It is with much sadness that we’ve learned of the passing of Francesco Smalto today– one of the most emblematic master tailors of all time, and indeed one of the most respected figures in the distinct world that is Parisian tailoring.
All of the PG team joins me in sending our deepest condolences to Mr. Smalto’s family and friends. We wish to honor the memory of this important man who has left a strong mark on bespoke tailoring as a whole – a man that I was fortunate enough to meet during the writing process of the book “Francesco Smalto : 50 ans d’élégance masculine”, published in 2012 by le Cherche Midi in France , in which I had the honor of writing a chapter.
As a tribute to Mr. Smalto, I would like to share with you the following excerpts taken from my book “The Parisian Gentleman” (to be released winter, 2015 and published initially in English by Thames & Hudson), which explores the world of Parisian style in depth, and in which a large chapter is dedicated to Mr. Smalto .
As a small tribute to an exceptional man whose influence on tailoring will long be felt, it is my hope that these few extracts will serve to help others further understand and appreciate Mr. Smalto’s huge influence in full.
A great man left us today – a man for whom I had tremendous respect. Let’s honor his legacy.
from the book « The Parisian Gentleman » by Hugo Jacomet
« Imagine yourself sitting next to a stranger at a dinner. If you notice that his jacket collar does not completely cover his shirt collar, that his sleeves hide his watch without dangling into his soup, you can have an inkling of a Smalto outfit.
If you notice that when he stands his jacket is not pointing limply towards the ground, that his trousers fall onto his shoes without hindering his walk, the inkling becomes likeliness. If you dance with him and the fabric is breathtakingly soft and warm, you know you were right.
And if you yield to either the stranger or the Smalto outfit, you will notice at dawn that the turn-up of his trousers are ten times neater, sturdier and nicer than yours. »
‘You need to ask for Smalto’
In the late 50’s, the Paris grapevine said it all—‘If you go to Camps, you need to ask for Smalto’. Such was the word among the Paris intelligentsia.
Francesco Smalto was then head-cutter of the firm owned by Joseph Camps. He was already one of the most sought after tailors of Paris.
Five years before, barely arriving from his technical school in Torino, and after a short training at Parisian tailor Cristiani, he had literally forced his way into Joseph Camps’s workshop to beg for a position, even lying about his age and claiming to be two years older than he was. Even then the young Francesco was still far from the mark:
‘My cutters are all over fifty’, the Catalan master replied, amused by the ebullient and ambitious young man, ‘and I still need to correct them’.
‘Sir, I can reproduce a Camps suit just by watching it on the back of someone walking by’, said the young Francesco who offered to work for nothing for three months as a trial period.
Master Camps teaching his students with the young Francesco Smalto on his left
Against all odds, Joseph Camps accepted the offer and gave him the cutting table at the back to share with two other workers, forbidding him access to his personal styling workshop (where top secrets were kept) and assigning him his first clients.
Francesco Smalto, 27, became the fourth cutter of the illustrious Camps firm, located on the Champs-Elysées. Four years later he had become the first cutter, a meteoric rise in the context of a profession where you could only gain the ultimate title of first cutter after twenty years of strenuous work.
The Camps workshop was then the dream team of the profession since you could find in the same working place Joseph Camps, Henri Urban, Claude Rousseau, Francesco Smalto and also a young apiéceur (piece-maker) named Gabriel Gonzalez who was to become a very esteemed Parisian tailor in his own right (Mr Gonzalez still works at Cifonelli’s).
Six years later, the insatiably ambitious Smalto, whose name had been buzzing around Paris, understood that bespoke tailoring has seen the end of its heyday. Refusing to ‘spend the rest of his life tailoring suits for the over-privileged’ he had the idea of creating a luxury ready-to-wear collection grounded in bespoke culture.
After six years studying with Camps Smalto decided to make a big leap and cross the Atlantic to learn about the new methods for mass production, a booming industry over there.
Indeed, while European traditional tailoring was still fighting its last battles in the late 50’s, ready-to-wear was rising to triumph with its flagship ‘sack suit’, an easy to wear outfit made popular by Ivy League students and founding firms such as Brooks Brothers on Madison Avenue in New York. It was to give birth to the ‘preppy’ style, which the American industry would use to conquer the world.
And so, Francesco Smalto set off to America, searching for an employer that would teach him the new methods enabling to make a suit in three hours when you needed seventy at the Camps workshop. He was going to receive the providential help of a rich American client he had befriended during fitting trials.
« I’ll order 15 suits, but only if they are designed, cut and assembled by Mr Smalto »
With that request, this generous customer twisted the arm of the famous H. Harris, president Kennedy’s personal tailor, whose workshop was located on New York’s 57th Street, so that he hired Smalto for three months, which enabled him to cross the Atlantic.
And so Francesco started out in the United States working for a single customer for three months! That man went as far as placing another order to give Francesco the time to learn the American techniques—another evidence of the special bond that Francesco Smalto created with his clients.
Throughout his career, many famous people vaunted his name out of sheer adoration and respect. Singer Charles Aznavour would always start his shows saying ‘I’m dressed by Smalto’ and writer François Sagan said he was ‘a real king’.
A star is born—The Rise of Francesco Smalto
In 1962, with the assistance of a fellow Italian worker whom he’d met at Camps’s workshop, Monsieur Landi, Francesco Smalto created his own tailoring business, hardly ten years after arriving in Paris from Italy to discover the world of men’s fashion.
People were surprised by Smalto’s close-fitting suits, with narrow shoulders and high sleeve-heads. He shook up the old ways and, like Pierre Cardin, chose tighter-fitting silhouettes.
In 1967, he presented his ready-to-wear collection, made in Italy in workshops that he had selected himself. The first-rate quality and outstanding style of his suits helped the whole clothing industry make a huge leap forward. Luxury ready-to-wear designed by a famous master tailor — that was something unheard of in Paris. Francesco was to design his collections himself up to 1991.
With the opening of his famous shop rue François Premier in 1970 his business really took off—the world of show business, especially actors, embraced the Smalto style. Jean-Paul Belmondo, then the most popular actor in France, picked Smalto as his official tailor. He even sported the emblem of the Smalto house, the well-known red carnation. Other major figures followed such as Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Jerry Lewis.
In fifteen years Smalto’s business expanded worldwide, employing up to 170 people. In 1987, eighteen shops bore the name of the founder and close to 45 000 ready-to-wear suits bearing the Smalto signature were sold globally.
In 1995 maestro Smalto decided to focus on bespoke tailoring and handed over the keys to his disciple Franck Boclet, who passed the baton in 2007 to young Youn Chong Bak, who had started out at Smalto with an internship a few years before as a designer. She took charge of the style that made Smalto an internationally famous house and made it grow with her deft touches.
Smalto’s clear lines for men
To describe the art of Smalto, I can’t imagine a better way than to use an analogy from the art of drawing in comic books.
It seems to me that Smalto is the suit designer using a ligne claire. This phrase was coined by Dutch cartoonist and graphic designer Josst Swarte in 1977 during an exhibition devoted to Hergé, the inventor of Tintin. It is the perfect description for the Smalto style: clean, neat, direct lines, almost geometric and with a fastidious way of isolating each part of the garment and respect its proportions.
Even ready-to-wear Smalto bears the signature style of the firm: its famous “fishmouth” lapel notch, its narrow shoulder, slightly curved inwards, its sleeve-head wide and high and with a slight cigarette roll.
« A Smalto suit will always look better… »
Beyond Smalto’s flair for the finest cut, his genius was to embrace the ready-to-wear revolution and present well-made and well-designed collections when other tailors stuck to their traditional guns ignoring the assaults of the mass industry that was flooding the market.
Even though Smalto’s collections evolved through the years and was not immune to changing aesthetic trends, he managed to keep his own style alive, making sure his fundamental signature was recognizable even when someone else was in charge, the wild child Franck Boclet or the sensual Youn Chong Bak.
When I mentioned the book I was writing to an old friend of mine—a connoisseur of all things sartorial—he couldn’t help remarking ‘Somehow, a Smalto suit always looks better than other suits…’
Which could mean that the man who wanted to be crowned the best tailor of his times might very well have succeeded.
Hugo Jacomet, abstracts from “The Parisian Gentleman”,
© Thames and Hudson 2015.
Photography by Andy Julia
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