Cifonelli: Bespoke in the 21st Century (Part I)


Cifonelli: Bespoke in the 21st Century (Part I)

There is no doubt that legendary Bespoke house Cifonelli has an exceptional story to tell. There are two main reasons why this family business is almost unique in the world.

First, there is the unique style of the creations (and creations they are: client after client, suit after suit). Each one displays a unique blend of typically British strictness and Italian creativity, topped with a quality of finish à la française. Such “fusion”, unique in the sartorial art world, certainly remains the DNA of a traditional label whose style is a lot more eclectic than what its name would suggest at first glance.

-Then, there is the family history of a house still 100% in the (expert) hands of its 4th generation, steering the company through its transformation from confidential storefront for insiders into world class luxury brand. The family has accomplished the feat of passing on its savoir-faire to the next generations without giving in to big luxury conglomerates. The family has also resisted the temptation to promote (or bank on?) its famous name through mass distribution, unlike what is done by some tailors of the Row, such as Henry Poole expanding in China and beyond.

One might suggest that the marketing of tradition has become essential for any enterprise linked from near or far with a specific trade. Several tailoring houses have a narrative that tells of a savoir-faire passed down from distant generations. Dozens of label names end with the very popular “& Sons” while an increasing number seems to have been “founded in 1860”, a historical claim that can – and indeed often goes unchallenged. Let’s just make it clear that Norton’s son doesn’t work for Norton & Sons and that there are no Andersons or Sheppards cutting for Anderson & Sheppard.

Domenico Caraceni founded the famous Caraceni house in Rome in 1913. Then conflict tore the next generation and brought the family to the absurd point that it has reached today. Brace yourself: aside from the (small) original shop that is still up and running in Rome, there are no less than three Caraceni shops (held by “dissident” Caracenis) posing as the “real” Caraceni house.

Insiders say that it is the A. Caraceni shop, owned by Mario (Domenico’s nephew) in Milan, that is the truest to the family heritage. Complicated, you think?

The Cifonelli family history reads like an epic saga, resembling few others, especially in the second half of the 2oth century. Unlike families we’ve already talked about, the Cifonellis preserved their history and passed it down from generation to generation. Hence, the Cifonelli house might have become the only bespoke house in the world where you will always be greeted by a family member. Say hello to Lorenzo and Massimo, 4th generation Cifonellis, a name that goes hand in hand with the art of being a tailor.

The house was founded (for real!) in 1880 by Giuseppe Cifonelli, who first set up shop in Rome. His son, Arturo, expanded the business and will forever remain the soul behind the house’s style, and the true artist of Cifonelli.

Very soon, Arturo was sent by his father to London to be trained in the art of cutting at the very proper “Minister’s Cutting Academy”. His diploma is dearly held in the shop rue Marbeuf (pictured below).

The Cifonelli style, a clever blend of British structure and beautiful Italian lines, is shaped and developed by Arturo in his first Parisian stores. One opened in 1926 on Rue Courcelles and the second, still standing at the center of Paris’ golden triangle, was inaugurated in 1936 at 31 rue Marbeuf.

Slowly, Arturo begins to gather a client base of demanding and elegant connoisseurs. His excellent reputation builds up as more and more famous politicians and artists start wearing his suits. Arturo is often described as demanding, uncompromising and passionate. He is loved and feared by his workers who, legend has it, make the sign of the cross before sending him a suit for final inspection. If he didn’t like it, he would cut through it with his scissors and start it all over again…

When Arturo dies in 1972, his son Adriano takes over and carries on developing his father’s work until the beginning of the years 2000. The Cifonelli reputation slowly starts to spread outside of the closed circle of the rich and stylish. True, most famous ambassadors for Cifonelli had always had quite a bit of panache: Paul Meurisse, Lino Ventura, Marcello Mastroianni and, most importantly, François Mitterrand (whose Cifonelli collection was recently auctioned at Druot). Between 1992 and 2007, the Cifonellis also make bespoke suits for Hermes (1992-2007).

In the early 90s, Lorenzo (Adriano’s son) and Massimo (Lorenzo’s cousin) truly enter the business, after spending their youth around bundles of fabrics, pattern paper embossed with luxury stamps, watching workers hand stitch most utterly perfect Milanese button holes.

In 2003, the two cousins officially take control of the bespoke salon rue Marbeuf. In 2007, they develop a made-to-measure and RTW storefront in line with the high tradition that they set up right below the original workshop.

At that time, two important events prove the Cifonelli commitment to perpetuating their sartorial expertise. Such skill had been put under considerable threat in other labels (including on the Row). This threat was brought on by an aging workforce (on Saville Row, über specialized workers can be much older than 75).

The first of these two important events occurred in 2000 when Cifonelli acquired the Claude Rousseau’s workshop (and its workers). The second was the 2008 purchase of another famous Parisian tailor’s shop and staff, Gabriel Gonzalez. If you are familiar with the small world of true Bespoke tailoring, you understand the importance of these acquisitions, that successfully brought back together, under the Cifonelli impetus, the legendary Camps de Luca team, 30 years later after its separation (when Mr. Camps was at the helm). Back then, the team had Smalto, Rousseau and Gonzalez on board. Talk about a dream team!

Lorenzo credits Claude Rousseau, who has since retired, for teaching him the extreme art of detail and an obsessive care for finish. Gabriel Gonzalez still works on rue Marbeuf, as passionate as ever about tailoring despite being 72 years old.

Parisian Gentleman was delighted to be welcomed into the Marbeuf workshop. In 48 hours, you will be able to read our long interview with Lorenzo Cifonelli, who talked about the Cifonelli style (and its famous shoulder), of its obviously renewed clientele, of development projects for Japan and the United states. Everything you always wanted to know without daring to ask.

Isn’t it exciting?

Cheers, HUGO