Italy’s contribution to fashion has been vast: as shoemakers, given its historic import in the development of leathergoods; in tailoring, having defined a softer alternative to traditional English cuts; in textiles, with its world-renowned mills; and, of course, as the engine house of the 1980s boom in “designer” clothing.
Indeed, one could compile a sizeable list of these household name brands alone: Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Fendi, Marni, Etro, Ferre, Versace, Valentino, Moschino, Salvatore Ferregamo and so on. Then there are those labels that have shaped street style for decades: Diesel, Costume National, Fiorucci, Benetton, Sergio Tacchini and Fila, among many others. And that’s without even mentioning newer players like Aspesi or Rubinacci or lesser known but exceptionally well-made brands such as Barena, Boglioli or Valstar…
But below is a brief compendium of the Italian companies that have had the greatest influence specifically on menswear – invariably of the more elegant and luxurious kind. It’s the creme de la creme, so to speak. Or il meglio del meglio, as they say in Italy.
Traditionally a maker of textiles – it produces over 1,000 different cloths each year – this family firm has, more quietly, become a benchmark in tailoring. The company pioneered ready-to-wear suiting in Italy, and has since gone on to ensure excellence by running a fully vertically integrated operation: from its own sheep in Australia, via its mills and tailors in its homeland, it controls every step.
Brioni broke into the limelight by outfitting the Pierce Brosnan-era James Bond. But, of course, the Roman tailor had an established reputation since its foundation by Nazareno Fonticoli and Gaetano Savini in 1945. Brioni staged the first ever menswear catwalk show, in 1952, and is said to have invented the trunk show (a kind of travelling showcase). But its heart has always been in classical tailoring rather than seasonal trends.
Rome many not be short of quality hatmakers, but there’s only one king: Borsalino. Having recently turned 160, the brand was passed from the founding brothers, Alessandro and Lazzaro, to son, then to nephew. But perhaps it is more famous names than the family name that has kept Borsalino in the limelight. Among many others, the “Borsalino” – its patented version of a felt fedora – was worn by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. It even had a cult French new wave detective film named after it.
Look to oligarchs, presidents and global CEOs and there’s a good chance they will be wearing Stefano Ricci (featured image, above). Much of Ricci’s products are simple, wearable and exactingly made – suits with that enveloping Florentine flavour, cashmere sweaters, crisp shirting, all fitting that Italian bella figura sassy classicism. And some of it leans towards the flashy: platinum belt buckles, jewel-encrusted cuff-links, crocodile sneakers and the like.
Founded in 1966 by Michele Taddei and Renxzo Zengiaro, this leathergoods and accessories label is best know for its “intrecciato” leather work, in which leather strips are woven to create a chequerboard pattern. Later relaunched under designer Tomas Maier as a full collection brand, it’s to Bottega Veneta you turn for some “stealth wealth” dressing.
Travel to Lake Inle in Burma; extract fibres, by hand, from lotus leaves; then weave them within 24 hours before deterioration sets in. The result? An extremely rare, silk-like yarn that’s plush but always natural – just the kind of textiles Loro Piana specialises in. It’s another family firm, established 1924, that likewise made vicuna a thing, among the many super-luxe yet discreet fabrics Loro Piana works with.
Tod’s may not have invented the driving shoe – that honour falls to another Italian company, Car Shoe, which in 1963 developed a moccasin with a rubber-studded sole – but it was Tod’s, under founder Diego Della Valle, that drove the idea forward in the late 1970s with its signature Gommino style. Now a fully-fledged footwear brand, Tod’s continues to keep comfort and craftsmanship at the heart of everything it produces.
Missoni may be another Italian brand that has latterly branched out into producing top-to-toe collections, but its historic specialism is knitwear – especially boldly colourful and textural designs crafted from upscale yarns like cashmere, yak, alpaca and silk blends. From intarsia to embroidery, patchwork to unusual silhouettes, Missoni does not make the kind of sweater you’re happy to introduce to moths.
Giovanni and Giacomo Canali established their eponymous label back in 1934 in Brianza. By the 1970s, the company was a specialist in outerwear – still an area in which it’s expert – before expanding into all areas of menswear, with suiting at the fore. It now has thousands of employees and sells in over 100 countries, where it’s Made in Italy mantra still matters.
Arguably the first brand to take the functional aesthetic of military and workwear and develop it into contemporary garments using high-tech materials, Stone Island (and its brother brand CP Company) is one of the 20th century’s most influential menswear labels. Founded by Massimo Osti, driven forward by Carlo Rivetti, it has advanced the likes of woven steel, transformable clothing and garment dyeing while garnering a legion of streetwear fanatics along the way.
Cucinelli is the Italian fashion designer who started out making brightly coloured cashmere sweaters and grew to become a purveyor of the minimalist, carefully coordinated, super-luxe aesthetic his namesake brand now embodies. Most pieces are still made by a network of some 2,500 or so small-scale artisinal craftspeople across Umbria and Tuscany, ensuring the highest quality standards. Growing up in a peasant farming family, such was his insistence on properly pressed trousers that he won his nickname, “The Lord”.
Better known, of course, as one of the biggest “designer” brands in Italian fashion, Giorgio Armani deserves special mention for the sheer weight of the impact he’s had on menswear. It was Armani who deconstructed men’s tailoring, who first played with its proportions, underscored the classic menswear palette and styled some of the most iconic movie wardrobes to boot, from American Gigolo to The Untouchables. He’s still going strong too…