If you know your way around, some of the best food can be had in Naples. Our dinner with Antonio Panico, for example, took place at Pizzeria Mattozzi, a modest restaurant located just a short walk from Rubinacci. I was actually there earlier that day, but foolishly ordered the pasta. The key, I think, is to always order dishes that use mozzarella, which in Naples is made from the rich milk of water buffaloes. Panico ordered six or seven dishes for us to share, most of which had lots of mozzarella (including pizza, of course).
At dinner with us were Mrs. Panico, who was wearing a lovely dress and fur coat, and two of Panico’s Japanese clients, both of whom turned out to be young dandies. One was wearing a pair of grey flannel trousers and a gun club jacket with softly constructed, roped shoulders, three patch pockets, and a rather clean chest. His jacket was slightly more fitted, which is what I assumed he asked for, given his age. His friend had on charcoal trousers and a navy sport coat with two patch pockets, barchetta breast pocket, and sloping, bald shoulders. Signore Panico came dressed in what he wore earlier in the day—a navy suit, light blue shirt, burgundy oxford-weave tie, and pair of black suede chukkas. In addition, he had on a matching burgundy wool scarf and navy Ulster overcoat that he undoubtedly tailored himself. When he wore the Ulster, he would flip the back collar up, as is often done with this style of overcoat, and it flared out in the most handsome way. The overall look was very masculine.
I asked Panico at dinner about the famous safari jacket he made when he was at London House. “I don’t even think about it anymore,” he said. “But if you’d like, I have some other safari jackets in my workshop. Come by tomorrow, I will show you.” I actually had an 8-hour appointment at Isaia’s factory the next day, but Panico assured me that it didn’t matter. He works until very late at night.
The following evening, I stopped by the atelier. Again, as is the custom, Panico welcomed me in and offered me coffee. This time, there were also cigars and chocolates on the coffee table, and on the other side of the room, where there had been wool suiting, there were now two extremely large bouquets of flowers, presumably from happy customers. Panico and I chatted for a bit before a knock came at the door. An older, slightly heavier set Neapolitan gentleman came in. He had thick, wavy silver hair and a grey chalkstripe flannel suit to match. It turned out he has been a client of Panico’s for 30 years, back when the Maestro was at Rubinacci. Now he lives in New York and does business in South Korea and Western Europe. When he can, he stops by Naples to have his clothes made.
“Thank you for the espresso,” he said to Panico’s assistant. He passed on the chocolate, but took one of the cigars. Panico then handed him a lighter.
The gentleman was very worried about the European debt crisis, so we talked for a bit about the European Central Bank, whether Italy should return to the lira, and if the Euro was a doomed idea from the start. After about 20 minutes, the gentleman turned to Panico and, almost as if he just remembered, asked about his jacket. Panico then politely asked for my permission to bring the client to the fitting room, to which I replied, “Certainly, please.”
The fitting is a private affair, of course, and when the two men returned, we continued to chat about various subjects—modernity, family, and traveling. Soon another knock came at the door and a gentleman with neatly brushed-back brown hair appeared. He didn’t seem like he had time to chat, so Panico asked us to excuse him while he brought the client to the back. The silver-haired gentleman and I continued our conversation, and when the Maestro returned, the topic naturally wended its way to tailoring. “Ah yes, the safari jackets,” Panico said, and then nodded, “Let me show you.”
He brought out three belted jackets. One is made from linen, another from cotton, and the last from cashmere. Without any of the structure of lining or canvas, they wear rather light. Panico motioned me to try on a few. Once they were on, he belted them up, pulled up the collar, and straightened them out. I admired them for a moment in the mirror, appreciating their stylish, unique look. Next, Panico had me try on a few Ulster overcoats, which weren’t too unlike the one he wore the night before. These are made from heavy, thick wools and they have an incredible life to them, particularly in the way the lapel line majestically rolls past the buttoning point.
Panico seems to excel in this kind of construction—shaping heavy, thick fabrics beautifully and making them feel as light as possible. They drape wonderfully from the shoulders, and even with the rougher cloths, there’s the signature spalla camicia sleevehead. The silhouette also harkens back to the Golden Age of Italian style—the 1950s and ‘60s – when suits were a bit fuller and had more bravado. Panico’s tailoring, in this sense, feels grand, aristocratic, elegant, and very masculine.
I thought about this for a moment while looking in the mirror. There’s been enough hand wringing over whether there will be enough skilled tailors in the future. Many Master Tailors don’t have apprentices, and the modern economy no longer allows people to enter into the trade at an early age (Panico began training at age 12). More importantly than that, however, is the problem of taste. There seems to be two generations in Naples. The older generation likes a fuller, elegant cut, while the younger generation likes things more fitted and fashionable. I personally have no doubts that there will be skilled cutters here in 20 or 30 years, but it’s not clear whether there will be people with Panico’s level of taste in the future. For those of us who appreciate that 1950s-60s era of Italian style, such silhouettes may be more and more difficult to obtain in 30 years’ time.
Back in the main room, the original silver-haired gentleman and I decided that we’ve bothered the Maestro enough, and that it’s time we leave him to his work. We bade him farewell, and Panico asked that we visit him again when we’re in town.
As many may recall, Filangieri posted this old article at Ask Andy About Clothes many years ago, before AAAC’s servers crashed. In it, he gives his account of having a suit made in Naples, and waxes romantic on not only the garments, but also the process, experience, and social nature of the transaction. His article is almost undoubtedly about Panico, but I think it represents many other tailors here as well. For example, on the day I met Gianluca, the director of O’Mast, he had just gotten back from his tailor, where he had not only stopped by for a fitting, but also to share lunch.
This kind of kind of gentleman’s approach to business is only really practiced among a certain segment of tailors, however. They tend to be from an older generation, and are often cutters running smaller operations. Perhaps because of age or culture, they don’t seem interested in maximizing profits. Their business is steady and loyal. Their clients bring their sons and close friends, and those people stay for decades before doing the same. In some cases, if the Maestro doesn’t think someone is worthy of being fitted, he may even politely turn down the business. For these men, tailoring is as much more about their sense of personal pride than it is about money, and the people they work with aren’t just customers, but also friends.
To be sure, one shouldn’t get the impression that you can go to Naples and buy this experience as though it were part of a pre-packaged ride. It’s not as though for 2,000 Euros you’ll get a bespoke suit and two espressos, but for 500 more, you’ll get lunch. They’re natural extensions of real relationships. Foreigners who come here, on the other hand, often don’t speak Italian, let alone Neapolitan, and the tailors certainly don’t speak English (at least the older ones). Perhaps both parties can get by with enough gestures and pointing to have a suit made, and maybe a cup of espresso will be offered, but these aren’t the same things. The “Neapolitan ‘sartoria’ experience,” as Filangieri calls it, is still alive, but one gets the impression that it’s only for locals.
Unfortunately, as this older generation ages and eventually departs, so may this social dimension of Naples’ tailoring culture. Many of the other houses are too new, too big, or too busy to engage in such things. Even if they had the time, young people tend to approach business differently. This kind of transition could be likened to the evolution of barbershops in America. While they were once places for socializing and leisure, they’re now places where you simply make an appointment and have your hair cut. Neither the barbers nor the clients have the time or inclination to socialize in the same way anymore. As one young salesman at a sartoria told me, “We live in a much busier time now. I can barely get all my work done; I certainly don’t have time to have coffee with everyone. That kind of way of doing business is from a different time.”