18 East: A Chat with Antonio Ciongoli About His Travel-Inspired New Project

Antonio likes Italian, but now he wants you to try something Indian. Other options include Japanese, Irish, or North African, because, for him, each place offers something interesting.
We’re chatting in La Cumbre, one of the restaurants in San Francisco that claims to be the birthplace of the Mission-style burrito, and Antonio is all smiles.
“Man, you guys have it good. There’s probably a million places to get Mexican food out here. I love it.”  We’re talking about Antonio’s new project, 18 East, which was born, in part, from his visit to Rajasthan a few years ago. He was struck by the various patterns and silhouettes that, while commonplace there, are relatively unused by Western designers. Inspired by his visit, he designed a handful of clothing for his subsequent collections for Eidos, but it wasn’t enough.
“I loved my time at Eidos, but there was so much I couldn’t do,” he recalls. “For one thing, there are so many artisans all over the world, but with Eidos, I could only use their Italian factories. Not that they weren’t great – their knitwear is simply amazing – but they just can’t recreate what we saw in India. In Jaipur, there are huge indigo fields as far as the eye can see where they hand-dip and then air-dry garments. No factory in Italy can do that.”  
“Besides, the idea of massive two-season collections doesn’t make sense to me,” he continues. “There’s the stuff I’d do for Eidos, and then the exclusives for various vendors, like Barney’s and Bloomingdales – literally hundreds of pieces, all at the same time. Guys aren’t looking for polo coats in September – they’re looking for transitional pieces.” With 18 East, Antonio is able to focus on a few dozen pieces seasonal-appropriate every couple months. “I’d rather do a few unique pieces that I’m really excited about, rather than producing an item just to check off a list.”
While it’s true that the items from this drop are influenced by the textiles he saw in India & Nepal, they are not simple imitations. The next day I go to Unionmade to check out the clothes in person, and I’m impressed with just how wearable everything is. Sure, there’s a uniqueness to them – the hand-blocked prints and intricate woven patches, especially – but nothing is so far out that would make the wearer self-conscious. “I didn’t want to create a line that would alienate people,” Antonio says while sipping a beer at the store. He then points to the corduroy sherpa coat hanging on a mannequin. “Take this jacket, for example. It’s my favorite from the collection. It reminds me of something you’d see at a Vermont head shop.”
18 East "Charlotte" sherpa travel vest and belter corduroy rancher coat.

18 East “Charlotte” sherpa travel vest and belted corduroy rancher coat.

Online, I immediately was drawn to the red pajamas (inspired by Steve McQueen’s character in Bullitt) and made a b-line over to them on the rack.  Unfortunately, photos and words can’t do them justice – they really are special.  In two seconds they were off the rack and bagged at the counter, and I wore them that night.  They’re a little different, but the muted color and repeating kalamkari and bagru patterns provide just the right amount of visual interest, and I’ve found they go well under sweaters and jackets.
18 East "Julian" Vintage pajama created with kalamkari - a traditional block-printing method.

18 East “Julian” Vintage pajama created with kalamkari – a traditional block-printing method.

I also picked up the tie-waist cardigan. Made from a donegal-style yarn of sheep’s wool and yak, Antonio chose to use a basketweave to fashion this kimono-style sweater, giving it an insane amount of depth and texture. “That cardigan was a happy accident,” he recounts as I try it on. “We first made it without the placket, and the ends curled up in a funky way.  Then someone attached this placket from the inside, and it just fell perfectly.”
Prices are reasonable, and the general silhouette of the clothes, while loose, is far from baggy.  As a reference, I’m 5’8” and 160lbs, and I took a small in everything and felt comfortable. This first drop had nominal sizing information on the 18East website (e.g. “This garment is oversized”) and it took me a couple tries to find the best size for me in person. Future collections will have measurements to minimize confusion and help get a better idea of how each garment fits. It’s a departure from his much-beloved suiting at Eidos, and for the time being, Antonio isn’t planning on introducing any tailored clothing at all.
18 East "Hima" chainstitch crewneck and "Nomad" tie waist cardigan.

18 East “Hima” chainstitch crewneck and “Nomad” tie waist cardigan.

“Don’t wear any of these clothes with a tie,” he chuckles. “Matching tops and bottoms, though, that’s something I’d like to explore a little in the future.” He shows me pictures from a photoshoot he did earlier in the week with Marco (@KamoteJoe on the forum) wearing pants and a shirt in matching fabrics. “You see this often in India, and it looks fantastic. You’ll see something like this later on. Don’t get me wrong – an Italian suit is great, but it’s not the only suit there is.”
While it may be an obvious statement that there is wearable fashion everywhere, it’s another thing entirely to incorporate global influences in a way that doesn’t come off as ethnic appropriation. From Antonio’s collections, you get the feeling that if Antonio wasn’t in fashion, he’d be a chef, finding inspiration in local flavors around the world.
“But what is local?” he asks back at the restaurant, and it’s a good question. The Mission burrito, stuffed to cylindrical hugeness with equal amounts of beans, rice, and meat, is undeniably San Franciscan, but has origins elsewhere. Ditto for cioppino, chop suey, sourdough, Irish coffee…the list goes on. Like many international cities, the Bay Area readily embraces foreign tastes and incorporates them often into their dishes, because how boring would it be to eat the same thing over and over again?
“I couldn’t agree more,” Antonio says between bites. “As much as I love the pizza in Napoli, I love Philly pizza just as much. As long as it’s good, does it matter where it comes from?”

Photos courtesy of 18East and Ian Anderson
Discuss 18 East with other Styleforum members on this thread.
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Peter works in construction, but has an extensive collection of custom suits which he gets so that he can wear suits on the weekend. Even though he lives in San Francisco, he has never used the word "impact" as a verb. He writes about classic menswear and is one fedora away from being a complete dork.

9 thoughts on “18 East: A Chat with Antonio Ciongoli About His Travel-Inspired New Project

  1. I must say, Antonio’s examples of his clothing line is quite unique and appears on the same tract as the creativity of the “Now Generation”.

    The reference to men’s matching “tops and bottoms” takes me back to the 1050’s-60’s, when that style was quite popular, perhaps not universal, but at least colloquial. The outfits, primarily custom tailored, consisted of various fabrics such as silk & wool blends, sharkskin, rainbow effect iridescent fabrics with geometric designs, etc. The design style was generally drawn by young guys, then brought to the tailor to materialize their creations.
    The 1970’s, however, ushered in an abrupt change, when the “Disco Generation” assumed their rightful place as the new fashion innovators. Off the rack Bell Bottom pants became the staple, along with gaudy wide collar shirts and platform shoes, while the “cool guys and slick chicks” grooved to the music of the “Bee Gees”.
    I thought it quite hilarious to watch guys trying to run across an intersection when the light changed wearing Platform shoes. LOL

    In the last few years there has been a resurgence of men’s matching tops and bottoms, “Leisure Walking Suits”, however, it has not followed the custom tailored path of the past. Cheap fabrics and shoddy construction lend to the realization that they are not made to last. It appears that the “off the rack, on your back” movement is in full swing.

    • Raleigh, I often wonder if your knowledge of fashion stopped abruptly a few decades ago, as you often make statements like the above. Designers, including Antonio, have never stopped making tailored suits in the fabrics you mentioned above. Next thing you know you’ll write 1000 words trying to convince me that dress jeans are OK based on a few outliers wearing them in 1972.

  2. Addendum: Actually, “off the rack” clothing is a realistic and viable alternative to meet the demands of the masses, as most potential buyers could not afford the cost of custom tailoring. I would hope, however, that we educate ourselves to recognize the quality, or lack there of, in our purchases so we are able to discern a fair deal from a seller steal.

    • Raliegh, you’re the guy that looks at a menu and exclaims “A burger costs that much?! Back in my day…”
      Also, do not confuse quality with how much something is worth. In short (and yes, that’s a hint), an item is worth whatever a buyer is willing to pay, which is, of course, subjective.

  3. The clothing and the ethos are no doubt lovely and fill a gap. However, the delivery time for my online order is now stretching into its second month. This is a shame as there is a lot here that I would like to buy but waiting this long for a practical garment is just off putting.

    • Sorry to hear that. From what I understand, there were a few growing pains for the initial release that affected some customers, and the kinks should be worked out for future collections.

  4. I was fortunate enough to go to 18 East’s launch (at the kind invitation of Mitchell Moss), and did leave with a sense that we are witnessing something akin to Ralph Lauren’s story. The collection was of course very ‘derivative’, but just as Lauren took traditional American (be it native or ‘old-preppy’) looks and re-interpreted them in a way that made them ‘new’ and for today, these clothes also added details, fabric qualities and that ‘something’ that removed them from what one would actually buy in India (I am well-acquainted with Jaipur and Udaipur and the Rajasthan area) – which can have some ‘roughness’ – and elevated the aesthetic to something we can wear without it looking like ethnic costume. The issue for most of us is “where” we will wear it, as personally I am still constrained to a more conventional business appearance, even though being in the design industry I am able to, and do wear what some may feel as ‘edgy’ clothes — Dolce+Gabbana, Armani, even DSquared — but as a little sleek, sometimes shiny take on more conventional styles. The main problem for me with Ciongoli’s clothes was the shape and sizes — I have a 27-inch waist and am not tall (5′-8″) so need a lean silhouette. I would have bought the Sherpa coat if it had fit better (and I just want the red pajamas for at home!) Most of these items were boxy, and even the small sizes were too large, but the hand of the fabrics, the plain color knitted pieces, and the ‘art’ of the more obviously Indian-inspired items put his new collection in a league of its own: derivative without deriving from the typical sources. I do think he is a designer to watch, and moving on to other partners will be key to his continued creativity.

    • Well said, Nigel. The additions of prints and weaves were just the right amount. I’m with you on finding the occasion to wear the clothes, since I work in construction during the week. That said, I’ve been wearing the sweater quite a bit on the weekends, and it works well. Regarding sizing – did they not have XS at the store you visited?

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