What I learned at Pitti Uomo 94

Bernhard ROETZEL

What I learned at Pitti Uomo 94

“Your clothes speak to other people before you have opened your mouth. With our clothes, we speak to many more people than we speak to with our words”. The man who said this is Dr. Thomas Rusche, owner of the German chain of quality menswear stores Sør, and noted art collector. 

We met for an interview about fashion and style, but ended up talking about religion, architecture and the best way to prepare a Schnitzel. The most inspiring conversations at Pitti Uomo go a similar way. They start with clothes and end up somewhere else. Why is this inspiring? Because the inspiration for style and fashion must be found in the world surrounding fashion and tailoring.

Pitti begins before even reaching Florence, and usually kicks-off at the airport. It is very easy to pick those who are traveling to Pitti at the airport in Berlin, because most of the general public is dressed for beach holidays.

I noticed a man with a quiff, well cut khaki trousers and wine hued penny loafers at Security Control–and he noticed me at the same time. Soon enough, we began speaking about linen suits. When we introduced ourselves, he turned out to be involved with 14oz., a contemporary menswear store (with a classical twist) located in Berlin. 

Now home from Pitti 94, the main sartorial image engraved on the synapses of my brain is that of exclusive denim mixed with Cordovan shoes, a linen shirt jacket, a vintage silk square and a Panama hat. To name the brand who has interpreted this look consummately at the Pitti 94 edition would be Drake’s. In my opinion, the reason for the success of this English brand has been that it’s the most “Italian-English brand” in its league. When I met Michael Drake for the first time in 1999, this was my first impression and I stand by my theory today, as the reason for Drake’s runaway-train success.

While waiting at the departure gate at Schönefeld, we bumped into Maximilian Mogg from Berlin, who stuck out even more than Martin and myself. Maximilian had Pitti Uomo written all over him, though his style was discreet and classical. He wore a dark blue single-breasted one-button pinhead suit with brace-top trousers (English box cloth braces), slim black Oxford shoes and a Lock & Co. Panama.

Max is a journalist, blogger and a promoter of the bespoke idea. He organizes trunk shows with tailors, shirt makers and shoemakers, and sells vintage bespoke clothes including his own line of MTM clothes. We must have looked conspicuous that day, examining the details of each others’ clothes and animatedly discussing the Savile Row of then and now. Maximilian exemplifies a growing trend of the last five years or so—young men passionate about handmade clothes, setting up businesses or working with existing tailors and using Pitti as a lab for new ideas, as well as to exhibit their own clothing (not to mention making contacts with weavers and suppliers of accessories). These passionate guys are able to create something positive—just look at Shibumi or Viola Milano. 

PITTI DAYS

I get up at five on summer mornings, which I’d recommend to avoid the imminent scourge of Pitti heat. As I stood under a tree near the main entrance at a quarter to eight, I glanced some trends, spying not only timeless style but also a few ensembles destined to be included in SS19 Collections.

Italian exhibitors and buyers wore the typical fairly short jacket, drainpipe trousers and either welted shoes without socks, or some sort of Nubuk sneakers with white rubber soles. Tattoos were less in the foreground, unless the ink stayed hidden under sleeves and jackets. I saw fewer beards, perhaps since real buyers who are early arrivers, are more advanced in age with no interest in jumping on the beard wagon. I’d venture to say that the most elegant men at Pitti Uomo are well-shaven. 

Before arriving at Pitti 94, I took a chance and predicted a comeback of the unvented suit jacket, but alas, only one other visitor seemed to agree. He appeared to be Japanese and wore a 1940s cream single-breasted linen suit with no vents and brown and white spectator shoes. I also happened to discuss the unvented jacket with Alan Flusser, whom I’ve been fortunate to meet for the third time in a row since last year’s trade show. His vote went for double-vents, but conceded that my unvented double-breasted brown glen check suit by Orazio Luciano made-the-cut, in his view.

TROUSER TREASURES AND COCOONED CRAFTSMEN

Maybe my fantasy of the unvented jacket becoming a trend will come true—much like high rise trousers with forward pleats which rose in popularity four decades ago. I remember buying these trousers off-the-rack at Cordings or Hackett in the early 1990s, where they could hardly be found elsewhere. Nowadays, these trousers pop up in RTW collections everywhere, as well as in the pattern books of MTM and bespoke trouser makers. In fact, the smart tailored trouser is a trend in itself.

With the decreasing importance of the suit, the indefatigable odd trouser has shifted to become the nucleus of an ensemble, since a pair of keen looking trousers are tirelessly versatile and fitting for most any occasion. 

The white trouser was even celebrated during a special event by Pommella Napoli the evening of the first night of Pitti. I arrived late, but in time to meet Francesco Barberis Canonico, the artistic director of one of the mills who supplies cloth for one of the several white trousers on display. He happened to be one of the most interesting people to talk with that evening, not only because we share the passion for electric guitars (he is a Fender man while I’m playing both Fender and Gibson). Francesco introduced me to Gianluca Migliarotti, owner of Pommella and film director whose documentary O’Mast has become a classic. We spoke together about the virtues and vices of craftsmen, while he and Francesco enjoyed their cigars.

We agreed that some craftsmen have what seems like a supernatural ability to create a beautifully cut and well made garment for customers who come from totally different backgrounds. Older generation craftsmen often have left school at a (very) early age and continue to exist lightyears away from their customers, in every respect. Still, several of these artisans manage to create the most stunning garments, perhaps thanks to the tailoring tradition they were born into or thanks to something else…Talent? A “Spirito Sartorio” which falls over them? Decades of rote practice mingled with innate intuition? Nobody knows. 

In case you’re not aware, tailors are not the “super humans” whom bloggers portray them to be in reports about London or Naples. Conversely, many do have a few vices, the most common one being an inflated ego. I suppose the inflated ego phenomenon of tailors is caused by too many hours spent alone in their workshop, seeing too few competitors to have the capacity to admire the others’ talent. Social media can heal this disease for internet-savvy artisans, because of the great advantage of exposing various tailors and their creations to a worldwide audience. 

BESPOKE, HANDMADE, MADE-TO-MEASURE AND READY-TO-WEAR

The ever-growing interest in craftsmanship and handmade clothes opposes everything RTW and fashion represents. Still, RTW fashion has managed to create products which look handmade—which by no means is a disadvantage to craftsmen. The number of consumers who can and want to afford bespoke clothes has not changed and has likely increased–and if somebody wears bespoke, it’s doubtful that he’ll be lured away by RTW (just because the jacket is a half canvassed “almost handmade” garment, in the words of the salesperson).

But on the other hand, someone who has always bought RTW might be inspired to go further if a garment has a touch of fatto a mano, which will be to the craftman’s advantage in the future.

Still I believe in many cases, RTW has never been as good as it is today when one experiences the final result in relation to the price. I don’t mean to apply the same hypothesis to prices offered by Chinese manufacturers  based on enormous production. Instead I refer to the prices offered by suit makers in mid and southern Europe, like De Petrillo from Naples.

I was introduced to this maker by Alessandro Agazzi and was truly impressed by the fit of their jackets. In fact I saw some big cheese from the publishing world looking at De Petrillo’s collection and wouldn’t be surprised to hear more of this maker in the following months.

HATS OFF (OR ON)?

At Pitti, hats have recently been a big thing. Pitti peacocks usually wear suits in flashy colours and a hat. At the same time, hats are worn seriously only by very few men. Standing outside Fortezza de Basso, I was surprised how few men wore a hat despite the weather. There were moments when I seemed to be the only one. Hats still don’t seem to be a natural part of the wardrobe for many, and most men discard them as soon as the weather permits. On the other hand, I’ve noticed an increase in hat brands and hat makers at Pitti. One of my favourites, among old and new brands, was Tesi from Florence. The biggest difference between this old Italian maker and others is the combination of creativity and quality.

Many famous hatters are not manufacturers (like most in fashion), showing collections that are made somewhere far away. This applies to most clothing and shoe brands. Nevertheless I notice (or at least hope for) a comeback of the brands who are also the actual makers. 

BRAND PRODUCTION AND THE RETURN OF THE ENGLISH

Indeed, the product should once again come first, as used to be the case (worldwide) since the late 19th century. It wasn’t until the 1980s that so many brands were created out of nowhere. Some of these artificial brands are very successful if a marketing brainchild or genius designer has created them—the best example being Polo Ralph Lauren. Within the realm of classical menswear brands, the majority of successful artificial brands is almost always rooted in a company which makes either cloth, clothes, shoes or accessories.

Despite the dominance of Italy, English brands are slowly but steadily coming back. They are still far from the position held from 1960 to the late1980s, when a truck drove around continental Europe delivering huge numbers of Chester Barrie suits to men’s outfitters in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. But the English appear to be recovering with the successful ones rooted in manufacturing. Look at Crockett & Jones.

Visiting the C & J stand is like going back in time—not that the collection is old-fashioned (not at all), but rather remains relevant for buyers from all over the world, Asia in particular. The same English fortitude applies to smaller makers like Chrysalis Clothes, highly respected for their outerwear, and for their more trendy colleagues Grenfell, or Private White VC, and let’s not forget weavers like Fox Brothers. The only way to stand up against cheap manufacturing is through good manufacturing. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

I was heading to the Padiglione Centrale with photographer Martin Smolka when a man attracted my attention. He was well-dressed in a navy jacket, grey trousers, a striped button-down shirt and reddish foulard tie. He didn’t look like a visitor, exhibitor, journalist or blogger so I asked Martin to take a photo of him. The man stopped and after Martin had finished he asked if we knew who he was.

It turned out that we had just encountered Raffaello Napoleone, the CEO of Pitti Uomo! His clothes had spoken to me and I understood what they said, “I’m important but don’t need to show it”, similar to the old saying “don’t talk so big, you’re not so small.

The Pitti peacock attitude is the opposite. I have watched the world of classical menswear since 1990 when I visited the International Shoe Fair GDS in Düsseldorf for the first time during final exam preps in graphic design. Ninety-nine percent of the important decision makers dressed in a discreet way, in line with the famous saying of Norman Parkinson, one of the best photographers of all time, “People who have talent dress like stock brokers.” Of course he spoke of the stock brokers of the 1930s but what he says still applies.

At Pitti, you should also watch out for the men who are not being photographed, if you’re looking for the real deal.

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All photos © Martin Josef Smolka for Parisian Gentleman.

Except photos 6, 11 and 19 © Lyle Roblin for Parisian Gentleman