Exploring the rich history of Vitale Barberis Canonico, catering to the world’s best tailors since 1663.
You won’t have heard of it, but there exists an arcane and highly exclusive organisation named The Henokiens. Its less than 50 member companies each meet the exacting criteria of having operated without interruption for more than 200 years, remaining going concerns today under the stewardship of members of the founding family. The most ancient among them is the Japanese onsen ryokan Hoshi. Founded in 717 AD, it is the oldest inn in the world and incredibly, has endured for well in excess of a millennium in the same clan’s hands. The association’s name was inspired by a character from the Bible, Henok, who walked the earth for 365 years before ascending to heaven without dying, or so the good book says. One member company, Vitale Barberis Canonico, has nearly reached the same age as The Henokiens’ namesake, with 357 years having elapsed since the firm’s establishment in 1663. This storied purveyor of the finest cloth, known to sartorial aficionados by the shorthand of ‘VBC’, is not merely the oldest wool mill in existence. It’s also one of the oldest family-run companies in operation today. The 13th generation of descendants of the founding family now lead VBC. Creative director Francesco Barberis Canonico guides a small team of seven designers to create more than 5,000 cloth patterns and colours per year. In collaboration with fellow family members Alessandro Barberis Canonico and Lucia Bianchi Maiocchi, Francesco proudly carries on almost four centuries’ tradition at Vitale Barberis Canonico’s mill in Pratrivero, near Biella, an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Milan (a touch less by Maserati). Here, high-tech looms disgorge some 8 million metres of fabric per year — enough to make about 2.5 million suits, to put that figure in perspective.
In fact, the company almost certainly predates 1663, but that is the year noted on the earliest surviving record of its dealings, a document attesting to the sale of woolen cloth to the Duke of Savoia. During the mid-18th century, the mill won a significant contract to supply the Italian military, the boost in revenue allowing the family to expand their business. Embracing mechanisation with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, and electrifying its facilities in Pratrivero at the dawn of the 20th century, the company began exploring markets beyond Europe and Britain, exporting cloth to the United States, India and the Far East. Though the company faced numerous obstacles during the dark years of Italy’s fascist rule and the hardships of World War II, including shortages of workers, electricity, machinery and materials, the mill continued to function. Following the end of hostilities, VBC’s management made the decision to focus the business on the upper end of the market, endeavouring to produce exclusively high-quality cloth. Through the Dolce Vita era and in the decades since, Vitale Barberis Canonico has cemented a trusted reputation amongst the world’s best tailors, fashion labels and men’s clothiers as one of a handful of go-to suppliers of fine textiles.
That explains why the company’s cloth — which is predominately spun from primo Australian merino wool fleeces — can be found in garments from a pantheon of the menswear greats, including Brunello Cucinelli, Kiton, Brioni, Gucci and Canali. VBC bunches are often offered to clients as a default by leading bespoke tailors, confident the customer will be delighted with the end result. One such sartorial craftsman, Singapore’s Kevin Seah, says VBC has “an incredible range, including many super-fine wools that despite their lightness, are still a pleasure for a tailor to work with — they make up just beautifully.” Seah explains, “There’s also a huge selection in terms of pattern and colour. VBC’s archives contain volumes of vintage fabric going back centuries, which they use as a design reference. Plus, the mill’s quality control is outstanding, the cloth we order is always flawless.” Now, you too can enjoy the same access world-class tailors have come to rely upon, ordering a curated collection of Vitale Barberis Canonico cloth directly from TheRake.com. We’ve carefully chosen 200 of our favourite cloths from this legendary Italian mill, helping guide your hand in choosing the perfect fabrics for suits, trousers, blazers and sports coats. You’ll appreciate the concise, timesaving edit — exploring VBC’s entire collection would test the longevity of Henok himself.