Words by Mr Mansel Fletcher, Features Editor, MR PORTER
Arriving at the MP di Massimo Piombo showroom in Milan it's hard to be certain that you're in the right place, because the imposing Palazzo Moriggia is an unlikely fashion headquarters, and the sign reads "Museo del Risorgimento" (Museum of the Resurgence; the 19th-century movement for Italian unification). It's lucky there's a warden to point visitors in the right direction.
Mr Massimo Piombo explains that his young brand has access to such an evocative space through an initiative of the city of Milan, which has lent him grand rooms in the museum for six months. Amazingly his clothes are able to live up to this extraordinary space - perhaps because, in his words, "We like to create special products in a beautiful way, with a European approach."
That European approach includes, but isn't limited to, his suppliers, who range from silk weavers in Lyon, France, to the best Swiss cotton producers, via Scottish cashmere and tweed, and Hungarian alpaca. Mr Piombo describes his restless search for fabrics as "A mission. I'm not Gandhi, but this is a mission in a fashion sense. I spend 200 days a year travelling the world, but it's a hobby for me; it's fantastic, I like to spend my time looking for the most interesting clothes."
However, Mr Piombo knows that fine materials have to be deployed in the right way, and an element of restraint is crucial to his extraordinary taste. An example of this is the way he combines cream shirts with dinner jackets, to soften the contrast between shirt and jacket. This combination is rarely seen now, but Mr Piombo explains its origins. "It was a private code in the aristocratic world in the 1950s and 1960s - everybody else wore white, but they would only use cream."
Asked if such details are relevant in the 21st century Mr Piombo says, "It's our job to translate the old styles for the new generation. I don't make replicas of old clothes; I'm inspired by the archives to make contemporary versions. However, the DNA is the same, because the fabric mills are the same, and the countries where the fabric comes from are always the same." In practice this means that shapes, cuts and proportions are modern, but easy to wear. "When clothes are tight they're no longer beautiful," Mr Piombo explains. Central to the appeal of these designs is the fact that they could only exist in 2013, even if they're rooted in traditional forms.
It's our job to translate the old styles for the new generation. I don't make replicas of old clothes; I'm inspired by the archives to make contemporary versions
To understand how Mr Piombo comes to design such particular and elegant clothes it's helpful to know something about the man. Born in Varazze, a small seaside town just west of Genoa on Italy's Ligurian coast, Mr Piombo enjoys life's simple pleasures. "When I'm at home I like to fish, and I like to be in the country. When I'm working in Milan I like to go home every night so that I can wake up by the sea [Milan is approximately a 90-minute drive from Varazze]. I like to sail around Corsica in the summertime, and ski in the Engadin valley, in Switzerland, in wintertime." He's not a man who aspires to phony aristocratic grandeur, but a man in tireless pursuit of authentic elegance. As he puts it, "I hope to create some beauty."
It's worth mentioning that Mr Piombo is exceptionally well dressed. The day of our interview his clothes only slowly reveal themselves. At first glance he appears to be wearing a blue suit, but slowly the eye absorbs the fact that he's wearing a substantial double-breasted jacket, with subtle alternating beaded stripes, over a shirt and sweater, blue trousers and suede desert boots. The collar of his tan-coloured gingham shirt is severely foxed, he's rolled the long cuffs of his sweater back over his jacket's sleeves, and his trousers don't match the jacket. These elements combine to produce an unrivalled manifestation of sprezzatura, and it makes perfect sense when he says his personal style icons are Messrs Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound and F Scott Fitzgerald.
The inspiration for Mr Piombo's new spring collection came from the now-vanished days when men holidaying on France's Côte d'Azur still wore tuxedos for dinner. The designer was in Lyon, visiting his velvet supplier, when he had a eureka moment. "I saw printed velvet for dinner jackets, and for me this was like a new world. The jackets were worn at family dinners," he explains. "In the 1960s, at a private dinner on Cap Ferrat, men wore midnight blue jackets with small printed checks, cream shirts and black ties. I have followed their example with dinner jackets in silk from Lyon that's printed with discreet paisley. Of course the new generation can use them not just for dinner, but any time."
The privileged men dining on Cap Ferrat would naturally have had their clothes tailored, and Mr Piombo's modern interpretations are no less refined. This is thanks to his partnership with revered Italian manufacturer Kiton, which hand-makes the MP di Massimo Piombo clothes in its Neapolitan factory. Mr Piombo explains: "For us, the super-touch from Italy is the sartorial touch. To have Kiton make your clothes is like having Rolls-Royce make your car."