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Tailor Made in Naples

What can style say about a place? Tom Downey visits the family-run ateliers that define the city’s elegance.

I started my hunt for Naples’s artisanal tailors by talking to the city’s taxi drivers. They were so acutely focused on fleecing me, I thought they might unconsciously reveal some local secrets. A working knowledge of strip joints and after-hours clubs is, of course, essential for any self-respecting taxi driver, but why would they know anything about bespoke suiting? Because, I learned after a few rides, many of them hail from the same place such suits are made, the back alleys of the Quartieri Spagnoli. It’s what Neapolitans call a popular (that is, working-class) district, situated right in the heart of the city.

The tailors of the Quartieri, unlike their taxi-driving brethren, don’t solicit customers on the street, or even advertise their wares. Everything is by word of mouth. And so my first few taxicab conversations yielded nothing in the way of secret sartorie (tailors), though I did pick up some pizza recommendations. Finally, I landed a driver who recalled a family on his block. “They’re not tailors, exactly,” he said. “They only make pants.” He gave up their address reluctantly, and only after extorting twice the price that registered on the meter.

It’s simple to find the stylish international brands that have recently made Naples a go-to destination for Japanese, American, and British style hounds. Just stroll down Via Filangieri in the luxe Chiaia quarter. But I was here in Naples for something entirely different: the tiny, old, often hidden ateliers and shops that very few foreigners know anything about. Most tourists, whose primary impressions of this city consist of the touts outside the railway station and the tchotchke shops of the decumani (the main east-west street), don’t think of Naples as a chic place. But the sartorie, camicerie, and cravatterie here produce suits, shirts, and ties that are coveted worldwide. Neapolitan craftsmen are historically renowned for their intricate handwork and their elegant designs.

tailor made in naples

I was after a totally new outfit from these craftspeople—dress pants, a suit cut according to a pattern drawn just for me, a soft-collared shirt sewn by hand, and a delicately contoured necktie to round out the package. But I was also in search of a disappearing culture that once animated Naples, a culture of aging artisans who learned their craft as children, long before labor laws made such a thing impossible; a culture in which generations of a single family patronized the same tailor for their suits. I wanted to discover what was tucked into alleyways barely wide enough for a motorbike to pass. And I wanted to understand why this subtext of the elegant and the artisanal was so strong in a city more famous for mounds of garbage and men wearing wife-beaters.

At number 21 Vico della Tofa, the address the cabbie had given me, I walked into the courtyard of an old apartment building and asked the first man I met about the pants-making family. He knew nothing, but my question provoked a shout from an open window above. “The Mola family,” a gravelly female voice said. “Go up to the third floor and look for the sign.” Outside a third-floor apartment I found a small gold plaque that read Mola. I rang the bell and a middle-aged man escorted me inside as if I had been expected, taking me through his family’s cluttered apartment rooms into an ancient studio where he measured, drew, cut, and fabricated pants. “We’ve been doing this for five generations,” the man, Pasquale Mola, told me, pointing to the pants he was wearing. “We only make pants,” he said. “Nothing else.” He had the frenzied energy of so many Neapolitans I encountered, something I would come to understand and appreciate after I started to drink as many espressos as they do.

While Pasquale manned the most important station, the chalking and cutting table, his brother operated an antique-looking iron to press seams, and his sister sat at a sewing machine stitching together the two halves of the pants patterns. I asked Pasquale about their business. “We get a lot of work from suitmakers,” he said. “They make the jackets, we make the pants. And now we even have customers from Japan.” He held up a pair of Mola pants and peeked through the crotch. “Look at the curve of the opening for the legs,” he said. “You need to see light through there. You need shape. That makes for a more elegant line.” The pants are made with a button closure, not a zipper, and the waistband is constructed out of shirting material for extra softness. When I asked Pasquale about making a pair of pants for me, at first he said it would take weeks, maybe even a month. By the time I left, though, he had measured me and even started tracing my pattern onto the brown linen I had selected for my trousers. And we had agreed that I’d be able to pick them up in four days, after one more fitting.

The next objective of my Naples quest was the holy grail, a full suit. But before I set off on that search, I needed to improve my look, so I visited Boellis, one of the oldest barbershops in Italy, discreetly perched on the second floor of a building off the main street in tony Chiaia. Michele Boellis greeted me at the door and led me to a beautiful old barber chair. He asked me a few questions about how short I wanted my hair, and then he proceeded to cut it in a manner at once more brutal, more rapid, and more skilled than I had ever experienced. He wielded his scissors with such speed and precision that I hardly felt a thing. It made me think immediately of the way a tailor cuts through suiting fabric with giant shears. Michele later said that my analogy wasn’t far off: His great-grandfather had been a tailor, and Michele saw what he did now as a continuation of that legacy.

tailor made in naples

When the haircut was finished, a shave specialist lathered up my beard with a sweet-smelling almond soap, and Michele explained his philosophy on hair. “Everything we do here is natural, soft, organic,” he said, as his assistant’s straight razor scraped across my skin. “No gel, no foam, no products to position your hair. Hair shouldn’t be perfect. Not in Naples.” After he finished the shave, the assistant soaped my cheeks, chin, and neck again, and shaved me a second time. It was the smoothest my skin had felt since early adolescence, and it would last for a good two days. I walked out of the shop freshly shaved and shorn and ready to commission a suit.

Naple’s suitmakers are the city’s most highly valued artisans. I had to select my man (there are no women to choose from) carefully. On a user-driven website called Styleforum I had found a reference to Gennaro Solito. His shop is tucked into a solid old building on Via Toledo, the city’s main artery. Technically, this is still the Quartieri Spagnoli, but it’s a more commercial and refined side of the quarter. A discreet plaque identifies the place. The glass door reads simply Solito.

The anteroom to his work space was crowded with bolts of fabric. Inside, suits in progress were draped from every available hook and hanger, and Gennaro, 67 years old, stood behind a large wooden table, chalking and cutting the components of one of his jackets. The room had a window that looked onto Piazza Duca d’Aosta, where a funicular transported people up a steep hill to Vomero, one of the city’s fashionable neighborhoods. Gennaro’s son Luigi, aka Gigi, 36, worked in the shop too, learning how to do things the way his father had been doing them for more than 50 years.

With Gigi translating, I talked to Gennaro about what distinguishes his tailoring. “I began doing this before I was 10,” he said. “I do what I do. I can try to accommodate some strange requests, but really, what people come to me for is the classic Neapolitan style.” He took a jacket off a hanger and passed it to me. “Feel how soft it is,” he said, using the Italian word morbido. “There’s no shoulder padding at all. There’s not much lining. It’s light, and so it moves easily and comfortably with your body.” For my suit I had chosen a lush three-ply Italian weave in a dark blue that shimmered subtly in the sun. Gigi took the fabric from me, walked it upstairs to the workshop, and wrapped it in water-soaked canvas to wash and shrink the suiting before it would be cut.

When I came back the next morning, Gennaro took a tape from around his neck and started to measure me. After just a few minutes he returned to his table, numbers in hand, unfurled the part of my fabric he’d reserved for the jacket, and proceeded to lay out my personal pattern. He picked up a small rectangle of chalk that looked like a soap bar and sharpened it on a multibladed machine that sat on his tabletop. Then he started to draw, first mapping out the basic shape of the jacket, then meticulously defining the subtle curves of the lapel and the sweep of the distinctive chest pocket Neapolitans call a barchetta, or “little boat.” The process was instinctive, not mechanical—craftsmanship learned from decades of practice.

tailor made in naples

After a few rubouts and redraws, Gennaro, satisfied with the template, took up a pair of enormous scissors and quickly snipped out my pattern. The larger scissors permit smoother cuts, Gennaro explained, and he had been using this pair for 40 years. “Come back this afternoon,” he told me. “It will be ready for the first fitting then.” He would pass the pants measurements on to another tailor. As Pasquale Mola had implied, almost no suitmakers in Naples actually make trousers. Jacket making and pants making are considered two separate disciplines, too complicated for any one person to handle alone.

As Gennaro’s men sewed the jacket, I wandered down the street into the market area of Pignasecca, where, amid centuries-old buildings, streetside fishmongers sang out their freshest offerings in the local dialect. As chain supermarkets like Spar and discount designer stores like H&M increasingly dominate Europe’s retail sector, Naples remains resolutely and proudly provincial. That provincialism permits juxtapositions of extremes that a globalized and homogenized culture does not. In Pignasecca, dandies decked out in their finest suits sipped coffee next to butchers still covered in blood.

I stopped to chat with an older woman as she cooked me a fried pizza in her kitchen. She sold pizzas on the street in front of her home, a first-floor apartment called a basso, to make a little extra money. As I bit into a steaming piece of fried dough filled with tomato sauce, meat, and cheese, she told me to come back the next day for a zucchini-flower fritter she makes only on Saturdays.

Just like the pizza fritta lady, Naples’s suitmakers and shirtmakers shine because they haven’t bowed down to the whims and pressures of the tourist market. The city’s reputation as a dirty and dangerous place has actually allowed these artisans to ply their trade in much the same fashion they have for centuries. Tourists pass through here quickly, en route to the islands of Ischia or Capri, or the seaside areas of the Sorrento Peninsula and the Amalfi Coast. As a result, Naples remains a city where tailors, trattorias, and barbers have to please a local clientele to stay in business. Interestingly, while artisanal trades have shrunk in the past few decades, appreciation of them by people abroad has increased. And what these knowledgeable foreign customers want, so far, is the Neapolitan style, authentic and unvarnished.

That afternoon I returned to Gennaro’s studio. He held out a one-sleeved jacket for me to try on. I slipped into it and stared at the mirror. It already fit much better than anything I’d ever worn, even other custom-made suits. Gennaro asked me to walk, to put my hands in my pockets, to stand with them by my side. All the while he made tiny chalk marks on the jacket, which was now crisscrossed with white threads that would later be pulled.

I took it off and he ripped apart the seams, flattened out the body on his table, redrew the chalk lines on one side, folded the fabric over on top of its other half, and pounded it with his fist, so that the new chalk marks were duplicated on the opposite side. “My father worked for Vincenzo Attolini, the man who began the innovations that led to what we call the Neapolitan style of suit,” Gennaro said. “When Attolini first tweaked the classic jacket, it seemed eccentric, fantastic.” Men in Milan wear their suits like military uniforms, buttoned-down and precise, rigid in form. In Naples elegance is more fluid and informal.

As Gennaro worked, he pointed out some of the classic features of Neapolitan suits: wide lapels that roll three-dimensionally across the chest in a configuration known as “3 roll 2 1⁄2,” meaning there are three buttons, but the roll is designed to hide half of the top button; high armholes that are cut just right, so there is no bagginess but your arms move freely; double vents in the rear, always; and, for more informal suits and jackets, a special way of attaching the sleeve to the coat that’s called spalla camicia, literally, “shirt shoulder.” This method of sewing the sleeve to the jacket is similar to the way a shirtsleeve is attached, and it leaves a slight and subtle, but characteristically Neapolitan, ridge at the shoulder.

tailor made in naples

“The customers who come to me for a suit know something about my style,” said Gennaro. “They aren’t looking for a Savile Row cut. They’re looking for a Neapolitan suit.” The obsessively fashion-conscious foreign customers who have started to travel to Naples are certainly helping Neapolitan tailors keep their traditions alive, but they still constitute a small part of the market. “Many of my customers are Neapolitan,” Gennaro said. “And they are the toughest customers in the world.”

Now that my suit was being made, I searched out a shirtmaker. The sartoria is a thoroughly male world, but the Neapolitan camiceria is decidedly female. My research and my conversations with style mavens who frequent Naples led me to Anna Matuozzo, considered the grande dame of Neapolitan shirtmakers. I met her in her studio in the Mergellina district along with her daughter Simona, who also knows how to hand-sew a shirt. As I felt the Italian fabrics Anna had on offer, I asked her why shirtmakers are almost all female. “The sewing is very delicate,” she said. “And women are considered to be more precise and better at the small things. Even suitmakers usually send out their jackets so that women can sew the buttonholes.”

Anna finished fourth grade, then started at shirtmaking, working first with her aunt and later for Mariano Rubinacci, who owned a legendary shop. “Shirtmaking is like a language,” she said. “It’s much easier to learn when you’re very young.” Anna, two of her daughters, and a few nieces sew all their shirts themselves. Daughter Simona began working here part-time when she was 10 years old, moved to full-time after graduating from high school, and eventually took over managing the business in 2009. “Behind the camiceria there is always a woman,” said Anna as she measured me for one of her shirts. “Come back in a few days,” she said, “and see how this shirt compares to what you’ve worn before.”

My suit and shirt were in motion now; all that remained for me to find was a tie. After my visit with Anna, I followed a recommendation that turned up in my online research and ventured into the backstreets of Chiaia to check out another of Naples’s hidden artisans. Patrizio Cappelli has no storefront or showroom on the street: You buzz to enter the premises, preferably with an appointment. Cappelli, unlike the Solitos, Matuozzos, and Molas, is a first-generation artisan. Until 1995 he was a pharmacist, but he always loved clothes. He saw an opportunity to create a new kind of tie-making business, offering bespoke ties made with vintage patterns from England and vintage fabrics from an area near Lake Como that is home to Italy’s weaving industry. “The soul of a tie is on the inside,” Cappelli told me as he passed me one of his creations. “You can feel the soul of my ties in the wool and soft canvas that give the tie its structure.” Though he still does a lot of custom business, Cappelli has moved into making ready-to-wear ties, and we went downstairs to see his selection. I showed him a swatch of my suit fabric, and we searched through his ties. I finally zeroed in on a yellow jacquard tie with subtle blue points, and we agreed it would work well with my white shirt and blue suit.

When I returned to Pasquale Mola’s place in the late afternoon to pick up my pants, at first no one answered. A woman across the way interrogated me: “Where are you from? What kind of pants are you going to get?” There’s a profound intimacy and informality in this kind of Naples neighborhood. People are used to living so close to one another that they can’t help but observe and listen to everything going on around them. As I walked out a few minutes later, wearing my new brown linen trousers, the neighbor was waiting by her window. “Nice pants,” she said as I waved good-bye.

tailor made in naples

The next day at Gennaro Solito’s, after I picked up my shirt from Anna Matuozzo, I tried on the full suit for the first time. I headed out to the streets with Gennaro and Gigi to have lunch at their favorite place, Trattoria San Ferdinando, another discreet establishment with a locked door and buzzer out front, just around the corner from the vast Piazza Plebiscito. Looking at my new outfit reflected in the mirrors and windows I passed by, I was struck by the sharp style and precise fit of the suit and shirt, but even more striking was how this clothing felt. Gennaro’s jacket and Anna’s shirt accommodated my motions inconspicuously as I walked along the street. Though their fit was closer than what I’d worn before, they gave at the right places, and they were supremely light. A large part of the magic of these clothes, I realized, is that they make you comfortable, and that profoundly affects your appearance, your carriage—your elegance.

At San Ferdinando, I followed Gennaro’s lead and ordered a simple pasta dish: perfectly cooked spaghetti with fresh, seasonal green peas on top, a touch of garlic, a little olive oil, and nothing else. I asked Gennaro about the connection between what he does and what a restaurant like this does. I had asked other Neapolitans similar questions and received similar reactions. He really didn’t get it. To him and his compatriots, making a suit is something artisanal. Cooking a pasta dish simply is not.

After we finished our lunch, the three of us strolled down the street to a café called Storico Gran Caffè Gambrinus and stood at the marble counter while the barman prepared our espressos. They make their espresso differently in Naples. The cup is heated in nearly boiling water to match the temperature of the coffee, and the machine they use requires the barista to pull the shot with a long handle that slowly inches up as the coffee pulses through. Maybe it was the caffeine talking, but as I gulped down the espresso, I realized I see things in a different manner from Gennaro. To me there is a profound continuity in the cuisine, the coffee, the shirts, pants, suits, and ties of Naples.

tailor made in naples

Fortunately this city’s culture—provincial in the best senses of the word—has kept Neapolitans insulated from the demands and desires of the rest of the world. But even if their isolation continues to allow them to make things the way they have for decades, even centuries, the real question is how they will pass on artisanal traditions that require years of practice to perfect.

Antonio Panico, one of the city’s great tailors, had explained the situation to me when I visited his Chiaia-district atelier earlier in my visit. “You have to start learning this craft at a young age,” he said. “Otherwise the person is already contaminated.” An impending crisis, as Panico sees it, looms in the changing culture of Naples. No one starts training to be a tailor as a young teenager anymore, and certainly not before they are 10, as Gennaro did. Those who begin later in life face an impossibly steep learning curve. “There are only a few people in this next generation who can catch up,” he said, “those with a passion, a love for what they’re doing, and a willingness to struggle for many years.” I hope those dedicated artisans can keep this tradition alive. I want more suits like this one. A

Photos by Francesco Lastrucci. This appeared in the September, 2012 issue.