The Milan fashion shows, which began last Wednesday, are about a lot of things – trend-setting collections, big business, front-row celebrities – but increasingly, and behind the scenes, the Italian brands that seem to be thinking simply of the next big season are also thinking of their long-term future. Specifically, how they can institutionalise their know-how to ensure an informed design pool for generations to come, whether women’s or men’s wear.
The tailor Kiton, for example, has its own school of high tailoring in Naples, while Brioni, Bottega Veneta and Ermenegildo Zegna have also established similar institutions. “It occurred to me that founding a school was vital when I noticed the average age of our tailors was 55,” says Kiton chief executive Antonio De Matteis, noting that the craft was in danger of dying in Naples once this generation retired. Investment in manpower was crucial, he says, since all Kiton’s products are made by hand and the importance the brand places on the school is clear from the fact the factory floor is adjacent to the school’s classrooms.
“We start the students with the basics, beginning with how to thread a needle,” says Mario Abbondandolo, one of Kiton’s master tailors for nearly 40 years. After that, they learn everything from how to fix the canvas that gives a jacket its structure to female-specific tailoring, since women’s jackets contain a more exaggerated curve in the waist and an even softer shoulder structure. (Recently the school has seen a spike in the number of female students.)
After two years, all students are able to construct a rudimentary jacket and the best ones budding tailors are offered a three-year paid apprenticeship. Stefano Pasquale, one of the first students to graduate from the school and a current tailor for Kiton, explains that young people in Naples “find it difficult to secure a good job, so attending the school, which is free, was a fantastic opportunity.”
By contrast, at luxury brand Zegna the emphasis of its masters in men’s wear – built in partnership with the Milan campus of the Istituto Marangoni fashion school – is primarily on design realisation and distribution rather than handicraft. According to Roberto Riccio, general director of Istituto Marangoni, lectures given by the managers and designers from Zegna, including Alessandro Sartori, the creative director of the fashion-forward Z Zegna, act to transfer their “skills, knowledge and experience directly on to the students”.
Meanwhile, both approaches are combined at Brioni, which has its own school of tailoring near its factory in Penne, in the Abruzzo region of Italy, as well as a partnership with the Royal College of Art in London. Following an initial briefing by Antonella De Simone, co-chief executive of Brioni, at the beginning of the year, the students receive instruction from Brioni’s master tailors and at the end of the year create their own designs – often avant-garde interpretations of something they have seen in Brioni’s 65-year archive – and present them to De Simone.
At this point “Brioni’s traditionally trained master tailors then have the task of interpreting them,” says De Simone. After all, as she points out, “these students are the future of our business.”