by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans

Spare a thought for the poor tailor, one of the real artisans often ill done by in today’s supposed vogue for all things artisanal, which usually privileges the marketer over the maker. A case in point is the enormous new book Gaetano Savini: The Man Who Was Brioni, a lavishly photographed and illustrated hagiography of one of the two founders of the Roman luxury brand Brioni, Mr. Savini himself. Amazingly, this 208-page coffee-table-size Assouline tome appears to omit all mention of the other Brioni founder, the tailor Nazareno Fonticoli, the man credited in Brioni’s own earlier vanity history as the “inventive tailor” who created the many, many arrestingly ostentatious clothes that made Brioni’s international renown. Savini, the story used to go, was the “brilliant businessman,” the salesman who helped Brioni gain its foothold in stores all over the world.

This book is his story, and his story alone. Poor Fonticoli gets treated like the Bill Finger to Savini’s Bob Kane. Rather, The Man Who Was Brioni focuses on the pedigree of Savini, his desire to reinvent men’s fashion after World War II, and his globetrotting endeavors on behalf of his shop on the via Barberini in Rome to establish his brand in the luxury department stores and men’s boutiques of the world. Savini, as frontman of the Brioni brand, began to call himself “Mr. Brioni” so that customers and menswear buyers would recognize the name – even though Fonticoli and he had chosen the name Brioni for their new brand because it was an elegant resort area off the Adriatic Sea, not a family name.

The writing of The Man Who Was Brioni is dry as dust and clumsy where it is not clearly erroneous, likely reflecting both bad translation and bad analysis in the original. Howlers include the book’s description of a young Savini marveling at prewar catalog pictures of Brooks Brothers suits with “stuffed shoulders.” Brooks Brothers was historically famous for minimally padded natural shoulders, rather than shoulders that could in any way be described as “stuffed,” which is not a term used in English to describe shoulder construction or styling. And, as can be expected, this book makes the usual false contrast between “staid” Savile Row English styling and what Brioni was trying to do, along with the puzzling assertion that the English fabric merchants had financed the “worldwide distribution” of the Savile Row tailors – an impossibility given that custom suits aren’t wholesaled and distributed since they aren’t available for immediate purchase and wear.

On the other hand, Brioni apparently was able to make itself available off the rack, and the text - if the purchaser persists in reading rather than marveling at its pictures - is a history of Savini’s efforts as a salesman in getting placement, beginning with the fortuitous assistance of Giovanni Battista Giorgini, he who launched the first fashion shows at Palazzo Pitti in Florence, the ancestor of what is now the sartorial Sodom known as Pitti Uomo. True custom tailoring, creating individually fitted and personalized garments, is not scalable. For Brioni to attain its fame, for it to get its retail footholds in the exclusive specialty stores of the United States (the export market on which the book chiefly focuses), it had to achieve larger-scale production and sell its clothes ready-to-wear. Thus, the book explains that Savini began licensing the Brioni name to a Swedish factory (!!!) before finding subcontractors back in Penne, Italy to make the Brioni clothes sold around the world. It doesn’t mention that Fonticoli, himself from Penne, was essential in forging those links and training those tailors. Thanks to them, Brioni gained the volume to penetrate worldwide markets.  Savini’s eye, apparently, helped give Brioni clothes their trademark flashiness, the basis of their reputation. As Brioni’s earlier vanity history reminds us, by 1959 it was known as “the Americans’ tailor,” surely an epithet that cuts both ways. To be known as the Roman shop that clothed Americans meant that it was creating clothes of an opulent tastelessness suited to the swagger of the newly confirmed greatest power on Earth.

In fact, the book’ pictures are the reason to buy it, if only to marvel at the awesome, awful tastelessness of those 1950s to 1970s designs. Timeless they are not. The Man Who Was Brioni quotes an old Esquire article calling Brioni the tailor that was “waging a war against the white shirt,” that fundamentally discreet element of the wardrobe. Instead, we have a veritable panoply of the plumage of the midcentury fashion victim, epitomized in a picture of that lost soul Peter Sellers simpering at us in a Brioni astrakhan fur coat. You can’t buy cool. Even then, he knew that. 

The other key to the Brioni look, in addition to its ornate excess, was its columnar “Roman” cut, supposedly inspired by the ruins of classical architecture. This made for slim, close-fitting jackets that admitted men had bodies and sensuality, even before Sex Panthering 1970s louche became the vogue. The 1970s, in fact, are where The Man Who Was Brioni tapers off, as Savini played less of a role in the house’s designs after that decade. One of its, and his, last hurrahs is the infamous Brioni travel jacket that has been used many times in magazines over the years to show the house’s ingenuity, recognizable for its multitude of pockets holding things one generally doesn’t, or can’t, fly with anymore (a cigar in tube, a ticket jacket (remember those?) emblazoned with the logo of the defunct “TWA” (where I drank my first Zinfandel), a 35mm camera). And, of course, after the 1970s, men’s tailored clothing designs in general became far more conservative. Attempts to spice up suits and sportcoats with various gimmicks suddenly looked very dated. A few publicity photos of Pierce Brosnan dressed in 1990s Brioni as James Bond seem out of place – Savini certainly had nothing to do with the design (what was then considered unbelievably retro, the three-piece suit, in classic patterns, with a roomy cut that seems to run counter to everything the rest of the book tells us about Brioni’s close-fitting, columnar shape and styling). Brioni, too, had had to follow the times, and at the bottom of the 1990s when it began clothing Bond, the suit, like Bond, seemed like something out of an older era (not designs to try to overtly modernize), which might explain those patterns and design.

A picture, the old saw goes, is worth a thousand words. In #menswear, most of those words are meaningless, if not outright fraudulent. Still, The Man Who Was Brioni is a fascinating visual aid to the hubristic excesses of a fashion superpower. Look upon its works and marvel, and spare a thought for the forgotten hands that helped forge its hegemony.