A 1,000-year-old settlement of white dwellings perched upon a hilltop in Italy’s southern heel of Puglia, Martina Franca seems an unlikely hub for artfully made coats and blazers. This town of fewer than 50,000 inhabitants is punctuated by trulli (traditional pointy-topped huts) and baroque churches in crumbling pink tuff. But beyond its historic scenery, Martina Franca is a microcosm of all that Italy has given to the modern fashion industry. It has roots in artisanal clothes-making; it has production workshops that for years have served bigger fashion houses around the world; and it is now home to a host of contemporary brands that are capitalising on local know-how and finding an international customer base in the process. And it’s all been done in the name of beautiful coats and jackets.
“Since I was a boy, I loved to watch all the old grandpas while they sewed,” says Andrea Franchini, who at 25 years old is currently one of the youngest independent tailors working in Italy and one of Martina Franca’s brightest talents. He opened Frandré Sartoria, his tailoring enterprise, in 2018. His father helps with sales in the shop while Franchini designs, cuts and hand-stitches suits. “You have to set the example,” he says of his uniform of jacket and tie. “Before, every man dressed in a suit. The idea of elegance was very significant in Martina Franca.”
Franchini spent almost six years learning the art of bespoke suit-making from Franco Filomena, a retired master tailor. Frandré is the only outfit in town that makes everything by hand, using the adhesive-free “full canvas” style of classic construction to shape the blazer. Franchini’s youth and his Savile Row-style atelier suggest that there’s a promising future for this tradition in Martina Franca. Amid mannequins draped with work-in-process wool jackets, customers at Frandré, many of whom visit from Milan or abroad, choose from top-quality British and Italian fabrics. They also select ties, braces, shoes and sweaters that Franchini designs to match the suits. “Clients come to this shop because they have a special desire in mind,” says the tailor, who recently fulfilled an order for a fuchsia men’s blazer. “They want people to notice that they dress well.”
The beginnings of Martina Franca’s trade were humble. Women spun wool at home and a commonly worn country cape made from the material was the precursor to the natty blazers and overcoats that would come to define the town. Cappottari (makers and sellers of coats) sprung up in the early 1900s, sewing their goods in small ateliers to sell at street markets around Puglia as well as in nearby Basilicata, Calabria, Lazio and Sicily. Industrial factories soon opened, as did bespoke tailors. With Italy’s postwar boom in the 1950s and 1960s, the town became a bustling workshop, making well-cut blazers and coats in luxurious fabrics for Italian and overseas brands. This lucrative period started sputtering about a decade ago, as labels turned to cheaper production outside Italy. Martina Franca’s producers responded by launching their own in-house brands.
Angelo Nardelli started life as a cappottaro, sewing coats to sell in open-air markets before founding his namesake company in 1951 to manufacture coats, jackets and suits for other brands. Today the company’s sprawling headquarters are located on the industrial stretch outside Martina Franca’s historical centre. It’s here that most of the town’s biggest producers are clustered, their modern glass-and-concrete buildings interspersed with the archaic trulli.
Inside the HQ’s meeting room, Domenico Nardelli, Angelo’s son and the current ceo, points to a grainy black-and-white photo of men in three-piece suits hawking racks of coats on the street. “Those were my father’s beginnings,” he says. Today Angelo Nardelli is a renowned international menswear brand, celebrated for the softly structured suits and jackets made at its in-house factory, sewn with fabrics from Biella, in Piedmont, and the UK. Production for other brands now comprises a smaller part of its business.
“We’ve adjusted to this new way of doing business and this new way of dressing,” says Domenico. Gone, mostly, are the firmly square shoulders of blazers past. These days, jackets maintain their Italian flare even as they’re rendered more laid-back in soft jersey knit, or in technical fabrics such as those of the brand’s Connemara jacket, a water-resistant and stain-proof blazer made for travel. “A blazer is a philosophy of manhood,” says creative director Simonetta Ricotta. “You can understand what a man is like just by looking at his blazer’s darts; today’s men want to look more relaxed, less stuffy.”
Martina Franca is now home to many such brands born from manufacturing workshops, although there is no clear style that unites them all. Berwich has found success with its comfortable tailored trousers, while Tagliatore’s outré blazers, with wide lapels and a nipped-in waist, have earned their place in high-fashion boutiques.
Bottega Martinese was launched five years ago as the in-house brand of family-run Eurofashion, a coats and jackets manufacturer founded in 1974 by Donato Tagliente. Originally it was producing for big labels including Aquascutum. Later, as brands shifted production elsewhere, it had to reassess its business. “Before there was plenty of work for us,” says Stefania Cappiello, head of Bottega Martinese’s design department and daughter-in-law of founder Tagliente. “But with these changes we decided we needed to do our own project.” Bottega Martinese now sells widely in Italy and abroad thanks to participation in trade fairs such as Pitti Uomo in Florence (which is also attended by nine other brands from Martina Franca).
“Today a lot of labels make everything in Tunisia and just sew on the final buttons in Italy to label their products ‘Made in Italy’,” says Cappiello, spinning the wheel of an old pedal-powered sewing machine displayed in the office. “So many people have lost the sartorial sense. They don’t understand what’s well-made anymore; they only understand the marketing of a brand.” As well as selling its Bottega Martinese collections directly to consumers, Eurofashion creates styles according to trend research and offers ready-made models to fashion houses to include in their own collections, with slight changes to fabrics or finishings. “Even important brands [buy these ready-made models],” says Cappiello. “We’re not part of the circuit of fashion cities but we’re the ones creating fashion,” she says, adding that “fashion labels never create their collections entirely on their own anymore”.
Some of Martina Franca’s standout brands have moved on from production entirely, focusing instead on design. Fradi, founded in 1996 by brothers Francesco and Mimmo Dimarco, started off manufacturing for other brands. They were inspired to form their own label by their shopkeeper parents; they built its name using astute distribution and communication strategies gleaned from their parents’ experience.
Fradi designs a complete men’s wardrobe, made in the best workshops around Italy, including a manufacturer in Martina Franca for coats and jackets. “We find the best producers in Italy and then we have the flexibility to switch when we have new needs,” says Francesco, who is dressed identically to his brother in an all-navy Fradi outfit. He pulls on the sleeve of a pristine blazer. “Men don’t take off their jacket when they get in the car these days so everything needs stretch – but without sacrificing the tailored style of Italian fashion.”
“We’re enhancing the real ‘Made in Italy’; the idea of wearing Italian taste,” says Francesco, pointing to an elegant jumper in deep raspberry hung with an indigo blazer. “For our clients and partners we are the influencers today. We’re the ones who define the right fit, the right jacket and the way that a man ought to dress.”
Blazing a trail
By Jamie Waters
Smart or sporty, daring or discreet, the blazer can top off any look, helping you go from boardroom to bar without missing a beat. It’s the wardrobe essential for our times.
The story goes like this: when the blazer started being embraced by British and American college athletes in the mid-1800s, it was essentially the hoodie of the day. “A wool-flannel jacket was a very practical thing: it was your athletic gear and rowers would wear it to jog down to the boathouse in the morning,” says Jack Carlson, a blazer buff who wrote Rowing Blazers (2014) and in 2017 founded the New York menswear brand of the same name. The jackets were worn to signal allegiance to a team. They came in bright colours with collars that were easily popped. “Athletes would wear them to show they were the big men on campus,” says Carlson. “They were almost made for showing off.” They were cutting-edge, insouciant and raffish.
Although blazers are hardly rebellious these days, they do feel distinctly fresh and modern. In fact, few items are as relevant to the way that men and women now dress. Its currency stems from the fact that it has just the right amount of formality for today’s world; a world in which the notion of dressing for specific occasions has become obsolete and casual is the norm. Dress codes have slackened but we still need a frisson of sophistication for meetings, cocktail events and nights out.
Enter the blazer. With the ubiquity of streetwear it’s easy to fall into the trap of resembling an overgrown skater boy. By contrast, threading your arms through the sleeves of a jacket and carefully fastening the top button is a ritual that makes you feel grown up. The blazer possesses a certain gravitas but the look is decidedly more relaxed than that of a suit.
“It’s one of the most versatile things someone can wear,” says Carlson. “You’re almost never out of place in a navy blazer and it will always bring you up. You can wear it with grey flannel trousers, a shirt and tie, and get away with that in a setting where you’re expected to wear a suit. You can wear it with jeans or shorts; almost anywhere and with almost anything.”
Italian designers can claim credit for giving blazers a modern lustre. “In the 1970s Armani launched a revolution with his unlined, unconstructed men’s jacket,” says Marco Pagani, creative director of Neapolitan tailor Orazio Luciano. Towards the turn of the century, Boglioli, a firm from Brescia, continued the casual movement and more recently has led the way with its soft garment-dyed jackets. The Italians presented blazers as a laid-back alternative to suits: you could roll one up as you boarded a plane and it would still command respect in a boardroom if you threw it over a pair of Levi’s. They tailored the blazer to our busy modern lives and, in a way, returned it to its roots as a practical sportswear item.
Lately it has become a lucrative business model. “There has been a big change since 2010,” says Pagani. “Suits have dropped to 20 per cent of our sales and blazer sales have doubled or even tripled.” And Fiona Firth, buying director at Mr Porter, says that the e-commerce site sells five times as many blazers as tuxedos every year. “We have grown our blazer offering to more than 360 options,” she says.
Increasingly there’s a dynamic fusion of street style with more formal attire and a newish breed of brand whose look has been referred to by some as “grown-up streetwear”. These brands, which mostly hail from New York, are combining sharp tailoring with bold prints and shades, and are mixing these tailored pieces with casual items such as slogan T-shirts. Blazers are assuming a central role in their collections. Noah offers double-breasted sports coats in leopard-print corduroy, while Aimé Leon Dore – famed for its fleeces and tracksuits – recently collaborated with UK brand Drake’s on a capsule menswear collection that pairs herringbone jackets with track pants and beanies. Then there’s Rowing Blazers, which has homed in on the blazer like no other. Carlson, a former coxswain whose interest in athletic jackets was piqued when he competed at Henley Royal Regatta in the UK, makes versions in rainbow stripes, with slogans on the back and in vivid shades of corduroy. They are inspired by 19th-century designs but, when viewed against the recent glut of streetwear, feel current and refreshingly different. Perhaps the time is right for men to leave the skate park and head to the rowing club.
Blazer brands to buy:
1. Rowing Blazers (US) rowingblazers.com
2. Aimé Leon Dore 3 Drake’s (US/UK) aimeleondore.com; drakes.com
3. Boglioli (Italy) bogliolimilano.com
4. Orazio Luciano (Italy) orazioluciano.com
5. Blazé Milano (Italy) blaze-milano.com