“Light as the breeze that blows over Vesuvius,” or so its proponents say, Neapolitan suiting seems tailor-made for this moment in time, meeting the needs of a generation raised on the ease and breathability of athletic attire, but unwilling to sacrifice sharpness in pursuit of comfort.
Though undeniably modern, the roots of today’s Neapolitan tailoring stretch back almost 700 years, to the founding in the 14th century of Italy’s oldest tailoring association, Confraternita dell’arte dei Giubbonai e Cositori (the Brotherhood of the Jacket Makers and of the Tailors). Its members were among the first to create ready-to-wear men’s garments, made in Naples and transported to royals, noblemen and the affluent across the continent.
Fast-forward to the late 19th century: after Italy’s unification and the emptying of Naples’ coffers to fill the new nation’s treasury, the once wealthy city fell into abject poverty. Its remaining privileged few saw to their sartorial needs at the atelier of Giacchino Trifari, and later, his protégé Filippo De Nicola. De Nicola’s tailoring house was furnished to resemble a prosperous family home, with overstuffed sofas and armchairs where De Nicola would entertain his clients (high-born ‘men of leisure’ for the most part) for hour upon end amongst portraits of famous customers and noblemen — a setting and approach that will be familiar to any customer of a Neapolitan tailor today (see: Rubinacci’s premises on Mount Street in Mayfair, London). Salvatore Morziello’s handsomely appointed shop, stocking Anglophile goods from Lock & Co., Floris and Swaine Adeney Brigg, was equally a locus for Neapolitan aristocracy.
Up until this point, the suiting turned out by Neapolitan tailors — such as the famed Angelo Blasi — closely resembled those being made by contemporaries on Savile Row or in Rome. An apprentice of Morziello’s named Vincenzo Attolini is credited with the game changing invention of what today we’d recognise as trademark Neapolitan tailoring while employed at Gennaro ‘Bebè’ Rubinacci’s British-inspired London House.
A society gentleman from an old-money family of textiles traders, Rubinacci had parlayed his popularity as an ‘arbiter elegantiarum’ — casually advising friends and associates on style, cloth and fit choices during their suit fittings — into a business doing much the same thing on a commercial basis. A devotee of English cloth, the style of the British gent, and the soft-tailored drape cut that had recently been innovated by Frederick Scholte and Anderson & Sheppard, in the 1930s Rubinacci suggested to his in-house cutter Attolini that suiting based on Scholte’s work — but even more drastically unstructured, unlined and unpadded — might find favour amongst Naples’ residents, who were afflicted almost year-round by crushing heat and humidity. Following Rubinacci’s direction, and adding a dash of inspiration from Roman tailor Domenico Caraceni’s soft lines, Attolini crafted a remarkable chimera.