A Tale of Two Tailors: Attolini and P. Johnson 

Jens Mortensen

As the new casualness influences what men need from a suit, a Neapolitan master and an Aussie upstart explain what sprezzatura looks like today.

Vincenzo Attolini, the founder of the fabled Italian tailoring dynasty, was quite the rebel. “Back in 1930, he practically invented the Neapolitan style,” says his grandson Massimiliano Attolini. I am sitting with Massimiliano and his father, Cesare, in the lounge of their store on New York’s Madison Avenue. The decor is modern and oligarch luxe: hardwood floors, black-lacquered cabinetry, cashmere blazers on mannequins that look down on a customer as he flips through swatch books piled on a glass planning table. “When my grandfather opened his shop in Naples,” Massimiliano continues, “the main style of the day was stiff, traditional English tailoring. Italians dressed like British gentlemen, but Italy is a warmer climate with its own style, and he wanted to create a suit that looked elegant but felt comfortable.”

One of Vincenzo’s radical innovations was to build his suit coats without the canvas lining that traditional Savile Row tailors still use to give a garment its shape. “Instead,” Massimiliano says, “he invented a new process in which he would sculpt the fabric, so it would hold its shape without the weight of the canvas lining.” Massimiliano, 51, grabs the fabric of my sleeve and bunches it together, knowing that it will quickly recoil and resume its original shape. “My father made this,” he says, spotting the handiwork of Cesare, who did my fitting on a trip to New York in 2003. The process of shaping a jacket without a canvas lining is time-consuming; it takes about 35 hours to make a bespoke Attolini jacket—the most popular being a strappato, three-button rolling to two. But the feel of the jacket is worth it—more like wearing a shirt or a chore coat than a handmade suit. You look proper but feel relaxed, and the sensation explains why well-dressed Italian men have a certain insouciance. “They wear the suit. The suit does not wear them,” says Cesare, who is in an elegant windowpane-pattern suit yet moves as if he’s in jeans and a flannel shirt.


Massimiliano Attolini, right, with his brother, Giuseppe, vice president of the family company. Courtesy Giulio Piscitelli/contrasto/Redux

Style icons such as the director Vittorio De Sica, the actor Marcello Mastroianni, and even the Duke of Windsor were drawn to the lightness of Attolini’s tailoring. Other stylistic signatures would follow, including the trumpet sleeve (it narrows at midarm and opens like a trumpet’s mouth at the cuff to produce a sleek silhouette) and the barchetta (“little boat”) breast pocket, whose curvature mimics the line of the chest. Today one of Attolini’s bespoke suits starts at $7,500 and takes eight weeks to produce. To keep up with demand the company employs 130 tailors in Naples and has shops (which also sell ready-to-wear clothing) in Naples, Baku in Azerbaijan, Istanbul, and New York, with another boutique to open in Miami this year. When I ask Massimiliano about how his family has responded to the new casualness, he appears horrified by the question. “There has been no change.”

While no one has succeeded in imitating Attolini’s “Look, Mom, no canvas” house style, the way men use suits is changing. Once hidebound banks such as JPMorgan Chase have relaxed their dress codes. Silicon Valley has cast its casual shadow on menswear. (Is that a cashmere hoodie under your suit jacket or are you just happy to see me?) Roller-case warriors, on business in Shanghai one week and Paris the next, pack a week’s worth of outfits into their Rimowas.

The world has changed a lot in the last five years, but tailoring hasn’t changed,” says a new suit maker to the game, Patrick Johnson. “We need to look at the lifestyle of our clients and be adaptive. These are guys who will never have to wear a suit again, but they still want to look put together. And the kind of guys who want a suit they can wear five ways.”

To get to Johnson’s shop in New York, you press an inconspicuous buzzer at street level marked P. Johnson Tailors before ascending to his white, modern showroom. An Aussie with that nation’s signature likability, he is one of a mere handful of modern-day tailors who is evolving the way men wear a suit. He has developed a reputation for his unlined and halflined jackets, and the new casualness has been this blond-haired and trim entrepreneur’s best friend. Aside from this location, the 36-year-old has two shops each in Sydney and Melbourne, and a newly opened London store just down the road from Soho House. His clothing is also being sold at Barneys’ new Chelsea location in Manhattan.


Patrick Johnson. Courtesy P. Johnson Tailors

P. Johnson Tailors started nearly a decade ago, when Johnson returned to Australia after several years in London, where he studied at Central Saint Martins and then worked as a pattern cutter for a small suit and shirt maker. Australia is both warmer and more casual than England, and these two factors influenced his aesthetic. “One of the advantages of being Australian is you know you’re a bumpkin, so you can view the world with open eyes,” he says. Back home, he sensed an opportunity to offer a suit that was a natural fit without a lot of padding. “Part of being Australian is that I’m not hamstrung by any tradition, and my first clients were Australians, who weren’t caught up in looking either English or Italian, so I started designing suits from the viewpoint that everything must look natural. It must look like the wearer owns it.”

Like the Attolini clan before him, Johnson quickly developed a global reputation (among menswear nerds) for a technical innovation. He removed the lining on his suits’ jackets so there was no fabric covering the seams. This makes a jacket cooler and allows the body to breathe. But a challenge with this type of tailoring is that the exposed workmanship demands more labor; otherwise the coats can look cheap. (Picture the seam that runs up the back of a suit coat. A poorly executed one will be two pieces of fabric quickly fused together. Daylight shines through when you hold it up to the sun.) In a Patrick Johnson suit coat, the seams and the rest of the coat’s architecture are on display, but the fabric is neatly folded and stitched.

A first appointment at one of the P. Johnson shops runs about 90 minutes, a good part of which is a conversation about the client’s lifestyle and the gaps in his wardrobe. Thirty minutes are devoted to a fitting. The suits are put together in the company’s workshop outside Florence and take roughly six to eight weeks. A tailor starts with house patterns and then manipulates them hundreds of different ways (as opposed to a bespoke suit, for which a paper pattern is drawn based on the client’s unique measurements). The garments come back to the showroom, where a second fitting is meant to tie up any loose ends. Suits start at $1,550 and can run as high as $3,000.

Collecting suits is not that different from collecting cars—some days you want to drive a vintage Ferrari California and other days a BMW Bavaria. There is a place for both an Attolini and a P. Johnson suit in a modern man’s closet.

 

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