How Heritage Tailoring Brand Cifonelli Came To Embody Class And Elegance
‘I could recognise a Cifonelli shoulder from a distance of a hundred metres’ — fashion devotees will instantly identify this quote as being from none other than Karl Lagerfeld. The seminal element that he spoke of, now known as the cigarette shoulder, is the first thing that creative director John Vizzone points out to me…although my eyes had landed on it the moment I entered the room. The figure-flattering shoulder arch was invented by Arturo Cifonelli in 1926 and it is one of the reasons why the brand’s patrons always look so unbelievably dapper. “It’s all because he asked a question — how does one allow for movement while still keeping a jacket form-fitting — and worked relentlessly to find an answer,” Vizzone tells me. The closely guarded formula has been passed down for four generations and now lies in the hands of owners Massimo and Lorenzo Cifonelli, who brought the renowned designer (creative director at Ralph Lauren for 28 years) on board in 2014 to help them tap into the ready-to-wear sector. While in the country recently, to mark the brand’s entry into the Indian market, CEO Erwan Camphius and Vizzone chatted with us at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai.
Erwan Camphius (EC): “The first generation of Cifonellis was in Rome, the second went to London and the third established the brand properly in Paris in 1920. Until 2011, for about 20 years, the brand collaborated with Hermès…until Hermès wanted to buy them out. In 2012, Berluti of LVMH also proposed that they buy them out. Both offers were declined. Lorenzo and Massimo, who are young, said, ‘Look, we are tailors, not businessmen. And we are in the business of bespoke tailoring. So to really take the company forward and do justice to our customers, we have to offer an extra service.’ A broader range of products, therefore, was in order — shirts, outerwear, pants, and sportswear over and above the one-on-one customised experience. It was also important to geographically extend this service outside Paris, to allow us to come here to India, go to Singapore and be in New York, too. But considering that they didn’t have the time or sufficient knowledge to spearhead a ready-to-wear collection, the cousins chose John. And they chose him not only because he had a very successful almost-three-decades at Ralph Lauren, but more specially because he had been a client of Cifonelli for 24 years. He was like a member of the family and knew the brand inside out, so it was only natural for them to trust him to propel it forward.”
John Vizzone (JV): “The one thing I don’t like is when people put age limitations like ‘The Cifonelli guy is between 25 and 35’…that’s not the brand. I think the Cifonelli guy is a gentleman who wants to present himself as elegant. He is someone who walks into a room and everyone knows he looks great but they don’t know why. He is the epitome of understated elegance.”
JV: “We’re a French brand, so when I took over the collections we did the first few shows in Paris, which was great, but the problem was that the brands there are predominantly women’s. So we were competing with multi-dimensional fashion brands, whereas we’re a luxury specialist brand. So we moved the collection to Milan, where we were among our real competitors like Tom Ford and Ermenegildo Zegna. When moving internationally, we knew that there are pockets of gentlemen or elegant people all over the world who not only could afford these clothes but mainly who really understand the finesse and feel of quality fashion. We picked India because we felt it is really an untapped market with regards to luxury menswear. There are people here who really can comprehend what we have to offer.”
EC: “There is also the element of heritage and culture that ties us to this place. We have a rich and vast history of craftsmanship — something that can be grasped by the people here. It’s difficult to be completely politically correct all the time, but the truth is that we find a better connect to a customer base when they are educated. And I’m talking about education in the sense of understanding why something is beautiful, why it is different, and why it is extraordinary. It has nothing to do with First, Second or Third World countries, but instead is about aesthetics and cultural background. It’s easier for us to come here first than to go to a place in America like Texas and tell a cowboy to wear a body-hugging suit! Plus, we already had a lot of Indian customers who travel all over the world to access us, so we knew that they understood our culture and that it would be the right fit.”