Photo by Francesco Lastrucci
Photo by Francesco Lastrucci
A writer seeks out the disappearing workshops that have been the source of elegance in Naples for generations.
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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 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.
The process was instinctive, not mechanical—craftsmanship learned from decades of practice.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In Naples, elegance is more fluid and informal.
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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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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