then, Attolini has been transformed from a small four-man atelier into a two-factory enterprise employing 170 people, producing suits and jackets for other clients and three special collections of its own: Cesare Attolini (a completely handmade bespoke line of high quality), Sartoria Attolini (a completely handmade ready-to-wear line), and Sartorio (a hand-finished line, designed for a younger market, to be introduced in the United States in the near future).

They're an extraordinary family, the Attolinis—Cesare, the old master-tailor who can still draw a suit pattern straight onto the cloth by eye alone, and his three sons: Vincenzo (who also trained as a tailor and designer), Massimiliano, and Giuseppe, who between them take care of personnel, quality control, fabrics, styling, and sales. They all talk constantly, touching each other and bristling with ideas. When I visit the two workshops I feel like a net in a tennis match, with comments being batted across me in rallies. ("Look at this cellular cashmere." "No one does cashmere like us, with our workmanship." "Cashmere, Super 100, 150, 180—all slippery like an eel." "Americans like Super 100—they think lightness is important." "But Super 120s travel better." And so on.) On family occasions, it is said, their wives have to separate them forcibly, simply to prevent them from talking shop the whole time.

I spend a day touring the two Attolini factories, going once more through the details of the Neapolitan look—the unengineered shoulders, the gathering at the top of the sleeve, the barchetta-shaped pocket, and the high armhole that they assure me "no northern tailor has the skill to achieve anymore." By the time I say goodbye to them, after a long and very merry restaurant dinner, wives and all, I recognize that I have fallen a little in love with their city that is so in love with its own look, its own show.

Later, as I gaze out from my hotel balcony towards Vesuvius and Capri, I ponder the strange confluence of substance and accident—the weather; the dramatic geography; the Baroque sensibility; the English visitors; the Norman, German, French, Spanish, and conquerors; the royal courts; the street theater; the love of display; the tradition of craftsmanship—that has contrived to produce Neapolitan sartoria. And then, as I look back over the lights of the still hustling, bustling city, I remember that even the local Mafia, the Camorra, is named for the short jackets once worn by its footsoldiers when they walked the Naples back streets in the time of kings, of princes.

Neapolitan clothing can be found at the following retail shops:
Attolini Barneys New York, New York; 212-826-8900; Rippelsteins, Santa Fe; 505-820-1020; or call 212-246-7034 for further information. E. Marinella Naples, Italy; 39-81-7644214. Isaia Bergdorf Goodman Men, New York; 800-505-9808; Louis Boston, Boston; 800-225-5135; Harry Rosen, Toronto; 416-972-0556. Kiton Bergdorf Goodman Men; Neiman Marcus, nationwide; 800-937-9146; Louis Boston; Wilkes Bashford, San Francisco; 415-986-4380; Ultimo, Chicago; 312-787-1171; Stanley Korshak, Dallas; 214-871-3600; Harry Rosen. Luigi Borrelli Bergdorf Goodman Men; Neiman Marcus; Louis Boston; Wilkes Bashford; Harry Rosen. Mariano Rubinacci Neiman Marcus, select stores; Bergdorf Goodman Men; Kilgore Trout, Cleveland; 216-831-0488; Taylor Richards & Conger, Charlotte; 704-366-9092; Garys, Newport Beach; 714-759-1622; or call 781-407-0600 for further information. For shoes: Silvano Lattanzi Bergdorf Goodman Men; Barneys New York; Louis Boston; Ultimo. Sutor Mantellassi Louis Boston; Bergdorf Goodman Men.


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