Our Favourite Under-The-Radar Italian Brands
Have you heard of Aspesi or Barena? We shine a light on seven understated labels born in Italy
If any country in the world has got life right, it’s Italy. From food to architecture, art to wine, hand gestures to summer holidays, not to mention football, cars, coffee and sex, they are all underpinned to an irritating degree by effortless style. It is this same style that defines Italian culture, its spirit and elegance.
When it comes to fashion and luxury, we are all familiar with global powerhouses such as Gucci, Prada and Tod’s, but there are many Italian brands that keep a lower profile and deliberately fly under the radar. These brands are not so trend-led, but they communicate an effortless sophistication and subtle luxury that come from an appreciation of quality allied with refined taste. There’s nothing statement or showy here. This is stealth style, the sartorial equivalent of a beautiful palazzo obscured behind ancient wooden doors and decked in ivy.
Just as a run-of-the-mill piadina and espresso from a corner caffetteria anywhere in Italy are likely to taste better than anything you might find in London or New York, so the average Italian has an innate sense of style that is equally superior. And it might just be because they are wearing at least one of these seven insider brands, which you should consider adding to your wardrobe pronto.
The genius of Massimo Alba is in the look and especially the feel of everything it makes. Mr Alba, a lifelong cashmere specialist, gives each piece an amazingly soft, worn-in feel so, although it’s brand new, it’s like an old favourite you’ve owned for years. As the designer himself has said, “What I do isn’t about being fashionable. It is about being comfortable.”
There is an air of tactile crumpledness and elegant dishevelment to this 11-year-old Milanese brand. “The kind of guy who wears Massimo Alba is someone who doesn’t want box-fresh crispness,” says MR PORTER Style Director Mr Olie Arnold. “He wants luxurious and understated comfort. And he wants little details that perhaps only he knows about, that maybe only he discovers as he wears the clothes.” This checked shirt, for example, has been over-dyed to give it a mottled finish akin to a watercolour painting. The navy chinos are a blend of cotton with two per cent cashmere, a perfect combination of utility and luxury. The shawl-neck cashmere cardigan won’t scream “look at me” from across the street, but once you exchange a warm embrace, it will invariably illicit the question, “Ooh, where is that from?” There is perhaps no higher compliment.
Chances are you own a Caruso suit already, you just don’t know it. Caruso’s main business is making suits for more than a dozen other luxury brands – and very good they are, too. The company’s factory near Parma employs 600 people, who hand-make 450 slick suits a day. That’s 100,000 a year. But since the arrival of Mr Umberto Angeloni, the former CEO of Brioni, who bought the company in 2007 and became its CEO in 2009, Caruso has begun to forge its own identity making soft, unstructured suits under its own name.
“Caruso’s signature jacket, which has a ‘butterfly’ construction, is exceptionally light,” says Mr Arnold. “This one is made with cotton that has a little stretch for unrestricted movement, which makes this suit perfect for warmer climes and for people who travel regularly.” It’s soft-shouldered, which gives it versatility. In many countries, wearing a suit automatically denotes formality. “But Italians have an easy way with tailoring that feels so natural and relaxed,” says Mr Arnold. “Here we’ve styled it with the kind of woven belt and chambray shirt you would normally wear with jeans or chinos. You can imagine this same suit being worn with a T-shirt and sneakers.”
This Brescia-based brand has become synonymous with neat and lightweight tailoring, but most notably, unstructured jackets. “It was one of the first companies to strip tailoring back, and to come at a tailored garment with more of a sportswear approach,” says Mr Sam Kershaw, Senior Buying Manager at MR PORTER. “It ushered in a whole new idea of garment construction.” This is an all-pervasive design ethos, which you can also see in this unlined, double-breasted overcoat. “Most double-breasted overcoats would have to be worn buttoned up, but because of the way this one drapes, it can be worn unbuttoned, which makes it more casual and contemporary,” says Mr Arnold. The bouclé cloth has a raised pile to it, similar to a teddy bear, which makes it feel cosy and comfortable, like a big dressing gown.
Prince of Wales check is never out of style. “It is a pattern that is going to be particularly on trend for the next few seasons, which makes this a smart investment right now,” says Mr Arnold. This particular petrol and navy check is pretty bold, so the rest of the outfit is muted – a navy ribbed wool sweater worn with inky-blue brushed-cotton suit trousers that have a little elastane stretch. “Embrace the tailored separates idea of combining suit trousers with more casual pieces,” says Mr Arnold. “It is easier to do this with a matte cloth such as brushed cotton, flannel or a worsted wool.”
This is a brand inspired by the traditional attire of local Venetian farmers and fishermen, who created their own particular dress code of versatile workwear. Barena draws on the heritage of Venice’s textile industry. Once again, the emphasis is on soft tailoring that affords the wearer the flexibility to move fluidly between dress codes as his diary dictates, dressing elegantly without being formal, and dressing informally without being sporty. This duality is neatly summed up in these flecked grey drawstring sweatpants made from heavy suiting cloth.
“Of all seven brands, Barena is the most fashion-forward and it’s also fairly well-priced, given the quality, which lends itself to a younger customer,” says Mr Arnold. “It’s more adventurous. There’s a lot going on with that two-tone half-cable-knit, half-waffle jumper, for example.” You would get a great deal of wear out of this midnight-blue machine-washable jacket, but Mr Arnold is a particular fan of the brand’s trousers. “It does a really good cropped trouser with a pleat, and the drape is perfect,” he says. “Definitely worth checking out.”
No one could reasonably claim that a successful luxury brand such as Brunello Cucinelli is under the radar, but no man embodies the appealing ethos of stealth style quite like Mr Cucinelli himself.
He is a staunch advocate of mix-and-match combinations of formal with informal: cargo pants or cords with a jacket and tie, for example. He enjoys the contrast of textures such as woollen trousers worn with a linen jacket, or a denim shirt paired with a cashmere cardigan. He has a keen appreciation of colour and how to use it. His base palette is earthy (greys, browns and beiges mostly) and his accent colours are dusty, so they all work together. And fit is fundamental. He is, after all, the inventor of the figure-flattering one-and-a-half-breasted jacket.
“This season, there’s quite a military feel to Brunello Cucinelli, which comes through in the big gold buttons, a running motif on a number of key pieces,” says Mr Kershaw. “And it’s all about soft, rich textures and comfort, as exemplified by these stretch-fit corduroy trousers.”
For a brand that is approaching its 30th anniversary, there is remarkably little information about it in the public domain. Its founder, Mr Alberto Aspesi, always shunned the limelight, very rarely gave interviews, and never did any advertising or fashion shows. Recently, however, the brand has brought in Mr Fabbio Gnocchi as CEO, formerly of Brunello Cucinelli, and it has become more commercially minded.
“Aspesi specialises in utility workwear, and it all goes together nicely,” says Mr Kershaw. The main colour palette is quite military – olive, khaki, grey, navy – with some jersey sweats in washed-out colours to add to the mix. “It all feels lived in, almost vintage, and it’s easy to throw on,” says Mr Arnold. “This patch-pocket overshirt is perfect for the transition from summer to autumn and it’s got that crumpled look, which makes it ideal for travelling. Likewise, this machine-washable navy cotton blazer is the ideal go-to item to take everywhere.” It’s also eminently affordable. “I love the cut of that raglan-sleeve T-shirt and I can’t believe that’s all it costs,” he says.
Not all Italian tailoring is soft-shouldered and deconstructed. If you’re a traditional Savile Row-suit kind of customer but want an Italian twist, then Canali is the brand for you. Just ask Mr Barack Obama. While in office, he famously wore a variation of the same grey or navy suit every day in order to reduce decision fatigue so he could devote every ounce of mental energy to leading the free world. In November 2008, while waving to supporters in his home town of Chicago, his suit jacket fell open to reveal a Canali label. The brand could have dined out on this publicity, but instead chose to keep an admirably low profile, as befits its overall sensibility.
“Canali’s tailoring is pretty classic and formal, perfectly suited for the white-collar worker,” says Mr Kershaw. Or in this case, a sky-blue collar. “The colour of the shirt helps to bring out the blue of the suit, which has a subtle puppytooth pattern to it,” says Mr Arnold. “The structure and formality mean this suit is strictly business, not one you could dress down with sneakers and a T-shirt.”