Inside Kiton, The Pride of Naples
September 4, 2013
This article originally appeared on NMdaily in August 2011.
A team from Neiman Marcus stores across the United States convened in Naples, Italy to understand what makes a Kiton suit so extraordinary. We casually referred to the Kiton campus in Arzano, a suburb of Naples, as “the factory” since it produces all the brand’s tailored clothing, shirts, ties and shoes; but that term evokes machines pumping out maximum quantities of identical goods, and what we witnessed there was the opposite, a complete rejection of automation.
Every artisan in Kiton’s workshops performs a highly specialized task – by hand – and carries it out to perfection. There are no production managers inspecting for quality because there is no need, as the artisan is a respected professional and fully, uniquely accountable for his or her own work. Their pride in their skill makes it inconceivable to hand in less-than-exemplary work.
Every tailor – the fabric cutter, the presser, the baster, the button hole cutter, the buttonhole sewer, to name just a few – makes a vital contribution that no machine can replicate to the same standards.
For example, the barchetta, the signature boat-shaped breastpocket, must curl to lie flat on the chest. The tailors utilize the contours of their thighs to get the shape right. And when the pocket is set on the chest, it must align perfectly with the fabric pattern on the body.
In a handmade suit, every stitch can be calculated to give the wearer comfort, flexibility and freedom of movement. And in Neapolitan tailoring – not a monolithic standard, but a style typically associated with Naples – clothing is expected to be relaxed, because in this coastal Mediterranean setting, gentlemen came to favor soft tailoring and lightness. (The dark, strict Mad Men look doesn’t hold much appeal here.)
Neapolitan style embraces the whole spectrum of color. White, too. Above all it values sprezzatura, nonchalance. Sprezzatura means letting things be spontaneous, a little askew, a little loud perhaps. You might wear the finest clothing in the Western world, but if you fuss to make every detail “correct,” you miss the point entirely.
Kiton is the epitome of soft tailoring and sprezzatura. Its iconic shoulder – with gentle ripples flowing from the vertex of the sleeve – optimizes arm freedom without distorting the natural slope of a man’s shoulder. To the uninitiated it can seem oddly unpolished, but to a connoisseur it signals the height of the craft.
Setting that sleeve in the shoulder is a major feat, and the shoulder itself is astoundingly complicated, comprised of numerous layers and hundreds of stitches binding the layers together.
Every stitch requires attention and finesse, as the varieties of fabric and each customer’s measurements present a unique challenge. A tailor is empowered to spend as much time as it takes to get the job done right. In all, 25 to 50 hours of handwork go into each Kiton suit.
No other tailoring brand couples this level of craftsmanship with 100 percent exclusive fabrics, which justifies Kiton’s motto, “The best of the best, plus one.”
Kiton’s CEO Antonio De Matteis succeeded his uncle, the revered Kiton founder Ciro Paone, in 2007. Despite the economic difficulty of the ensuing years, De Matteis has overseen a handful of ambitious projects to extend the family-owned brand without compromising its quality. First, it acquired Carlo Barbera, one of Italy’s most prestigious fabric mills.
“It was done in the beginning for sentimental reasons, because there was a relationship between my uncle and Mr. Barbera,” says De Matteis. “Today we look at it as a strategic opportunity, to ensure we can continue to have all our fabrics exclusively and made expressly for us, [meeting our standards of] quality and design.”
Considering all the facets of a man’s wardrobe, Kiton is building on the sportswear side, too. It makes outerwear in Parma and knitwear in Fidenza, near Parma, in wholly owned factories. On Kiton’s main campus outside Naples, a denim factory is under construction — alongside an employee gym, classrooms and a nursery, which will provide free child care to all staff.
“We always take care of the life of the people who work with us. My uncle did this from the beginning. He cared for the anima (spirit) of people,” says De Matteis. In 1968, seeing that Neapolitan tailoring was losing ground to mass production, Paone gathered 20 tailors to work under an industrial structure and a single brand. This move ultimately gave Kiton the ability to preserve the essential traditions, tastes and stature of tailors. Today it is deeply moving to witness artisans practicing their craft within a thriving business and receiving an excellent quality of life in return.
Kiton continues to feed its employees’ souls in numerous ways. Paone decorated the facilities with antique furniture, fine art and even a collection of clothing that belonged to the Duke of Windsor. “He wanted that they can see, touch, understand what for him means bello.” says De Matteis.
Outside, the grounds are beautified by citrus trees and Paone’s beloved Caucasian shepherd dogs. Employees take lunch together as subjects of a masterful cook, Pascuale, who has cooked for Paone for more than four decades.
To ensure that Neapolitan tailoring remains an attractive, viable career option for generations to come, Kiton is expanding its tailoring academy and planning to deploy multi-lingual graduates around the world. All graduates of Kiton’s training program find jobs, whether at Kiton or other companies in the region.
“We don’t mind, because we think it’s a job that needs to be cultivated. We cannot lose this tradition. Today I’m proud to say the average age of our employees is 36 years,” says De Matteis. Today Kiton seeks new recruits who are open to working abroad, and who are patient, he says. “The new generation, they want everything immediately. It’s not possible to become a tailor like that. It’s not possible to become an important person in the company like that.”
The next generation of tailors will travel the world like ambassadors.
“Already, Kiton is an ambassador all over the world for Naples. Today when people talk about the Neapolitan school of tailoring, they are largely speaking about our work. What this company has done and what it does today for our citizens, are very important to us. Unfortunately Naples is a city you only hear bad news about, but there are so many beautiful things,” says De Matteis.
In 2014 Kiton will open a showroom and museum in Naples and closes its showrooms in New York and Milan.
“Today we have a new generation of buyer, and I don’t want them to buy it just because of the brand, or because it’s the most expensive brand. I want them to understand the patience, the quality, the handwork in the product. My personal dream is to show everyone what we are doing.”
Kiton is sold in select Neiman Marcus stores.