In the 1930s, the tailors of Naples were on the verge of a breakthrough. The city had had a rich history in the art of the cloth, having been known to the aristocracy of Europe for nearly 700 years—back when the country was still a collection of fragmented kingdoms. Still, the early 1900s saw them producing suits that were in the British or general Italian tradition. It was only during the 30s when the seaside city’s sartorias made their mark across the world by reimagining the modern suit and making it their own. Far less structured than the British suit and even more comfortable than the already light Italian suit, Naples had reimagined the wheel, as it were, and built it to roll particularly on Neapolitan soil.
Since the reinvention of the modern jacket by its homegrown tailors, the Neapolitan suit has become a category of its own. The runways of Paris, London, and New York might be the center of attention at the turn of each season, but the sartorias of Naples plod on steadily throughout the year—all dedicated to a style that has barely changed in decades.
That the style exists isn’t surprising. Naples’ warmer climate demanded a suit that would better stand the heat. That Neapolitan tailoring has spread across the world and taken its place alongside more established traditions, however, is. While it didn’t make an immediate impression—perhaps due to the highly localized nature of the suit—the style has gained a widespread following and still remains in fashion after over 70 years.
“The jacket is very soft and less constructed,” says Salvatore Ambrosi, a Neapolitan trouser maker who has been practicing the art since the age of eight. “It’s more like comfortable jacket. The look is still formal but in a different way. Younger. The English jacket is very formal, more constructed, very rigid and heavy jacket. Neapolitan jacket is different. It’s very soft.” The Neapolitan jacket is marked by the sparse use of silk, rounded pockets (tasca a pignata), and breast pockets cut with a boat-shaped opening (tasca a barchetta). The wide lapels are painstakingly hand-sewn with a backstitching technique called the doppia impuntura, while overlapping buttons adorn the sleeves. All of these create the traditional Neapolitan jacket, with a few signature details here and there added by each particular tailor. Neapolitan trousers, likewise, are especially light, matching the jackets that go with them. Most of the stitching is done by hand, allowing the tailor to better manipulate the material into shapes that conform to the wearer’s body—a skill that machines cannot match with their linear movements. While some stitches will appear irregular, due to the limitations of human skill, the resulting bond is stronger, owing to the techniques passed down through generations.
Still, in Naples, tailoring is as much about tradition and history as it is about technique, and many of the famous names associated with it—Attolini, Rubinacci, Palermo, Dalcuore, Ambrosi, and their contemporaries—have been practicing the tailor’s art for decades. Some of them for generations. This has made each of their sartorias something of a tourist spot for people who visit the city.
Naples isn’t difficult to get to, though it is somewhat out of the way, mostly recommended as a stopover on the way to the more tourist-friendly Amalfi Coast. About an hour away by rail or flight from Rome, Naples is at once bold and gritty and untidy, even for a country that is hardly known for its cleanliness. But it is this boldness and grit and untidiness that the world has taken to. Neapolitan tailoring’s spirit is tied closely to city, to the people who live in it.
“Our trousers, our jacket, our suit, they have soul,” Ambrosi explains. “You can feel that when you wear it. It’s from Napoli…our suit, our weather, our style. When you buy Neapolitan suit you buy full package, you will buy our roots.”
“You see our product is sometimes not real perfect, like the stitching,” he continues. “This is our city, too. Our city is not perfect. A lot of criminals, trash, whatever. We have this lifestyle, this character, and everything is same in Neapolitan suit.”
Naples’ traditions in finery remain alive today, housing one of the largest gatherings of handmade menswear in the world, including bespoke shirts, handcrafted umbrellas, jewelry, and bolts of cloth. But while bespoke tailoring has picked up in other parts of the world—particularly in Japan—the Neapolitan tailors have somewhat dwindled in number. Like many other traditions, tailoring just isn’t creating the same interest as it did in the previous generations, and fewer are willing to take up the needle and thimble.
“Nowadays, there’s a little bit less than before,” Ambrosi says. “Still, Napolitani have a culture of that. In Japan, nowadays, there’s a lot of tailors but it’s not the culture of the Japanese. They just come to Italy and learn but I always say to the people: Neapolitan tailoring is like Ferrari. It means when you want a sports car, you wanna buy a Ferrari, because there’s a story. You want the history of that. If you wanna have a suit you gonna buy an English suit or Neapolitan suit because they have the culture, the history on the back. That’s the difference.”
“You not just buy suits. You buy everything.”
This article first appeared in Vault Issue #24.