Cifonelli, international icon of bespoke and unanimously hailed institution of everything dapper, has for decades been the house of all superlatives.
Contrary to those who have somehow lost (or sold) their souls to the assaults of mainstream culture and the sirens of the new menswear Eldorados, the tailors of the rue Marbeuf tirelessly and discreetly continue to reinvent their name while almost obsessively preserving its legendary craftsmanship and supernatural attention to detail.
Sheltered from the spotlight in a hushed and focused atmosphere, its (40 + people) staff still works exclusively by hand, and abides by the strictest rules of traditional sartorial art, on the 900 suits it produces each year.
While, fortunately, nothing seems to change on rue Marbeuf, a fundamental question has been on tireless and passionate Lorenzo Cifonelli’s mind. How should Cifonelli adapt to the deep changes at work in the bespoke clientele, undeniably getting younger by the years?
More specifically: how can Cifonelli provide better access to bespoke for newcomers still unfamiliar with its codes? The new bespoke client is often helpless when faced with the infinite possibilities of bespoke, presented with an array of 8,000 fabrics by a master tailor who may not, as available and young as he may be, succeed in reading the fine print in his client’s mind to translate it into a unique pattern perfectly reflecting the wearer’s personality.
The latter triggers a set of issues (rather paradoxical, for reasons outlined hereafter) now tackled by many great bespoke tailors. They now have to deal with the sartorial education of their clients and must become mindful of the quality of the client/master tailor dialogue, which has become more crucial than ever.
Discussions with many French, but also English and Italian, tailors have taught me that those who will most significantly benefit from men’s renewed interest in traditional sartorial culture will be those who will succeed in harmoniously balancing the very spirit of bespoke (a unique suit cut on a unique pattern) and the increasingly important need to provide advice to new clients seeking inspiration and guidance in the wonderful yet intricate maze of personal style and elegance.
Tailors are responding to that need in an all but consistent/homogenous manner
- In the name of the tailoring tradition, some particularly conservative showrooms merely display a very small number of pieces representative of the style of the house without trying to facilitate the bespoke experience for their new clients. But despite having both means and desire, a number of newcomers do not dare taking the step into bespoke, and end up turning to (very) high end ready-to-wear, most often hand made in Italy and generally equally or more expensive than bespoke.
Why? Precisely because these highly skilled workers do not have to translate into words the sartorial wishes and dreams of clients, left free to surrender to any and all whims inspired by the hundreds of suits presented to them. This shows how customer experience of menswear clients should urgently be taken into account by many houses around the world, as Lorenzo Cifonelli has done, lest they miss on the two digit progress on the markets of menswear and the formidable opportunity for reinvention without jeopardizing legacy.
- Yet others, understanding these deep changes, are making the effort of showcasing in their salons a greater number of representative pieces. Although clearly better suited to the needs of neophytes, this method induces a significant paradox that could dampen new client’s enthusiasm by opposing the very essence of bespoke (a unique suit for a unique client) to the bespoke style of the house. I of course do not deny that tailors should defend the foundation of their reputation, like the dropped shoulder of Cesare Attolini and other Neapolitan tailors, Anderson & Sheppard, Knize and Rubinacci’s soft tailoring, the long and lean jackets of Huntsman, the Camps de Lucca notches or the famous Cifonelli shoulder.
Yet again, one must find the right balance between the tailor’s expression of his characteristic style and the complete freedom of a client to govern his personal style. The latter remaining, despite what some radical tailors will tell you, the ultimate goal of bespoke.
- Then there is the approach chosen a few years ago by Cifonelli, devised by cousins Lorenzo and Massimo (both young forty somethings). This unusual and supremely creative method requires a bit of soul searching and uses a clever blend of the highest level ancestral heritage and contemporary style to attract - and guide - clients more interested in beauty than in displaying status.
Three years ago, Cifonelli ambitiously endeavoured to introduce, at regular intervals, models of bespoke sports jackets to show clients how fine bedfellows bespoke tailoring and contemporary creation make. In doing so, Cifonelli shows that an iconic label can very well open itself to modern lines and bold cuts without losing its soul.
In its essence, this method is a real challenge that we must applaud, while it has effectively steered a significant number of new clients to the rue Marbeuf. Indeed, beyond their extreme quality, these bespoke pieces, provide newcomers with particularly helpful visual inspiration while allowing the tailor to provide a concrete explanation on the fundamentals of his art: lapels, notches, assembly, shoulders, gimps, buttonholes, finishes. In short, everything a client needs to know to navigate through the “bespoke experience” and to engage in an aesthetic and exploratory dialogue with the tailor.
We must recall that this “range” (yet the jackets are exclusively available in bespoke to be infinitely modulated to suit each client’s tastes), now comprising twenty models, is an exceptional concentrate of skill, of which we will study twelve examples :
The Cortina jacket is a superb exercise in style and versatility. This extremely technical and sophisticated four button jacket can be worn casually or formally. It also boasts suede stand up collar, suede double gusseted pockets, worked double gusseted back, and flared fabric and suede sleeves with double buttoning.
The Dandy jacket is single-breasted with slim lapels and three patch pockets with inside gusset and very sophisticated original details: a front yoke and a splendid work of alignment of the armscyes seams.
The Vintage jacket has two or three buttons (one in the lapel roll), peak lapels, two suede welt pockets, suede, suede breast pocket and sleeve hem, and breath taking slanted sleeve buttonholes.
The Military jacket is a thick velvet three button sports jacket with a tailored collar, four patch pockets with flaps, and slight gathering on the unpadded shoulder. The hand embroidered badge is a wonderful piece of craftsmanship, and of course, completely optional.
The Travel jacket is an extremely comfortable five-button jacket. As its name suggests, it was designed for elegance on the go, with its fourteen (no less!) inner and outer pockets! The collar is lined in suede, the sleeve hem in fabric and suede, and the three patch pockets are bias cut and sumptuously half-lined. A must for he who travels in style.
The Preppy jacket has a lot of character and is very versatile. It fastens with one single button and lacks no original tailor details: ever-so-slightly curved braided lapels, shirt assembled sleeves, no-button double cuff and half lining inside the three braided patch pockets. This very contemporary jacket is a masterpiece of craftsmanship.
The Gatsby jacket is a gorgeous classic single button peak lapel jacket. Very sleek, it is pictured here in 300g herringbone wool cashmere blend.
The Baikal jacket, in Drapers boiled wool (rare in bespoke), is quite original with its stand up collar and suede patch pockets with flaps.
Japanese inspired, flannel jacket Nara is quite short (I had the opportunity to try the prototype and the effect is quite unexpected) and sharply cinched. The very unusual lapel has hybrid qualities with its peak shape and notch proportions. This very slim jacket fastens with one single button and has three pockets on the right (two flap and a contrasting welt) and boasts a magnificently embroidered Japanese kanji for “love”.
The Stirling jacket is a country jacket. Very technical, it fastens with two buttons with the option of closing its ample leather lined notch lapel. Leather piping adorns both the elbow patches and the flaps of the bias cut pockets. Add a supremely refined gusseted and half belted back and you have a fabulous piece of sartorial art.
The Imperia jacket is a very high class velvet smoking jacket with frogs and piped shawl lapel and sleeves.
The Qilian jacket is the very last prototype created on the rue Marbeuf and deserves a bit of explanation as it literally is “out of this world”.
It is made of yak wool, exceptionally warm and supple. After being harvested from the long haired bovine on the tablelands of Tibet, it is woven in a fair trade Tibetan workshop (NORHLA) using ancestral harvesting and weaving techniques until recently used exclusively to make very high end stoles, shawls and throws. For a few years, a handful manufacturers (of ladies wear for the most part) have also been making coats and jackets with this surprisingly soft, warm and sturdy wool.
As you can see, this gorgeous jacket presents a unique combination of ample notch less lapels, no less than five active buttons giving Qilian its versatility, single piece lining assembly and finishing touches worthy of the Cifonelli reputation, including patch pockets with both gussets and flaps, a highly refined feat to achieve.
So of course, in addition to this magnificent contemporary “range”, Cifonelli also makes, and more than ever, superb classic suits (undoubtedly among the most beautiful in the world) for those who know and those who love beauty.
The vast majority of these bear the telling Cifonelli elements by which the lucky owners of a Cifonelli suit, like Karl Lagerfeld who has said that he could tell a Cifonelli shoulder one hundred meters away (as I did in the Heathrow Airport just a week ago) recognize one another at first glance: a slightly curved shoulder assembly unlike any other in the world, a very sliming chest area, and perfectly sleek lines.
There is no question that Cifonelli is among the limited canons of the greatest bespoke names in the world, yet (unlike many bespoke institutions) its vitality and capacity for reinvention inspire respect and admiration.
While sartorial art and tradition are confronted with a formidable paradox – the renewed interest of men in bespoke elegance at a time when craftsmanship is eroding and when finding ultra-qualified artisans is increasingly challenging- the very contemporary approach chosen by Cifonelli promises sustainability. It makes no doubt that many very famous labels should seek inspiration in their methods instead of limiting their efforts on a conventional, and albeit wealthy, clientele who is far from being eternal.
Long life to contemporary bespoke !