Going Bespoke in Palermo, Sicily

There are a million and one places in the world to visit, each with its own unique beauty. But I keep finding myself going back to Sicily.

Perhaps it’s because it reminds me so much of my home state of California: a semi-arid terrain with an incredibly varied landscape full of jaw-dropping natural beauty across the spectrum. Within Sicily’s borders are craggy mountains, some reaching over 10,000 feet with snowy ski slopes, and sandy beaches with crystal blue coves and serene waves lapping at the shore. Sure, it has its share of problems – the plumbing in the old part of centuries-old cities often sucks, work can be scarce, lame graffiti is commonplace, and the many of the tunnels need lights. Sicily is not perfect, but really, what place is? Things may take a little longer to accomplish, but that’s not always a bad thing. On the contrary, many, including myself, find opportunity to appreciate the hidden gems that the region has to offer.

One of these gems is classic men’s tailoring. A dying art all over the world, only a handful of tailoring houses still remain, with prices that preclude most from enjoying it firsthand. Nonetheless, viable options can still be found in Sicily, with a few sartorias offering a bespoke suit well within the means of most. The last time I was in Sicily, I visited and commissioned pieces from two small tailoring houses in Messina and Catania. This time, on the recommendation of a dear Italian friend in Marsala, I visited a sartoria called I Sarti Italiani. Their main factory is in Montelepre, with two showrooms in the center of Palermo and Marsala.

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Up to this point, my experience with bespoke has been with small shops, with one guy doing everything – taking measurements, cutting, fitting, and finishing, with the help of one or two family members. I Sarti Italiani is a much bigger operation, employing a group of tailors, each devoted to doing one or two specific steps of the bespoke process. I first went to their main factory to meet up with Salvo, who manages the place and also serves as one of the main fitters. He was kind enough to meet up after working hours, where he walked me around the first floor factory of numerous workstations, peppered with padded desks, ironing boards, steamers, and sewing machines of various types. Everything is made in-house, with a combination of machine-stitch and hand-stitched parts.

Salvo himself is a young man with a renaissance flair and a vast knowledge of tailoring. Whereas most younger Italians only subscribe to the mega-slim cut that has been en vogue for the past 20 years, Salvo knows and appreciates time-honored styles and proportions. When I tried to explain in my limited caveman Italian that I’m going for Gianni Agnelli, with slightly extended shoulders and a lower-than-current notch lapel gorge, he immediately nodded his head and smiled in recognition. “Capisco perfettamente,” he responded, “Lo stile classico.” The fabric being corduroy, he asked which way I’d like the fabric to run. This is because when you rub corduroy in the direction it falls, it stays dark; rub it the opposite way and you’ll feel a little resistance and see the color brighten a bit as the light hits it differently. Small, but important details – you don’t want the top and bottom to run different ways on a corduroy suit, or it’ll look off, and not in a good way. I chose the fabric to run down, so that when I or others rub it (as they often do with corduroy) it’ll feel softer.

After a few days I met up with Salvo at the showroom in Marsala, where Marco Bono manages and oversees the fitting. Outfitted in a perfectly proportioned double-breasted navy suit, semi-spread collar and plain navy tie, one can easily see that Marco recognizes how menswear should fit. “Most suits are too tight,” he lamented, “but everyone looks better in a classic suit.”

When Salvo arrived with the basted suit, we talked about the shape of the patch pockets (come una melanzana), and after ripping off the sleeve and opening the suit to check out the innards, he explained all of the components (horsehair, canvassing) and how they’re attached (sewn, not glued). Since the fabric was a dark brown corduroy, I opted for horsehair canvas to go about 3/4 of the way down, giving shape where necessary in the chest and torso while keeping the overall weight and silhouette soft.

The jacket was to have a 3-roll-2 closure with straight 11cm lapels, shoulders were to have minimal padding, the sleeves manica a camicia, two sleeve buttons spaced apart, and pick stitching a little away from the edge in the same color as the fabric. Pants were to sit just below my navel, with one pleat, slightly fuller thighs, no belt loops, side tabs, buttons for braces, an extended front closure, and 5cm cuffs. He chalked several marks on the back and sides, another to turn the right sleeve to accommodate my lower shoulder, and we made plans to see each other again.

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The day before my departure, I met up with Salvo at the Palermo showroom for the second fitting. That way, if anything needed to be tweaked, he could have it done before I left. However, after putting it on, nothing needed to be done. After his colleague brought an espresso over from the cafe next door, Salvo pulled out the suit for me to try on, and any doubts I had immediately vanished.

The jacket sits just past my shoulders, the sleeves have minimal pleating, and the arms fall almost straight down, with no divots. The notch lapel is a little closer to the classic height, the back of the jacket covers my rear, and the pants sit so that the back of the leg falls straight down – “a piombo.” It stops at the middle of the shoe in the back with a very slight break in the front. Everything fits perfectly, all details and requests were followed exactly as requested, and I got a personalized wax-sealed guarantee covering any future alterations, in case of over-indulgence of pasta and gelato.

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In mainland Italy and abroad, you’d pay anywhere from $1500-$4000 – or even more – for the work involved in the bespoke process. At I Sarti Italiani, I paid full price at less than 500 Euro, excluding fabric. Needless to say, I left the showroom on such a high I wondered if there wasn’t something else in the espresso.

San Francisco is my home, and despite the grime of the Tenderloin, the crazies on Market Street, and the tent encampments strewn about, I still think it’s the best city there is. It’s not perfect, but there’s so much to love that I love it anyway, warts and all. Sicily may not be perfect either, but if I could choose a place to retire, I’m placing my money there, where I can enjoy my golden years with views of the Mediterranean, a short walk away from a sandy beach and an amaro and a short drive away from a bustling city and a tailor.

Just to be clear, I paid full price for the suit, and no plans are being made for “reimbursement” by the sartoria later.