Naples, the Haven of Hand Work ; Tailors Find Inspiration in Personal Relationships with Clients Worldwide

Article excerpt

Tailors find inspiration in their relationships with clients around the world.

In a basement room on a street where motor bikes and honking horns drown out even the insistent church bells, Davide Tofani is working on a typical Neapolitan soft jacket. "When I make a suit, it is like shaping a second skin of my customer," the tailor says. "I cannot imagine making a suit without knowing the body that will use it."

Over the last century, the personal tailor, working one to one with a client, has become as symbolic of Naples as its Roman sculptures and Baroque churches. Many men socializing with friends on the city streets or sitting on public benches wear elegant jackets, in tweed or linen, lightweight, unstructured -- and indisputably tailor made.

And the Neapolitan tailors seem to be more successful than the chaotic city itself in moving further into the 21st century. Like the waters of the bay that rise and fall along the coastline, they have had good years and bad. But, today, the bespoke suit is back and doing well, even against the challenge of factory-made ready to wear.

To show that the tide of tailoring has turned, the big names in Naples have opened stores around the world. They also fly experts to their clients or offer them a home-away-from-home welcome in Italy.

Rubinacci is one of those names. The store here is on Via Chiaia in part of the historic Palazzo Cellamare, with its imposing staircase and history of lodging the artist Caravaggio. The tailors, who work by hand in rooms above the shop, have views of the vast stone building right down to the swell of the sea in the bay.

Mariano Rubinacci, sitting in the April sunshine on a bench in front of the store, looks like an old-school tailor in an impeccable jacket and one of the same smart ties on sale in the store beneath a picture of his father. Yet he and his family are constantly traveling. His son Luca is the brand's creative director and he "is always in a plane from Kazakhstan to New York, Korea or Singapore," Mr. Rubinacci said. His daughter Chiara complements her twin brother by running the seven-year-old store in Mount Street, London.

Mr. Rubinacci said he was proud that more than 20 of his 35 tailors are younger than 40. "I have my son. I have to build something for him," the master tailor said.

Out of the city center, in the industrial area of Arzano, is the home of Kiton. The brand is recognized worldwide for its tailoring, created in a cluster of buildings linked by a glass corridor that displays formal pieces from the wardrobe of the duke of Windsor, the British king who abdicated for love.

Kiton was founded in 1956 by Ciro Paone, a fifth-generation fabric merchant who made a visionary move into tailoring, according to his nephew, Antonio De Matteis, now the company's chief executive. Another nephew, Antonio Paone, is president and runs the business in the United States.

In the workers' canteen, Mr. Paone, who uses a wheelchair as the result of a stroke, lunches with other working members of his family, including his daughter Raffaella and her cousins.

The company is housed in an elegant palazzo decorated with historic furniture and modern art bought to celebrate each profitable year. Behind these flourishes, attached to the back of the building, is the vast workshop for Kiton's 350 tailors, who create front panels, backs, collars, pockets or lapels in the handwork factory. (A traditional bespoke tailor would make the entire jacket with his own hands. …