It is only to be expected that following the recent publications of James Sherwood’s lavish books on Savile Row tailors (The London Cut, 2007, and Bespoke: The Men’s Style of Savile Row, 2010), Italian tailoring would riposte with their own. As the most successful of the Neapolitan bespoke tailors, Mariano Rubinacci leads this thrust with the new book Rubinacci and the Story of Neapolitan Tailoring, written (mostly) by Nick Foulkes, who between writing entertaining books on Count d’Orsay or pre-Waterloo English society has written vanity histories for a number of other luxury brands – Turnbull & Asser, Dunhill, Tag Heuer, Mikimoto pearls and even the Carlyle Hotel. In contrast with earlier, drier monographs on the tailors Gieves & Hawkes (1985) and Henry Poole (2005), this tailoring history’s extensive set of photographs of Rubinacci clothing and its past and present wearers, both unforgettable (Agnelli, Vittorio de Sica, Bryan Ferry) and forgotten (various ebullient Italian grandees) appeal evocatively and sensuously to lovers of beautiful clothing and those of us who maintain a fantasy, however irrational, with a bygone era of sepia-tinted luxury.
And what an era it was! Foulkes is at his sparkling best describing how wealthy silk merchant Gennaro Rubinacci founded his eponymous tailoring shop in 1932 on a lark as London House, an inside joke to his friends and fellow aficionados of Anglophile bespoke. With this beginning, both Gennaro and Foulkes, on parallel journeys through the tailoring shop separated by seventy years, are both able to explore the lush names, textures and colors of cloths (cheviots, saxonies, flannels) and the opulent flourishes Rubinacci’s tailors added to their clothing: even the descriptions of Rubinacci’s pockets veer to the prurient, from the pear-shaped pignata pregnant with promise to the boat-shaped barchetta along the breast. No less opulent was the clientele of international nabobs which came, and the author’s descriptions live up to their lifestyles. Foulkes sketches out the intervening history of the house, including stints by Attolini (now known as a luxury ready-to-wear manufacturer) as cutter and what the canny reader may perceive as an interregnum in bespoke interest in the 1970s and 1980s when London House retailed Hermès and focused on ready-to-wear clothing. Most recently, of course, Foulkes describes the triumph of Mariano and his charismatic son Luca in re-establishing Rubinacci as the pre-eminent Neapolitan bespoke tailors, and a household name to the small population of men which buys bespoke clothing or at least talks about it online.
All of the above is also documented in lavish photographs, along with pictures of the Rome, Milan and London satellites of Rubinacci. Pictures are worth a thousand words, which may be why this book is so short: at 112 pages and a retail price of 100 euros, one is paying more than a dollar a page. However, it’s my guess that Rubinacci knows the audience for this book. From its title onwards the book attempts to situate Rubinacci in the forefront of a rich and time-honored tailoring tradition, thereby mining the two veins of potential buyers – collectors – of such a book: luxury brand enthusiasts and those that are interested in the history of clothing. For the latter, the book contains an essay on tailoring at the court of Naples by Nicoletta d’Arbitio, with interesting images of the statues of former rulers of Naples ensconced in the wall of the royal palace there, from Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire to Napoleon’s minion Murat to the first king of the unified Italy, Victor Emmanuel of Savoy. However, the main attraction of this book is for the luxury tailoring enthusiasts for whom Rubinacci is already a known name. Those who are seriously interested in how clothing is put together will likely be disappointed by the superficialities about high armholes, double-stitching and the false dichotomy between soft, sensuous Italian tailoring and stiff, structured Savile Row.
Peeling away the Naples travelogue, the arguments for its exceptionalism, and brand-building prose such as “the magic of Naples that inhabits every garment,” what does stand as a truth is the excellence of Rubinacci’s bespoke tailoring, which still attracts the fabulously wealthy as well as the new breed of bespoke customer: young, obsessed with details and quality, fastidious and obsessed with the best. Rubinaci remains Naples’ most noble practitioner of bespoke and the envy of his colleagues there – some of whom are also among the best anywhere, for what has kept Naples a center of bespoke tailoring is the cheapness of its labor coupled with an uninterrupted tradition of men who enjoy wearing clothes and having their clothes made. Of course, it is no accident that sprinkled among the exquisite photographs are pictures of various of Rubinacci’s ready-to-wear accessories – ties, scarves and a painted porcelain vide-poches/cigar ashtray resembling those sold at Hermès, and indeed this book is one more step in creating the Rubinacci mythos, which can be imparted to a jumper at Harrods or a tie sold at the Carlyle gift shop without the need for multiple visits to the shop on via Filangieri.
The limited press run of 1,000 copies is available at the Rubinacci locations in Naples, London and Milan as well as online at the Rubinacci store.