Brioni, Italy's tailor to the glitterati

Brioni, the go-to couturier for the likes of Donald Trump, Prince Andrew and Nelson Mandela, has soldiered on through the global recession doing what it does best, producing hand-sewn bespoke suits for men.

Gaetano Savini, who co-founded the company with Nazareno Fonticoli in 1945, instilled "tenacity, and the vision that you have to dare to go beyond the rules of the game," his grandson Andrea Perrone told AFP.

Perrone, who became Brioni's chief executive officer last year, noted that Savini was the first to stage a fashion show for menswear - in Florence in 1952 - and that Brioni was among the first to create fragrances for men.

"What I have maybe added is the idea of growing with emerging markets like China and to go beyond formal styles, the suit and tie," Perrone said.

"With the crisis and customers who asked us for discounts or to pay in installments, we launched new categories of products with new fabrics," he added, recalling an about-face from late 2008, "when the market was demanding more expensive, more luxurious garments."

At first sight, the group's main atelier in Penne di Pescara, on Italy's Adriatic Coast, looks like a factory, but without machines.

Some 1,100 technicians and seamstresses ply their trade, designing patterns, cutting cloth with enormous scissors, sewing on a sleeve here, finishing a buttonhole there, or a hem... then pressing carefully and checking their work.

"It takes us 18 to 22 hours to make a man's suit, sometimes up to 48 hours," said chief master tailor Angelo Petrucci, 39.

By comparison, mass-produced suits take two to three hours to complete.

Each Brioni suitcoat counts between 5,000 and 7,000 stitches and is handled an average of 220 times - including 80 pressings.

"Even though we work by hand we have specific time standards, for example 15 minutes to insert a shoulder pad," said Clementina Litillo, who at 57 is about to retire after 40 years in a profession she described as a "childhood dream".

The work is more complicated than a decade ago, Petrucci said, because clients are always after softer and finer fabrics.

Pointing out a lining consisting of camel, goat and horse hair, he said each creation has a "soul".

Brioni buys hundreds of sorts of fabrics, in Italy, Britain and Belgium.

Holding up a huge jacket created for a Japanese client, a former sumo wrestler, Petrucci said: "We can make obese people look thinner, short people look taller. We can even correct for bone defects by inserting all kinds of prostheses."

Over the years, Brioni has built up a database to keep track of its clients around the world, many from the Middle East and Asia.

To be a good tailor, "you have to have sensitive hands, so you have to start very, very young," Petrucci said. "After age 20, you can't learn it."

Petrucci himself started at age 13, when he began a four-year apprenticeship at Brioni.

The breeding ground of skill and talent shared among the technicians and seamstresses has been the secret of Brioni's success, allowing it to survive a wave of retirements in the early 1990s just as sales were skyrocketing.

- 5,000 to 7,000 stitches in each Brioni suitcoat -

The global recession has not led to smaller pricetags at the family firm, even though its annual turnover of around 200 million euros (265 million dollars) shrank by 15 percent in 2009 - 20 percent in the United States.

A custom-made suit may cost up to 6,000 euros (7,900 dollars), while a fully personalised ensemble could cost as much as 30,000.

"It's not an expensive product, but a costly one, reflecting the hours and hours of work," Petrucci said. "But it can last more than 40 years."

In recent years the group has diversified its range, offering lines for women and casual clothes such as jeans and polo shirts, now nearly 40 percent of its sales.

But Brioni, which started out by dressing La Dolce Vita stars such as Cary Grant and Anna Magnani in Rome's legendary Via Veneto, still caters for actors such as Pierce Brosnan and Jack Nicholson, as well as a long A-list of celebrities.

"In 20 years, I've worked for at least 10 heads of state or government or monarchs," boasted Petrucci.

The downside? Sometimes his Blackberry will wake him in the middle of the night with an e-mail from a faraway client needing an emergency alteration.

Asked to describe the Brioni tailor of today, Perrone said: "When you think of a tailor, you think of a balding old man with little glasses leaning over his work. At Brioni, we have real managers, who travel, use new technologies, they're tailors with Blackberries."

Brioni has 65 stores around the world, with some new openings planned in the coming years.

The priority is China, "where we just opened a new store in Shanghai ahead of the Expo there, having opened a first store in Beijing a year ago," Perrone said.

One thing Brioni does not worry about, whatever the state of the world economy, is advertising.

"Our best advertising is by word of mouth," Perrone said. "Unlike other labels that try to make a new selling point out of an artisanal tradition, we don't need to because it's in our DNA."

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