Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Rubinacci / Napoli / Rubinacci and the Story of Neapolitan Tailoring by Nick Foulkes.

Rubinacci in London
Bespoke Tailor on Earth
Rubinacci, the legendary Neapolitan atelier, will make you the suit of a lifetime in just one week.

By David Coggins | September 20, 2016
Photographs by Salva Lopez

From Bloomberg Pursuits

Never lie to your tailor. Armed with a tape measure, he knows your body better than you do. He sees it with almost X-ray vision, noting with clinical accuracy that your left arm is an inch longer than your right, or that your right shoulder slopes a half-inch more than your left.

I know this rule, but inside the 16th century palazzo that houses Rubinacci, the most renowned bespoke tailor in Naples, I’m standing like it’s roll call in the army. And when the tape measure goes around my waist, I try to suppress the urge to inhale. As my tailor, Andrea, reads out the circumference, in centimeters, and in Italian, I wince, thinking of all the linguine alle vongole and spaghetti con ricci di mare I’d eaten at Da Dora, a beloved, delicious seafood restaurant a short walk away.

Rubinacci suit fitting
Rolls of fabric in the Rubinacci atelier; Andrea, the head cutter, adjusts the basted jacket during the author’s first fitting.
Photographer: Salva Lopez for Bloomberg Pursuits

“Bespoke” is now a marketing buzzword, but it originally meant a bolt of wool fabric that a gentleman had ordered for a suit—it was “spoken for.” A true bespoke suit is cut entirely by hand, a process that at Rubinacci requires 54 man-hours and is based on a paper pattern cut specifically for you.

The Rubinacci family has been in the bespoke business since 1932, when Gennaro Rubinacci, an art collector with society connections, established the company, dubbing it “The London House” to remind customers of Savile Row. “Bebè,” as he was known, had a radical idea: to make unstructured, unlined jackets meant to be worn out of the office. He hired tailors to follow his direction and used English fabrics for suits and sport coats that felt entirely new to his Italian customers.

The designs took off, and his clients were some of the most stylish men in the country, including filmmaker Vittorio De Sica and Curzio Malaparte, the journalist whose modernist Capri house was featured in the Jean-Luc Godard film Le Mépris. When Bebè’s son, Mariano, took over in the early 1960s, he renamed the company Rubinacci but continued the London House style. It’s defined by its high armholes (elegant in appearance, comfortable in practice), minimal construction (for a natural fit, as opposed to the more formal British jacket), and coveted soft shoulders.

“I’ve known Mariano Rubinacci for over 30 years and have never seen the firm produce a bad suit,” says G. Bruce Boyer, men’s fashion expert and author of True Style. The company is now run by both Mariano and his son, Luca, who has kept his family’s attention on fabrics—he estimates they have 200,000 feet of vintage cloth in stock.

There are many great suitmakers in Naples—Kiton, Isaia, Cesare Attolini—but Rubinacci sets itself apart in a distinct way. The company can make a bespoke suit, at a starting price of $5,480, in about a week. It’s not something that’s advertised or promoted. Turning around a handmade suit that quickly requires the concerted attention of jacket and trouser cutters who work more than five hours a day over that week on a single suit.

For those put off by the thought of a monthslong series of fittings, this is an answer to prayer. And it’s why I’ve come to Naples, to the company’s headquarters on a secluded section of Via Filangieri, in the historic center of the city. The morning I arrive is hot and humid, yet as I walk down the Chiaia, the city’s central pedestrian street, none of the Neapolitans seem to mind. I’d already taken off my sport coat and loosened my tie, but the men here all wear suits as if the heat doesn’t affect them at all.

Up a curved cobblestone ramp is a courtyard, where the red awnings say “Rubinacci” and potted plants are set against the stone facade of the ancient building that holds the store and atelier. Inside, the shop is full of bright, colorful silk ties and pocket squares, a vivid reminder of the family’s history in textiles. Upstairs, in a high-ceilinged room with an old-world couch and mirror, are stacks of fabrics. Some are waiting to be made into shirts, but most will become suits.

The measuring process at Rubinacci is a communal activity. Andrea has been making the jackets here for more than a decade. He wears a dark brown peaked-lapel jacket that’s nattier than anything you’ll see at Pitti Uomo. Alessandra Rubinacci, the founder’s granddaughter and my consigliere, oversees the process and translates into English. At many tailors, discussions with the head cutter are very much man-to-man. Not here. Alessandra navigates me through preferred fabrics, cuts, and other design details. She’s worked here since she was 17 and is clearly in her element. “This is my family company,” she says. “Men want to look good for women, anyway.”

Andrea asks to see the jacket I arrived in—one not made by Italian tailors. He holds it up, looks at it inside and out, and measures it as well. The one he makes will be longer than this one, he clarifies, by a centimeter or two. He thinks it helps the continuity. It’s not a verdict against me or my coat, but it feels like one. The whole process makes me feel very vulnerable, like getting a sartorial audit.
Rubinacci suit fitting

The author tries on trousers, and Andrea tests the fit of the jacket as Alessandra, the founder’s granddaughter, looks on.
Photographer: Salva Lopez for Bloomberg Pursuits

Then Lino, a tall, handsome man in his 30s who specializes in trousers, steps in. He measures my waist, of course, but also my legs from top to bottom, front and back. He asks me, with grave importance, do I want cuffs? I say yes. How high will they be? Some Italians prefer a robust 6cm cuff, so tall they will not be ignored. For this suit we agree to the more traditional 3cm cuff. It’s marked in chalk so I can visualize it.

I already have a pretty good idea of what I want. Rubinacci makes a smart double-breasted suit—it’s one of Mariano’s staples, a pinstripe version worn with a knit tie—and the house has made six-button, double-breasted jackets since back in Bebè’s day. “It’s an easy, elegant look with that unmistakable Italian attitude and style that men find incredibly appealing,” says Bruce Pask, men’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman.

Although Mariano dresses relatively conservatively (at least for an Italian), his son, Luca, is a study in sprezzatura—purple trousers, mixed patterns, velvet Belgian loafers, and wrists covered in string bracelets. He models the company’s suits in its advertisements around Naples, and he also turns up on GQ’s international best-dressed list and style websites such as the Sartorialist.

Andrea shows me one of the double-breasted jackets he’s working on. It’s lovely, but I tell Alessandra, who communicates to Andrea, that I want my lapels a little larger, about an inch wider. Truth be told, I have a large head, and a wide lapel helps make it look smaller. (A relationship with a tailor involves sharing uncomfortable truths—even about parts of you the suit doesn’t cover.) Andrea takes a piece of chalk and draws on the suit a new, wider, slightly rounder lapel.

Now a question of fine distinction: Where will it button? Traditionally, a double-breasted coat has two decorative buttons on top and bottom, and you use the middle two to fasten the suit, but a few men such as Luca himself have their suits made so that the jacket buttons only at the bottom. I think, Why not? I’ll do as Luca does.

Alessandra raises an eyebrow. “Are you sure?” she asks. I nod. Andrea takes the bolt of fabric under his arm, and he and Lino climb the set of stairs up to the atelier. The cutting is about to begin, and, like taking clippers to a beard, once you’ve made the first cut there’s no going back.

Two days later, I return for my first fitting to the same cast of characters. I’m given an espresso—this is Naples, after all. The suit is barely held together with what are called basted stitches. It has no lining, no pockets, and will be pulled apart again after I leave, then put back together with the new alterations taken into account. Andrea pulls in and then lets out the jacket from behind, so I can see how it will look at various widths.

Rubinacci suit fitting
Andrea and other craftsmen fine-tune the suit.
Photographer: Salva Lopez for Bloomberg Pursuits

But then I realize something I should already have known: I’m no Luca Rubinacci. The buttons haven’t been sewn yet, so as the tailor pins it shut where the button will be, I see that the line of the lapel falls at a steep diagonal across my body, below my waist, down to my hipbone—not near the navel, where most jackets close. It’s almost like wearing a jacket with the ease of a cardigan.

Which is fine for a Neapolitan. But for me it’s a little too expressive, too relaxed, and, well, too Italian. Alessandra seems to sense this. “That’s why we have the first fitting,” she says with a smile. Andrea pins the jacket where the new button will go, and instantly it looks more appropriate. A new chalk mark is made.

I follow Andrea upstairs from the elegant showroom to the atelier, where 20 people work around cutting tables that are specifically large enough to accommodate an unrolled bolt of fabric, the standard measure for all suits. There are large scissors and packs of cigarettes. I’m surprised by how quiet it is. Other than the local radio and some conversation, there’s hardly a sound. It hits me: There are no machines.

Over the course of the week, I frequent Café do Brasil and Caffé Mexico, local favorites. Neapolitan men live and breathe tailoring, and they share their opinions about their tailor (and those they pointedly don’t use) with ease and conviction. I meet more than one man who will buy a good bolt of fabric when he sees one and then take it to his shirtmaker. E. Marinella, a tiemaker on the Riviera di Chiaia, opens at 6:30 a.m., so men can pick one up on the way to work.
Finished Rubinacci suit

Coggins in the Rubinacci courtyard in the finished suit.
Photographer: Salva Lopez for Bloomberg Pursuits

Two days later, my suit is almost done. Rubinacci can make a suit without the second fitting, but it’s a good idea to have one. The buttons are sewn; the lapels are cut. I admire the handwork visible in the buttonholes—they stand up higher, and each stitch can be seen individually—as opposed to the uniform, flat feel of machine-made ones.

Exactly one week after arriving in Naples, I’m standing in the courtyard wearing the final product. It’s surprisingly cool, despite the heat. I thank Andrea for his work. He seems to enjoy seeing the link between his skill and a man heading out into the world, even though I may not have been as daring as a true Neapolitan such as Luca. But, as he says, “When a gentleman comes to Rubinacci, we try to discover the style he has inside.”

Bespoke suits start at $5,480, including a six-night stay at Casa Rubinacci. Call +39 081 415-793 to make an appointment.

Book of the week – Rubinacci and the Story of Neapolitan Tailoring. in
This year has seen the publication of some fine and important books. I’ve spent nine years anticipating Jonathan Frantzen’s Freedom, while others, like Proust’s Overcoat by Lorenza Foschini and The General by Jonathan Fenby rather crept up on me. However, the book of the year, in tailoring terms, is undoubtedly Rubinacci and the Story of Neapolitan Tailoring by Nick Foulkes.

As the only Neapolitan tailoring house to successfully export its bespoke services Rubinacci is the foremost tailor from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. As such the book’s principal appeal is that it illustrates the details that make Neapolitan tailoring special. These details – the breast pockets, the stitching, but most importantly the soft shoulders – are clearly captured by the excellent photography.

There’s also a good account of how the Rubinacci family rose to be one of world’s pre-eminent tailoring dynasties (the Cundeys and the Skinners on Savile Row also deserve a mention). But of equal interest is the way that Foulkes explains that there’s no such thing as Italian tailoring, there is Neapolitan tailoring and there is northern Italian tailoring – remember that Northern Italy starts at Rome.

The appeal of Neapolitan jackets is that they are built for the heat, with minimal construction. This makes them easy to wear and comfortable and gives them a relaxed look that is at odds with Savile Row’s traditional military-inspired cut. For bespoke connoisseurs there’s an unbridgeable gap between these two approaches, and the incredible vintage clothes that appear in this book make an eloquent argument in favour of the Neapolitan tailoring tradition.

Rubinacci and the Story of Neapolitan Tailoring by Nicholas Foulkes is available to buy now.

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