THE NEAPOLITAN ”SARTORIA” EXPERIENCE
PART 1 – THE FIRST VISIT
One of the true secrets of the elusive Neapolitan suit lies in its birthplace: the “sartoria”, the quite and private tailor’s laboratory where every new dress project is envisioned by the customer and created by the skilled hands of the Maestro.
Unlike their Savile Row colleagues, Neapolitan tailors don’t use to display suits and sport-coats in street shop windows to showcase their product to the public.
They don’t need to lure their potential clientele because they’re already doing extremely well with their current customers, and they don’t want to expand their small business because they don’t want to compromise the unique quality of their craftsmanship by means of outsourcing part of the suit-making process or employing apprentices that are still too young to master the intricacies of the craft.
In Naples, bespoke fashion is first and foremost a matter of family tradition: many young men are introduced to the pleasures of custom elegance by their fathers, and some tailors are proud to serve up to three generations of gentlemen of the same ancestry: son, father and grandfather. Other customers are introduced by friends, business associates or by other members of the lively Neapolitan clothing artisans community (i.e. bespoke shirt-makers, tie-makers and shoe-makers).
The best Neapolitan tailors run their small business in medium-sized apartments located in one of the beautiful, historical palaces of the Chiaia and Toledo districts.
You enter the building’s courtyard, climb the old granite staircase (every ancient Neapolitan palace has a large, dark granite staircase) and you are you are greeted by the Maestro himself, usually wearing a tape measure around his neck.
You’re invited to have a seat in a comfortable armchair in the “salotto” (the room where the tailor receives his customers) and he invariably asks you: <Ve site giÃ pigliato o’ cafÃ¨ ?> (Did you already have a cup of coffee ?). It means that even if you’ve just had one on your way to the “sartoria”, you’re still supposed to drink another “tazzulella” with the Maestro.
You start discussing a series of topics (usuall unrelated to the purpose of your visit, like food, sports, politics etc.) until you express the wish to order a new suit.
That’s when you really have to open your heart to the Maestro, because he needs to know everything about your project (cloth, color and every possible detail) and about your personal style and tastes.
Unless you’re asking for something completely out of his standards (if that is the case he’s going to refuse your order) he’s going to politely express his own ideas and suggestions, and you better listen to him very carefully, because his advise is always straight to the point and aimed at addressing the strong points and exposing the growth areas of your project.
Then he proceeds to show you the cloth. Not just the little samples that you’re usually forced to choose from in so many tailor shops around the world, but entire, long pieces of precious British or Italian fabric, that you get the chance to admire in their full glory under the Neapolitan sun when the Maestro invites you to follow him outside, on the apartment’s balcony.
Once you’ve made your decision, he takes your measurements and writes them down along with his comments about your body type, including your evident and invisible physical defects. But no first visit to a traditional Neapolitan “sartoria” can be complete without a guided tour of the tailor’s laboratory.
You follow the Maestro in another room of his apartment, to the place where he and his small team of artisans perform the art of turning ordinary (and some times extraordinary) pieces of cloth into exquisite bespoke Neapolitan suits and sport-coats.
There’s no modern machinery in the laboratory room: everything is patiently handmade, down to the invisible, crucial details that remain hidden inside the jacket and the pants and that are of the utmost importance for the overall aplomb of the finished suit.
The thing that strikes you the most when you find yourself in the laboratory room of a Neapolitan “sartoria” is the total absence of noise and women. The ladies are usually out of the game because they are largely employed by the shirt-makers. As far as noises, all you get to hear is the gentle sound of the tailors arms moving back and forward, up and down to sew the cloth, the subdued sound of the heavy irons pressing the cloth on the boards and the soft, whispering voices of the employees.
Their concentration and technical skills are unbelievable: they’re a breed of proud, exacting craftsmen that live and work to keep alive a timeless tradition of excellence revered all over the world.
As soon as you leave the building, you can’t wait for the Maestro to call you and invite you to come back to the “sartoria” for your first fitting session.
PART 2 – THE FITTING SESSIONS
In Napoli, where the old masters of the trade are fastidious perfectionists, unwilling to compromise their reputation to accommodate the schedule of their customers, fitting sessions can really be like heaven and hell for the new bespoke aficionado.
While he yearns for his first custom suit to be completed and looks forward to wearing it as soon as possible, he understands that fitting sessions are an essential part of his learning curve, just like daily classes for a teenage student, and that he can’t skip them if he wants to graduate to the highest level of masculine elegance.
But the long pauses between fitting sessions can be really frustrating for the new-comers that grew up wearing nothing but RTW suits before they decided to go bespoke, because they’re used to get instant satisfaction from their apparel purchases.
An old Neapolitan Maestro used to tell me that many potentially good customers are lost forever to bespoke fashion because they give up too soon: they want a new fancy suit and they want it bad, and when they realize that they can’t stand the long wait they revert to buying their clothes off the rack.
It’s up to the wisdom of the tailor to do his best to ease the transition from RTW to bespoke by keeping the waiting time for the first orders of his new customers to the bare minimum.
Frequent, close visits to the “sartoria” are the key to keep the new customers interested and involved in the suit-making process, until they take delivery of their first suit. Then it’s up to them to understand the difference between their old RTW garments and their new, glove-fitting bespoke suits.
Five times out of ten, they’re hooked for the rest of their lives. Once the customer finds himself at ease with the slow pace of the bespoke ritual, fitting sessions are no longer viewed as a necessary annoyance, but as one of the real, hidden pleasures of the whole “sartoria” experience.
You realize that you have direct control over the suit-making process, and it feels great. You get the unique chance to discuss with the Maestro about the subtle intricacies of his craft, and you have the chance to guide him according to your taste and personal style and to benefit from his expert advise for the entire duration of the suit-making process.
Most Neapolitan tailors require that you report twice to their “sartoria” for fitting session. Most of them will agree to have just one “prova” (fitting session) if you’re already an old customer and they already cut a few good suits for you.
Some customers will even ask their tailor to have more than two fitting sessions, because they want to follow every little step of the suit-making process or just because they love to spend their time in the “sartoria” in the company of the tailor.
When everything is done and over, and the customer walks out of the “sartoria” with his new purchase, the most important asset of his investment is not the new garment hanging in the suit-bag: it’s the relationship that he established with the Maestro, it’s in the thousand little things that he managed to learn about the tailor’s craft and in his new perception and interpretation of his personal style.
But having the chance to influence the work of the Maestro means that you have to respect his own style and artistic inclination, and you don’t have to force him and push him too far. During the fitting sessions, you have to learn to “paint your picture” in the “framework” of his sartorial style.
That’s the main reason why many dedicated aficionados don’t have just one provider. Their “polygamy” is not based on a “playboy” approach to bespoke fashion. They understand that the Maestro that turns out those flawless flannel chalk-stripe suits might not be able to cut equally gorgeous tweed sport-coats. They undersatand that the pinched shoulder and large lapels that are the distinctive trademark of some Neapolitan tailors might be totally inappropriate in the case of relaxed, sweater-like fitting cashmere sport-coats.
If they want a summer linen suit with patch pockets, double stitching and a “light-as-a-breeze” Mediterranean look, they know who’s door they’re supposed to knock on to get their mission accomplished. There’s no such thing as a standardized, universal Neapolitan style. Every tailor, even those who where trained by the same Maestro, evolved an extremely personal interpretation of the Neapolitan cut and has every right to be proud of it.
Talking about fitting sessions, I would like to share a little hint of local history.
An old Maestro told me that many decades ago, when he was a young apprentice, most of the best customers belonged to the old Bourbon aristocracy and they had a lot of time to amuse themselves in the “sartoria” because they were not supposed to be personally involved in any kind of professional occupation (labour belonged to the bourgeois middle class and to the poor members of the working class). The affluent gentlemen of the high Neapolitan society used to spend endless hours perfecting their exclusive wardrobes down to the tiniest details, and they literally “trained” generations of tailors to work in a finical, exacting manner and to seal into their bespoke suits the patrician allure and the appetite for perfection of their aristocratic customers.
Many members of the Neapolitan gentry grew so affectionate to their custom tailors that they used to say (of couse in Neapolitan dialect) : “E’ mane ’n cuollo m’e ponno mettere sulamente mugliereme e o’ sarto” (“I allow only my wife and my tailor to touch me .”)
That’s how – through decades of countless, endless fitting sessions – the elusive, aristocratic style that is known as the “Neapolitan cut” came to life.
PART 3 – INSPECTING THE NEAPOLITAN SUIT
As soon as the fitting sessions ritual is over, the Maestro proceeds to finalize the suit-making process.
The sartorial finishing touches include some of the most important “ingredients” for the ultimate Neapolitan “taste” of the garment.
The button-holes are patiently hand-sewn with a fine silk thread. In the Neapolitan bespoke tradition, every one of them is hand-sewn, including the often forgotten suit trousers button-holes. The four, small buttons on the jacket sleeves are low-sitting (read: very close to the hand) and slightly overlapping, and even if all the sleeves button-holes are obviously hand sewn, many Neapolitan tailors prefer to leave only the two buttons that are closer to the hand open and working (of course, leaving them open or closed is up to every gentleman’s personal interpretation of elegance). On the most informal Neapolitan sport-coats (read: the ones with patched pockets and double-stitched seams), many Maestros prefer to put just one button on the sleeves.
Then it’s time to shape the suit with a generous dose (read: a few hours) of manual ironing. Special care is dedicated to ironing the most distinctive features of the coat: the collar and the lapels, in order for their tri-dimensional, elusive contour to be “sealed” once and forever in the jacket’s silhouette.
The collar is high and holds tightly to the neck: the old tailors use to say that “adda stÃ azzeccat ’o cuollo” (it has to feel like it’s glued to the neck) and that “o’ culletto da’ giacca napulitana Ã¨ comme l’abbraccio ’e n’amico” (the collar of a Neapolitan jacket feels like the arm of a friend around the neck).
The gorge is high and the lapels are large and soft.
On single breast coats, the lapels are usually shaped (by hand sewing the canvases and manual ironing the finished garment) to roll down to the second button, in the sartorial style that we call “due bottoni stirato – o strappato – a due” (three buttons rolled through).
If you turn the lapels of a bespoke Neapolitan coat and look behind them you’ll be really amazed by the incredible amount of hand-stitching that keeps them together.
The shoulders are one of the trademark features of the Neapolitan suit: natural and unstructured, with a minimal amount of pleating that usually shows only when the jacket has seen some use and the fabric has ”given” a little bit. Some Maestros like their coat’s shoulders to look really soft, understated and “egg shaped” (“spalla cadente”), others prefer the bolder, natural pitched shoulder look (“spalla insellata”). Another classic feature of the Neapolitan shoulder is the backward oriented center seam: it helps the un-padded shoulder to follow the natural curve of the man’s body and to hold tight to his arching lower neck and shoulder.
The breast pocket is always cut in the typical “fishing boat” style (“taschino a barchettella”), with minimal, but discernible differences between tailors, and it’s pretty wide and open-mouthed by international standards.
The front quarters of the coat are divided by a long, continuous seam that is supposed to enhance the elongating effect that has already been achieved by the roll of the lapels and by the higher-than-usual waist-line.
The sleeves are cut high below the arms, taper to a narrow opening as they approach the hands, and are custom shaped to arch and follow the natural forward curve of the arm.