Umberto Angeloni, president and CEO of Italian menswear manufacturer Caruso, offers a few choice terms: bravura, cognoscente, bel canto, literati. ‘All of these words or phrases are Italian,’ the fashion entrepreneur notes, ‘and they all denote a special ability or attitude.’ But, he asserts, king among such phrases is la bella figura – it is, after all, what gives Italian fashion its je ne sais quoi, to borrow a phrase from across the Alps.
La bella figura is a way of life in Italy: ‘the beautiful image’ is the 24-hour impermeable shell of unruffled chic that is a defining attribute of Italian men, seen so beautifully and in such abundance on the menswear catwalks of labels such as Ermenegildo Zegna, Berluti and Brioni. This, after all, is a nation in which even the tiniest details count, in which a dress shirt, such as one from Luigi Borrelli, has a proprietary three-point crow’s-foot stitch to attach its mother-of-pearl buttons and the cotton is pressed using vetiver water. Yes, really.
Style that stands out
‘Given our country’s image after 20 years of poor governance, style matters more than ever,’ explains Angeloni, formerly CEO of Brioni and now owner of the Parma-based Caruso tailoring house, established in 1958 and now set for revival with store openings planned for New York and Milan next January. ‘And it is the attitude of la bella figura that gives Italian style its appeal and flair. La bella figura is about being noticeable but not arrogant, seemingly relaxed and ironic and yet actually in full control. La bella figura shapes how we talk, eat, play, flirt and especially dress. Italians are constantly manipulating their image. But la bella figura is, especially, the Italian man’s business card.’
Indeed, what image did the 2014 Cannes Film Festival use to promote its cool sophistication? None other than one of Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, shown starring in in Federico Fellini’s 1963 film 8½. Actors are not the only elegant Italians: writer and poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, industralist Gianni Agnelli, and Ferrari’s chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, voted onto Vanity Fair magazine’s 2013 list of the world’s best-dressed, are similarly stylish Italian men.
Italian to the core
The life philosophy of la bella figura has deep roots: as with the English dandy and the French flâneur, la bella figura was originally conceived as an aspiration specifically for the Italian peacock, not the peahen. When Baldassare Castiglione wrote Il Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier), published in 1528, he posited what he called the ‘universal rule in all human affairs’: sprezzatura, a facade of nonchalance that concealed the artistry required to pull off challenges with aplomb, regarded even at the time as both romantic and deceptive in almost equal measure. Come the 18th century and travellers on their Grand Tour around Italy were commenting on the way even the peasantry was well-dressed.
The additions of Mediterranean culture, with its sun-kissed body-consciousness, Catholicism, with its rites and its regard for imagery, and the the fact that the Italian male still typically lives at home until he is 30 – allowing for a transition of style knowledge from father to son, such as a ritualistic first introduction to the family’s preferred bespoke tailor – mean appearances are always going to be part of Italian life. The wider following of la bella figura is often attributed to Italy’s huge social and economic expansion of the 1950s, when the Italian fashion industry grew massively and first embraced marketing. But it is also underpinned by a need to compete.
With high art a constant background everywhere from metropolis to backwater, every Italian man sees tailoring’s broad shoulders and nipped waist as a reflection of the idealised masculinity of Michelangelo’s David and the calm composure of classical Italian statuary. ‘The whole culture of art means we appreciate anything that looks good,’ says Milanese shoemaker Silvano Lattanzi. ‘After all, we live amid beautiful landscapes, Renaissance architecture, we have frescoes in every tiny church.’
The art of lifestyle
Like Italian art, Italian menswear has proved a major export precisely for its specific idea of refinement. To reflect la bella figura it must be ‘modern, relevant to now, not looking to the past or to the future,’ argues Angeloni. ‘There’s a nod to tradition in the details – working button cuffs, the right stitching on the lapel – which you have to have if you want to sell a suit to an Italian man, details that other men might not even be aware of.’
Men elsewhere are certainly waking up to these details, however. A 2013 survey conducted by the Boston Consulting Group global management consultancy showed that Italy still ranks internationally as the number one manufacturing country for clothes, accessories and jewellery, and number two even for watches – despite having only one luxury watch brand, Panerai. It seems that la bella figura’s art of lifestyle is catching on.