The best-dressed man I ever met wore a Cifonelli suit. I was in the elevator at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée when in walked a silver-haired gentleman in the most miraculous, dove-grey flannel double-breasted suit I have ever seen. It shimmered — no, positively radiated — with perfection. I noticed that sewn subtly beside his buttonhole was the red thread that symbolised his membership in France’s Légion d’Honneur. But even then, I couldn’t help but ask who his tailor was. He looked at me and said one word: “Cifonelli.”
This is the story I think back on, as several years later, I watch my own jacket take shape under the watchful eye of Massimo Cifonelli. Massimo is soft-spoken, studious and focused — in the way he moves, in the way he acts and in the way he speaks. When you know him, you realise that this is an extension of the rigid pursuit of precision and perfection that has occupied his life. He and his cousin Lorenzo, who is a brilliant tailor and also one of the best designers working in classic men’s elegance today, run the three-generations-old Cifonelli atelier on Rue Marbeuf.
Massimo’s parents live across the street, and his father is still one of the first people in the shop every day. I’ve come to realise that Massimo is one of tailoring’s greatest technical geniuses. As I observe him deconstructing the backneck and collar of my jacket, he explains to me the fundamental technical findings of his grandfather Arturo Cifonelli, the firm’s founder, when it came to reconciling comfort and shape — or, to be more pedantic, function and form — in the tailored jacket.
“How do you keep a jacket slim and close-fitting, but still allow for total freedom of movement?"
“Our grandfather did a tremendous amount of research on this,” he says. “How do you keep a jacket slim and close-fitting, but still allow for total freedom of movement? What he arrived at were several principles. The first is that he liked the chest of his jackets to be very clean.” Indeed, the Cifonelli chest is probably the leanest in bespoke tailoring — so much so that, at first, you wonder how you will fit your mobile phone and wallet into the chest pockets and still be able to move. But fear not — you will.
“The second is that the back of the coat is wider by several centimetres than the front,” he continues. This added material has to be manually eased into the handsewn shoulder seam and then ironed so that it is flush with the coat front. “The third is that our armhole is very high and sits close to the body.” Not only is the Cifonelli armhole the highest in the business, but, to be more specific, the front part of the armhole is cut very close to the chest to completely isolate the deltoid in the sleevehead. As a result, the sleevehead of the Cifonelli jacket actually appears to be pitched or angled slightly inward towards the chest — a demonstration of this house’s unique ability to sculpt in three dimensions, when most tailors operate in two. “Fourth, we create a soft, natural shoulder with very little padding, and shape the sleevehead using a form we call ‘Le Cigarette’.” It was the combination of the slightly pitched sleeve with Le Cigarette that motivated fashion Svengali Karl Lagerfeld to announce, “I could recognise a Cifonelli shoulder from a distance of a hundred metres.”