The 60-year career of the Parisian tailor and designer Francesco Smalto spans French tailoring from its last great heyday in the 1950s and 1960s to the current era of confusion between tailor and designer, between increasing rarefaction and increasing banalization. The publication of Francesco Smalto: 50 ans d’élégance masculine, a hagiography of Smalto’s 50 years in business on his own account, provides an occasion to revisit the evolutions in that world.
Smalto’s own perspective is telling from his career path: a talented tailor who initially spurned conservatism and embraced fashion-forward designs, later also embracing designer ready-to-wear when it became clear that bespoke tailoring (and its sister, haute couture) were parting ways with the retail (and cultural) sweet spot of bold design and accessible prices and distribution. Now, at the tail end of his career, as bespoke tailoring has a rearguard resurgence, the circle is complete, and the time is perfect for Smalto’s last bow, reclaiming the guise of tailor.
Smalto’s biography, recounted in Francesco Smalto: 50 ans d’élégance masculine, involves most of the important French tailors since the end of the Second World War. Instructively, it shows that the currents of fashion and of bespoke tailoring were not always in conflict. Bespoke tailoring did not always stand for defiantly timeless elegance as so many current scribblers would have it. Smalto was drawn to Paris from his native Italy, inspired by the reputation for innovation and design of the couturiers Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, Dior and Jacques Fath. Arriving in 1951, he took an apprenticeship at Cristiani, a leading bespoke tailor described in Gay Talese’s Unto the Sons whose goodwill was purchased by Charvet around the beginning of this millennium. From there, Smalto moved to the tailoring firm of Joseph Camps, where he stayed for six years, becoming head cutter.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of Camps to French tailoring at this period. The premier tailor of the time, Camps set the midcentury French tailoring silhouette that Michael Alden of the London Lounge has lauded and described much more knowledgeably on his site with the visual aid of Jean Gabin in Touchez Pas au Grisbi: long, unpadded shoulders with roping at the sleevehead, slightly drapey but with a degree of structure. The cut conveyed ease and comfort while remaining masculine and powerful. Many Camps alumni from the period, including Henri Urban, Claude Rousseau, Gabriel Gonzalez, Dali’s tailor Francesco Rovito, and, of course, Smalto himself, went on to become famous tailors in their own right. Camps was also a founding member of the Groupe des Cinq, a group of five leading tailors in Paris who set the seasonal styles for men’s fashion in the 1950s and 60s. It included Camps and Max Evzeline, whose tailoring houses still exist, along with André Bardot; the fourth and fifth members, depending on one’s source, included Gaston Waltener, Socrate, Charles Austen, Gilbert Feruch or Mario de Luca (who later merged his firm with that of Camps to create Camps de Luca). It is utterly amazing in the present day to consider that bespoke tailors were setting fashion not so long ago. Yet back in that day, as the tailors of Savile Row attempted to interest men in the neo-Edwardian look and Huntsman dressed the English World Cup team, French pop singers could name-check top tailors the way that hip-hop artists do with their favorite designers and Cristal today. Witness Claude François in “Ce Soir Je Vais Boire” (“Tout d’abord je vais bien m’habiller, costume Camps, cravate Cardin… Je visiterai avec méthode tous les clubs de St. Germain”). Cloclo, as he was sometimes called, would also become a customer of Smalto, along with Charles Aznavour and (somewhat unexpectedly) Julio Iglesias.
Smalto’s experiences in Paris left him feeling that while women’s fashion was dynamic in Paris, men’s clothes never changed. A visit to London to view the products of Savile Row led him to feel that English tailoring was heavy and rooted in the past, lacking the finesse and modernity of Italian tailors. (This is a rather stereotypical complaint, usually from Italian designers trying to sell us factory-made ready-to-wear.) In 1961, he left Paris for the New York outpost of the tailors H. Harris, where he was exposed to and (surprisingly) impressed by both the sacklike ease of American suits and the quality product coming out of American ready-to-wear clothing factories. Returning to Paris and finding a backer in the form of a Franco-Italian Camps customer, Smalto opened his own bespoke shop in 1962 with a philosophy of cutting close to the body. He spurned the Groupe des Cinq, and by the mid-1960s was showing his designs alongside those of Courrèges (a bizarre A-line men’s bespoke suit with contrasting turtleneck detail, cuffed shorts and light-colored thigh-high boots pictured in the book does indicate some shared inspiration). Smalto’s American visit and his stated prescience about the decline of bespoke tailoring inspired him to enter ready-to-wear in 1967, after having dressed American astronauts (off duty) and collaborated on fashion shows with Balenciaga. He reportedly designed his ready-to-wear line himself until 1991. The 1970s saw him continue to play with unexpected designs and materials (including velvet, jersey, and a crêpe de chine from which he cut the “world’s lightest dinner jacket”)), while opening satellite boutiques around the world, including Rabat and Tokyo. And in 1987, he hit the designer’s jackpot of launching licensed perfumes, eyewear and accessories. In 1989, he was made a chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, and, more recently, his business designated an entreprise de patrimoine vivant, a national distinction awarded to prominent artisans. At the beginning of this millennium, Smalto sold his business to an entrepreneur, supposedly to ensure its survival after his retirement or death. And the survival of the Smalto house, of course, would be based on the Smalto legend.
All this drove me to consult Francesco Smalto: La Passion d’un métier 30 ans, published in 1992 as the catalog and monograph for a retrospective at the Hôtel de Sully in Paris celebrating Smalto’s 30 years in business. Francesco Smalto: La Passion d’un métier 30 ans is very much of its time, with a preface by Françoise Sagan and special “patronage” by Mitterand Minister of Culture Jack Lang. This was a time, lest we forget, when bespoke tailoring and any clothing formality in general were in sharp retreat, faced with post-1980s reaction against conspicuous consumption, economic recession, the rise of business casualwear and the grunge fad. As such, Francesco Smalto: La Passion d’un métier 30 ans is full of gorgeous pictures of clothing, but those pictured post 1980 are generally ready-to-wear, while the pictures of bespoke creations (many of which also ended up in Francesco Smalto: 50 ans d’élégance masculine 20 years later) appear to have been chosen for their creativity rather than the undoubted excellence of their tailoring. And, in a sign of changing times, the 1992 book refers to each bespoke garment as “haute couture,” a term most men would consider irrelevant to their clothing, while the 2012 book calls the same clothes “grande mesure”, a slightly precious term for “full bespoke” (in French, the term sur mesure is usually employed for custom clothing, but can mean both bespoke and made-to-measure (i.e. from adjustments to a stock size pattern)). Still, whatever one calls them, Smalto’s 1960s bespoke designs are enjoyably complicated and beautiful to contemplate if impractical to wear outside of one’s Roman Coppola fantasies – consider two dinner jackets, one double-breasted in grain de poudre with ghillie-collar and a broadtail astrakhan front, the other single-breasted in alpaca with vinyl braid and a metal buckle closure instead of a button, each reflecting a marriage of fashion-forward design and men’s bespoke tailoring before their divorce became socially acceptable.
Both the 1992 book and the 2012 book also make much of Smalto’s forays into costume design and wardrobing, including Jean-Paul Belmondo in many movies and Sean Connery in The Great Train Robbery, as well as his love for Proust’s writing and affectation of wearing an orchid in his buttonhole. Indeed, Smalto even commissioned a fabric in orchid fiber (fibre d’orchidée) mixed with cashmere and silver fox.
But 2012’s Francesco Smalto: 50 ans d’élégance masculine also has an amusing Proust questionnaire in the style of Vanity Fair magazine, and it’s there that the reader gets a rare glimpse of some personal quirk from Smalto, as opposed to his book’s relentless tone of satisfied valediction. In the midst of otherwise banal answers, Smalto states that his favorite (male) fictional hero is “any character played by Chuck Norris.” Coincidentally, another prominent Paris tailor, Marc de Luca of Camps de Luca, trained with Norris’ fellow 1980s martial arts icon Superfoot Wallace. I wonder if they ever get together, fire up A Force of One, and talk chop-sockey.
True to our tailoring-fascinated time, Francesco Smalto: 50 ans d’élégance masculine also includes sections discussing bespoke tailoring in worshipful terms designed to impress those unfamiliar with it, including a short interview with peripatetic French fashion blogger Hugo Jacomet about the whys and wherefores of bespoke that brings the narrative into line with contemporary Internet groupthink about timeless values of quality, somewhat contrary to Smalto’s own stated values of change and modernity. It is also ironic that eighteen months ago Jacomet dismissed a Smalto bespoke suit in a Dandy magazine review of top French tailors as being, despite the very high price, little different from luxury ready-to-wear. But then, for years, Francesco Smalto the man has had little to do with the bespoke side of his business, except, according to Monsieur, if one happened to be a head of state or some other VIP.
And with rather charming naïveté, Francesco Smalto: 50 ans d’élégance masculine describes how, following the oil crises of the 1970s and early 1980s, petrodollar-rich tycoons, kings and despots would come to Smalto – or fly him out by personal jet if they were too busy – and order so many clothes at one time that his workrooms couldn’t keep up. And how Smalto worked to make the outward appearance of his suits identifiably Smalto without needing to look inside for the label, through the shape of his lapel notch and the roped shoulder of his suits. And how the house of Smalto attempted to deter such large orders by repeatedly increasing its prices, to deterrent levels, but that only made such customers more keen, so that Smalto finally began limiting the number of garments customers could order from him at one time. Read with today’s more judgmental eyes, this is perhaps more embarrassing than impressive to the sophisticated tailoring customer, but they (I don’t dare say “we”) may be thin on the ground. In response to the Internet-inevitable Francophobic comments about the nature of such customers, the tailors of Paris hardly had or have a monopoly on controversial customers. While, thanks to ties of culture and language, they may have the custom of the wealthy and powerful in Francophone Africa (including, in Smalto’s case, the late King Hassan II of Morocco and dictators such as Omar Bongo of Gabon) and the Middle East, the tailors of Savile Row attire those of the Western-dressing Middle East who don’t go to Paris, along with Russian oligarchs, generations of North and South American robber barons, and historical villains from Napoleon III to Von Ribbentrop to Bernie Madoff, while the Internet’s favorite Neapolitan tailor, Rubinacci, has just opened a custom tailoring outpost in the Saks Fifth Avenue in Almaty, Kazakhstan, apparently to harvest that country’s new petrocrats. Along the way, they’ve all dressed many decent men too.
But Francesco Smalto: 50 ans d’élégance masculine fails at convincing us of the greatness of Smalto the business due to the greatness of Smalto the man. By all accounts a formidably gifted tailor with brilliant commercial sense, Smalto has clearly become the most financially successful of the Paris tailors of his generation through his move into ready-to-wear and licenses. He has maintained a bespoke tailoring operation at the same time, but has ceded most of that work to his tailors and undercutters. This is understandable – I’m not of the school that insists my tailors have to work until they die in a garret. But tailoring should be more than a recognizably flashy cut and Smalto’s signature built-up shoulders. The midcentury French silhouette no longer exists as the house style at the tailors who remain in Paris, the most prominent of whom assert their claim to some sort of proprietary house style of powerful shape – which is not to say that the output of today’s Camps de Luca, Cifonelli or Charvet (yes, in addition to its preeminent bespoke shirtmaker, Charvet has a bespoke tailor who can compete with the best of them) is anything to frown at. As knowledge of what actually makes for a quality suit gets rarer, certain of the most famous Paris tailors each strive for identifiable house styles verging on idiosyncrasy. Cifonelli, which has absorbed two others of Camps’ best alumni, Gonzalez and Rousseau, has an eye-catching shoulder that flares forward, while, according to the paeans in The Rake magazine, the house style of Camps de Luca has evolved into a close-cut, powerful sort of thing. Smalto has his built-up shoulders (“a structured shoulder with soft lines,” whatever that means) and, based on his book, a business plan that emphasizes the continuation of his designer ready-to-wear without any mention of how he could or does keep his bespoke tailoring at the level he set as a young prodigy with boundless ambition at the dawn of his career.
And so, at the twilight of his career, Francesco Smalto: 50 ans d’élégance masculine lays claim to Smalto’s timeless elegance, without it being readily apparent from the past styles shown that Smalto had or wished for timelessness in his designs. Rather, we are left with an impression of a man who knew how to anticipate and thrive on the enormous changes in his discipline over the course of many decades, able, perhaps, to be a man of his time many times over. Smalto created memorable and interesting designs and suited the great and the morally ambiguous for decades. His career, to me, is an object lesson in the impermanence of any presumption to timelessness, or, as his former rivals, retrenched from the catwalks of the Groupe de Cinq’s fashion shows to dusty shopfronts or mezzanines or a mental note for an ebay search, might have realized too late, the power to set style.