Lu Tung, a Chinese poet during the T’ang Dynasty, has a poem about drinking seven cups of tea. The first cup moistens his lips and throat; the second breaks his loneliness; the fourth makes him perspire; and by the sixth and seventh, he’s called to the gods. I imagine this might happen to you if you visit too many tailors in a day in Naples. Many will offer you a small cup of espresso when you come in (sometimes called na tazzulella e café in the local dialect).“Ve site giè pigliato o’ cafè?”(Have you had coffee?), they’ll ask. It doesn’t matter if you have or haven’t. The Maestro will when you’re his guest, so you should, too.
This is how my meeting with Antonio Panico began. Panico, if you didn’t already know, is a legendary tailor in Naples. He was a cutter for London House after Vincenzo Attolini left, and his relationship with Mariano Rubinacci was as close as Vincenzo’s relationship with Gennaro Rubinacci. Together they made important achievements in Neapolitan tailoring. The most well-known is perhaps the summer safari jacket they made out of seven-ounce cloth, which is so light that it’s traditionally only used for papal clothing. These days, Panico has his own tailoring house, for which he’s the only cutter.
Gianluca, the director of O’Mast, brought me to the workshop, which is located in the ritzy district of Chiaia. It was evening, however, and already dark, so I didn’t have a good sense of where we were going. From what I could tell, we went down one of the quieter streets, entered a courtyard, went up some marble stairs, and knocked on a door that I could barely see in front of me. When the door opened, a softly lit room with warm red walls appeared and standing in front of us was Panico, dressed in a navy suit, light blue shirt (which I later found out was made by Matuozzo), burgundy oxford-weave tie, and black suede chukkas.
“Ah, Gianluca,” Panico said with a gentle smile. He welcomed us in, and asked us the customary “Ve site giè pigliato o’ cafè?” We agreed to have some, so Panico asked his assistant to bring out three espressos and for us to sit down.
The main room where Panico hosts his guests is beautifully decorated. On the walls hang original paintings and antique prints. On one side of the room, a dark wooden table with matching chairs holds the Sotheby’s auction catalog for the Duke and & Duchess of Windsor collections, a large book about Neapolitan nobles, and, on my visit, some piles of neatly stacked wool suiting that Panico had just received. On the other side of the room is a desk with small sculptures and an array of heavy, sharp shears. (Panico took delight in showing me how each pair of shears made their own unique “snipping” sound.) Near the desk are two armchairs and a couch, all of which are upholstered in a beautiful blue and gold fabric. In front of these seats is a red marble coffee table with stacks of magazines and books on men’s style and, on that evening, a silver tray with our three cups of espresso.
We sat and chatted about Naples, Gianluca’s new film, and how business has been. Panico has a deep, almost guttural voice, and his face is almost always very serious. He’s less than impressed when I tell him I write for various men’s style blogs. “I don’t like the internet,” he said while holding a cigarette between his puckered lips. He then lights it with a matchstick, tosses the match on the coffee table, and pulls out a cell phone from his jacket pocket. “I was told I had to get this, but otherwise, I dislike technology. I haven’t even seen my own website.” It might sound like hyperbole, but I believe him. I told him that I’d seen it and it’s quite nice. He shrugged and took a drag from his cigarette.
After a bit of chatting, our conversation naturally led to tailoring. I asked to see some of his work and he brought out a completely unlined, unstructured, cream dupioni silk jacket. It’s single breasted with notch lapels, two patched hip pockets, and a barchetta breast pocket. Its beautiful, nubby hand stitching matched the nubby cloth well, and the construction is so light that it truly fit like a shirt. Gianluca and I tried on a few more jackets, including a heavy brown herringbone tweed with “typical” Neapolitan details—patch pockets, an extended front dart, completely unpadded shoulders, and spalla camicia sleeves. The chest was full, but not so much that it draped near the armholes, and it came in a bit at the waist to give the wearer some shape. The silhouette reminded me a lot of the elegant clothing Italian men wore in the 1960s. I asked Panico if he had to treat these heavy, thick cloths in any particular way in order to achieve such softness and lightness. He motioned with his hands, like he’s working through fabric. “I break its balls,” he smiled.
Panico then gave us a tour of his workshop. A room next to where we sipped espresso is where he keeps most of his suitings, as well as a couple of coats that he’s working on. He noted that he likes to collect vintage cloths, even if clients tend to favor newer materials. Like many tailors, he finds the older stock tends to drape better. The room behind that is the fitting room, which holds a beautiful three-way mirror and another couch. Finally, to the left is Panico’s workroom. I saw a few jackets hanging from the shelves, presumably waiting for clients’ fittings, and chalked up fabrics on the table. Panico only does his pattern drafting and cutting here; the sewing and ironing takes place off-premise. I didn’t see any paper patterns, so perhaps Panico is one of the few tailors who directly draws on the cloth.
We returned to the main room, where we were having coffee, and Panico told us that two of his Japanese clients just came in from Tokyo. He and his wife were having dinner with them later that evening, and he invited us to join. Of course, dinner with the Maestro would be quite an honor, so we accepted. Gianluca and I gathered our things and went back to our separate hotels so that we could prepare for the evening.
- Decor, including shears, in the salotto.