From his shop in a Philadelphia suburb, Joe Centofani, a third generation master tailor laughingly recalls his ancestral home town, Penne, where he began his lifelong labor with the thimble and needle, “If you couldn’t be a doctor or a lawyer, the next thing was a tailor. So in the town where I was raised, there were more tailors than people.” Mr. Centofani is one of three master tailors in the documentary film Men of the Cloth directed and produced by Vicki Vasilopolous. Joined by Nino Corvato who was born in Ficarazzi (Palermo) and Checchino Fonticoli of Penne, these aging artisans tell their own stories in English or Italian as they mark, cut, stitch, press and fit.
Much is revealed in 96 minutes. The layers of workmanship involved in constructing a hand tailored custom suit are memorably documented. Most moving may be moments when the men articulate their artistic values. In his 90’s at the time, Mr. Centofani remarks, “It’s like handwriting. Nobody can do my handwriting … You express yourself in the garment… You feel good about it.” Mr. Fonticoli says, “I am 60 years old and I am learning more… You will never be a complete tailor until you die.” Sixty-seven year old Mr. Corvato: “A tailor can never retire. He works until he can’t.”
Ms. Vasilopoulos confided, “I relate to my own characters. They work on perfecting their craft.” Her documentary film came to fruition after 10 years of following her characters and after a career as a men’s fashion editor. “When you follow real people, you go with their trajectory.” Her conviction that a story lay in the traditions and modern realities of Italian master tailors bolstered her during the decade of filming men she refers to as “unsung heroes.” Her research for the film took her to Abruzzo, Sicily, New York City and Philadelphia.
Penne, dubbed the land of tailors, plays an important role in the film. I’ve been exploring Abruzzo annually since 2006, and I thought I knew which towns boasted an artisan lineage. Were the streets of Penne lined with charming Old World tailors’ shops? Was this another example of a regional treasure known only to locals? As I have discovered through the film, the future of hand sewn tailoring is being kept alive in Penne, but not in ways we may imagine.
Checchino Fonticoli informs us that in 1956, Penne boasted at least 15 tailors who employed six or seven people. Today one tailor shop is open for business, his cousin Antonio’s. In the more distant past, tailors were known to barter with farmers sometimes living with the family for as long as it took to outfit everyone in exchange for farro, flour or salumi. So what happened to the thriving artisan trade? Emigration. Those who stayed began learning the work at age 10, like Mr. Fonticoli and his more famous uncle, master tailor Nazareno Fonticoli, who left Penne for Rome in 1945. There he co-founded Brioni, the luxury custom made men’s clothing firm whose reputation for excellence and elegance has dressed luminaries from Cary Grant to Nelson Mandela to Agent 007 in five James Bond films. Several Brioni suits are displayed in the current traveling international exhibit, The Glamour of Italian Fashion: 1945-2014 which opened in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum and is now in the USA.
As Brioni’s business on via Barbarini in Rome thrived, Nazareno Fonticoli opted to industrialize hand sewn tailoring back in his hometown. In 1959 Brioni opened a plant in Penne, employing 44 tailors. Today 1,000 tailors, seamstresses, and cutters work in the shop. Industrial tailoring may seem like a contradiction in terms, but Checchino Fonticoli insists that it is still an art based on traditional practices and that every garment is individually cut and hand sewn with a few finishing touches done by machine.
In the film, a Brioni spokesman elaborates on the significance of Penne itself to the fine craftsmanship in their clothing line. He attributes it to lack of stress. Workers can be home in five minutes, they live in a quiet place surrounded by mountains and close to the sea. The typical shift is half-day, six days a week and most workers devote themselves to a single phase of construction. Ms. Vasilopoulos recalls that the food in the cafeteria is delicious.
Yet the trade is in peril. The problem today is not emigration but retirement. These days a son does not take up his father’s trade. Ten year olds play rugby after school rather than learn to stitch a hem. “We’re not in the Renaissance anymore,” Ms. Vasilopoulos lamented during the Q&A following the Washington screening. The certainty of a serious generation gap in the craft of tailoring was met in 1985 when the Scuola Sartoria Nazareno Fonticoli was founded. Eighteen students are selected from a sizable applicant pool and enrolled in a 4 year course of study in theory and hands on tailoring. Students enter at age 14 or 15, and after the classroom experience, they apprentice in the factory and often travel the globe meeting customers and perfecting their craft. A graduate of the Scuola says in the film, “It’s a job of reflection, attention and concentration.” And that seems to suit him just fine.
As a side note, Italy’s other endangered crafts have been given some attention by the foundation Scuole Mestieri d’arte whose goal is to “train and support a new generation of art teachers to promote and protect the great heritage of Italian culture, beauty and know-how.” They define a master as “one who knows how to do and how to teach.” Naturally the tailor school in Penne falls in step with their mission along with a ceramics school in Caltagirone, a glass school in Murano and even an institute for food in Parma. Each of the master tailors we meet in this film is concerned with legacy, not his own but that of the work, the vocation itself.
One may wonder about the practicality of buying handmade and, subsequently, expensive clothing in these days of readymade apparel and tight budgets. Ms. Vasilopoulos puts it this way: “Value, honor, the finer things in life- they matter. They cost, but bring everyday pleasure that lasts a lifetime.”
Men of the Cloth has screened at several film festivals and to sold out audiences around the world. Ms. Vasilopoulos hopes to bring the film to an Abruzzesi audience in 2015. Her enthusiasm for the region matches her own passion for her film. She told me, “I’ve been all over Italy- from Sicily to the Veneto, and I love the country, but Abruzzo- that is at the top of my list. It rules for beauty, atmosphere, food, people. It appeals to me and I’d choose to go there.”
View Men of the Cloth’s worldwide screenings. Information on pre-orders for the DVD in the US and Canada is here: http://menoftheclothfilm.com/shop/ The film will be available on iTunes, Amazon and other video-on demand platforms in a few months or so, after the main theatrical screenings have concluded.