Jonathan Clay

 
Jonathan Clay runs a suit-making facility in Italy, supplying high-end English and foreign retailers. His father did too – d’Avenza – and here Jonathan explains that story: how Italians learnt manufacturing from the English, and then ran with it, only to be outstripped themselves. Along the way, unfortunately, we also all decided we wanted to pay more for design than for quality.
 

PS: Tell me about your background – how an English person came to be involved in the Italian clothing industry

JC: I was born in Crewe, where Chester Barrie (the tailoring factory) was founded. It had been set up Simon Ackerman, and run then by his son, Myron Ackerman. Simon had set up a big facility in New York and wanted to do the same in the UK, offering a ready-made garment that competed with Savile Row.

In the 1950s, they decided to buy a manufacturing plant in Italy, which later became d’Avenza. My father started coming over to Italy to run that in 1961.

There was a good synergy between the two factories back then, the Italian and the English. D’Avenza would send workers (who were all from the south of Italy) to Crewe to learn how to make suits in sections – because they were used to making one jacket or one pair of trousers per tailor.

D’Avenza wanted to learn how to manufacture at scale, and sectional making was core to that, because it’s so much more efficient.

It’s funny, half of the brands will tell you their product is superior because each one is made entirely by one person. And the other half will tell you theirs is better because each person is specialized. In reality, it’s all a question of scale.

Exactly. And what Chester Barrie did on was create a handmade garment – completely handmade – in sections, because it was that much more efficient.

In fact, in order to prove that you didn’t need a bespoke fit they would come to a show like Pitti with 396 suits, all in the same grey cloth. The range would start at a 34-inch regular and go up to a 50-inch – all in half-inch sizes, with various drops, and several ‘developments’: portly, stout, athletic and so on.

The idea was you couldn’t walk off the stand without being fitted for a suit – with perhaps some minor adjustments on the sleeves and trouser leg.

Today I suppose fashion has become too important to produce that many variations?

Yes, you need to produce more types of suits so you can’t produce as many of the same suit. Everything has become a lot more commercial, and the big margins and money all go to the designers, rather than the manufacturer. There aren’t many people left who know how to make suits like that, even if they wanted to.
 

Jonathan Clay2

 
And where were you in all this?

My father worked on-and-off in Italy and in England, and we moved back and forth. Then in 1978, we settled in Italy permanently. That was the year that Austin Reed bought Chester Barrie – because the factory was going out of business. At that time Chester Barrie wasn’t really a fashion brand, but they had the shop on Savile Row, and every suit had a Chester Barrie label in it.

In fact, they also put ‘Made in England’ labels on a lot of the suits that were made at d’Avenza. They would bring them over, finish off the sleeves, and then say it was made in England. Years later, everyone wanted a label that said ‘Made in Italy’; now it’s back to ‘Made in England’. These things come around.

Who was Chester Barrie owned by at that stage?

Myron Ackerman was still the owner, but Otto Hertz – who later founded Scabal – also had a minority stake.

My father started at Crewe when he was 15, progressed through the ranks and became head of sales, then managing director of the whole operation. In 1978 only Chester Barrie was bought, and he went to run D’Avenza.

It was very successful: by the early 1980s there was such demand that retail customers (shops) had to wait two years to start working with d’Avenza. My father unfortunately fell sick soon after, and d’Avenza went down a few wrong paths. There had been a few start-up competitors though, trying to do the same thing – they included Brioni, Belvest and Kiton.

Many of the head technicians from d’Avenza left and went to help those companies replicate the same kind of high-level garment work.

Had there really been no one doing suit manufacturing in Italy before then?

Not at a high level, no. There were low-level RTW manufacturers, and of course there were bespoke tailors (which is why there are still so many in Italy today) but nothing like this – no Made in Italy that anyone would want to advertise. Zegna was just a mill at the time; another worker left to start Zegna’s first factory in 1982.

Jonathan Clay5

 
The depressing thing is what has happened since then – how big the Italians have become and how English garment-making has withered.

Exactly. Wensum left and went to Mauritius. Chester Barrie closed down at least three times. It still exists today as Cheshire Bespoke, and makes a nice garment, but it’s the only one left and nothing compared to what it once was.

The Italians have become designers too – that’s the biggest difference. Factories from Zegna to Belvest to Brioni realised they needed to become brands, but the English never made that jump.

How did the fitting system fall away?

It was gradual erosion by the retailers, and the birth of the designer. At some point during the 1980s consumers decided they cared about style more than fit.

It’s odd now, but I wore my brother’s blazer when I went to school and that was perfectly acceptable – it was still in good shape, so why wouldn’t you? That was why buttonholes were always sewn with silk thread – you can’t cut them with a button, it’s impossible. It was a question of durability.

Do you think Italy might die out now, in turn?

Italian manufacturing today is only surviving on the luxury sector. There have been thousands of closures over the past five or six years. Everyone is moving to Turkey, Romania or Moldova.

Macys sportswear were the first to do it; that was in the early nineties. They upped and took all the manufacturing to Romania: as with everything, it started a while ago, it’s just accelerating today.

If you notice, all the trucks rushing around doing deliveries at the Italian brands – they all have Romanian number plates. The middle market has gone to eastern Europe and the bottom has gone to China.

It was as a result of one of those mid-market factories closing that I got into my current role. I took part of it and increased the quality, to the point where it can supply Savile Row brands today.

What had the factory been making before?

It was a good, industrial-level garment. Fully canvassed, with a few little things by hand. There were a few mistakes in there, a few outdated processes and styles. We changed those and improved the materials, particularly the lining for example.

Are you optimistic about the future?

It’s hard to know. Certainly, the manufacturing side is still in a pretty poor state. The margins required by the designers mean that you can’t make a suit for $500 and sell it for $1500 – you have to make a suit for $100.

But things are also changing very quickly – quicker all the time. It took decades for Italian manufacturing to mean something; it was eroded quicker; and some things are now coming back to Europe even quicker.

In the end, it is all driven by the consumer. What do they want to pay for? For a label, for a style, for a make, or for what balance of the three?

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Mac

Great work, Simon.

Néstor

Very interesting interview,

I have handled some items from d’Avenza and they are at the same level as Brioni, at least.

Nonetheless, is difficult for me to justify the prices of high end RTW, as a sportcoat of a cheap tailor would fit me much better than one item of e.g. Kiton at a 1/4 the price (is not difficult to find a tailor who charges less than 1,000 euros per a suit, fully canvased of course).

Best regards,

Andrey Bokhanko

A fascinating story!

Great interview.

Hristo

Great interview! Thank you, Simon!

John

Hi Simon,
This is indeed a fascinating story! Interestingly enough, it’s not the end! Perhaps, it would be instructive too, to see about what’s going on in countries such as Romania.
What still puzzles me are the prices for RTW produced under these new conditions. Is there a sound explanation for that?

Giffen

Very interesting! Keep fighting the good fight.

Bram Frankel

Fascinating to hear about the intersecting paths of English and Italian tailoring….What an interesting guy…
Thanks, Simon!

Simona

Very good article. Indeed Romania has a history in manufacturing but, in general, middle quality, for a less savvy& fast-fashion oriented customer. Labor cost is the main reason although technicians& specialists are very hard to find due to the lack of interest of the new generations considering the wages. Moldova, the region in Romania, has many factories and still a good supplier of graduates from the university in Iasi. Tailors are very hard to find nowadays, most of them are very old or switched to other activities due to the general lack of appreciation for this craft& incapacity to keep up with the times, lack of budgets& awareness considering the importance of marketing. Many tailor shops are being absorbed by a flourishing new made-to-measure businesses especially in Bucharest.

Stephen

Insightful article Simon, thank you. The last passage says it all regarding consumer choice. Tom Ford’s operation comes into this philosophical argument between design, brand and quality of fit. Much of it is made by Zegna Couture in Italy and in Novara, Switzerland (just over the boarder from Italy).

The key reasons for a higher price point (vs. the other Zegna made suits of Gucci, YSL, Dunhill and Zegna itself) are selection of cloth (a marginal point vs. Zegna) and the Tom Ford originated design (appealing but as with RL often drawn from other tailoring traditions). I use Tom Ford as an example as the comments about designer mark up (seemingly huge for TF) are key to this debate, undermining manufacturer’s viability, driving outsourcing yet charging consumers ever higher prices.

Today’s News story about cheap T shirts in Berlin at €2 ea made by workers on 13 cents p/h further underlines the disconnect between maker and buyer. It also raises the larger, moral questions about fashion and luxury brands feeding on the skills of people without returning any value to them. The great counterbalance to the Tom Ford example is the heroic Brunello Cucinelli whose items are worth buying just for the social good.

Anonymous

Pleeeeeeease can you write a review of the suit you had done by the in-house tailor at Fox Brothers?

Nick Inkster

It is quite depressing to learn from Jonathan that the designer brigade need you to make for $100 to sell it at $1500. Who on earth buys these things? You can’t buy decent cloth enough for a suit at that cost. Good grief. Scary.

Stephen

Agree re. profits, though he has fully retained manufacturing in Italy. More importantly he treats employees as human beings; Staff receive relatively high wages, a 90 min lunch hour and benefits such as a staff library and excellent restaurant. He has put millions into rebuilding the area of Solomeo for the benefit of the locals. A modern day Cadbury I can’t think of another fashion industry employer who comes close. A question I increasingly ask; is it right to buy something (especially luxury goods) in the knowledge that the person who made it is be poorly paid and badly treated. Your factory visits (rare in fashion journalism) help shine a light on the decent ones.

Rabster

Good article giving a real insight into the RTW market.
Simon, any plans to head over to Eastern Europe or Morocco (where I understand Austin Reed source their MTM) to getting a deeper insight?
I did hear of Thomas Mahon setting up an operation in Nepal / India reference a MTM operation .
Hopefully this sort of thing makes quality menswear within the reach of the masses.

John

Hi Simon,
This post is so insightful that, I guess, we – regular readers of PS who haven’t made or simply can’t afford the jump into bespoke – end up after reading it with utter new questions about RTW. For instance, since I am not interested in fashion, I wasn’t at all aware of the tremendous role designers play in menswear. I had previously seen them as a crowd located in womenswear fashion industry. Is there a way to shed a light at some point on who they are and why they have become so important even in respect to men who just want to stick to “permanent style”, I mean classic.
It would be helpful!
John

Mac

Simon, quality manufacturing is always great to see in RTW, but I personally would much rather see people in clothes that fit them better. The atrocities that I see in London every day could so easily be avoided if people were better informed on the basics of fit. Even most politicians look disgracefully shabby. The used to wear bespoke!

The wearing of sports clothing, etc, has worsened most people’s knowledge of (and interest in) how clothes should fit. Quality of make is always secondary to fit.

Matt S

The problem with fit now is that people are wearing their suits a size and length too small. Or rather, suits are being made to fit as such. I’m often walking behind men on the street who have their bum sticking out under the suit jacket. And I can always see their socks. In half the cases it looks like they are wearing a suit from childhood. In the other half it looks like they gained too much weight for their suits.

Incognito

Interesting points. The award-winning author Howard Jacobson writes a particularly interesting tale on the matter below:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-32161578

Incognito

I agree. However, if you are not in good-enough shape or even if you are just a man, finding OTR that fits, let alone with a reasonable price is almost impossible.

As someone who dabbles in bespoke and MTOs (< 40% of my wardrobe, i have checked), finding trousers with say a decent-enough rise – not even high raise- is almost impossible or one that is not cut like spandex!

I am fairly educated on classic menswear having learnt from Flusser/tailors and blogs like PS and now-defunct ASW so it helps that i even know where/ what to look for. Still, it is a Herculean task and requires a lot of man-hours which many just don't have.

This year i have decided to replace nearly all my Autumn/Winter trouser wardrobe and i have decided to go bespoke to a local tailor in my proximity – not an insignificant task. However, i should at least get what i am paying for.

Winot

Incognito: if London is accessible to you, try Anderson & Shepherd Haberdashers on Clifford St. for RTW trousers. Their ‘Adrian’ line has a decent rise, is flat fronted and is not cut too tight. Other models are available.

BespokeNYC

I accept that $1500 might be above some mens’ suit budget but, once you’ve decided to spend that much, I cannot understand why anyone wouldn’t go bespoke (or at least MTM.) The supposed benefits of unique design and/or cloth are far outweighed by fit and, as other commenters have noted, few men get a great fit with RTW.

Obviously I know that the real causes are lack of education and patience so, in other words, keep up the good work Simon!

Mac

Yes, enjoyed the Jacobson piece. I see David Cameron’s now suddenly wearing a lot of Gingham check shirts with formal suits. Is he trying to out-do Nigel Farage’s British-to-the-core stripes’n’tweeds and Crombie overcoats?

Gravitas? You’d barely notice any of the shabby modern cabinet/ shadow cabinet on Whitehall or in Wiltons. If you do, you’ll often see 2-inch gaps between the neck and collar, shoulders falling off a cliff, coat buttons at bursting point and 6-inches of trousers crumpled at the ankle. But enough about Boris Johnson….

David Royce

What company is he working with now in Italy? Not clear if it’s still d’Avenza.
Thanks, DR

Matt

Could you suggest a factory to get MTM suits manufactured in Italy?

Anonymous

Thanks I’ll check them out

Matt

Thanks Simon. I’ll check them out. Do you have any similar suggestions for shirts?

Susan Ollier lloyd

Hello Simon I noted you said italians who worked in crewe were mostly from southern Italy Have you any idea what part of Italy that was Thank you for a interesting interveiw

Anonymous

Hi Simon

I know I’m adding a comment to an old thread, however, only just came across it. Great interview.

I and I’m guessing a lot of us, can’t afford MTM, let alone Bespoke. I would love a Kiton suit, but I only have a seven fold tie. Same reason most people have the Chanel perfume rather than the Chanel suit. We buy what we can afford and psychology think we are wearing Chanel (or Kiton).

Probably sounds like I am going off subject but I’m getting to the point. Would you be able to do a breakdown of quality of some of the high street suits available to the average man and woman. Marks and Spencer, Debenhams, John Lewis, House Of Fraser etc.

I’m sure the manufacturer who used to make Armani (Gruppo if I’m not mistaken) used to make for the M&S Italian range, which at the time was the premium collection. Because of their lack of quality M&S stopped using them.

If I’m correct, Ralph Lauren’s Purple Label was supposed to be based on Savile Row quality and made by Chester Barrie in England. Now everything I see that is Purple Label is made in Italy. Ralph Lauren used to do his own advertising for Purple Label and I heard that he used to take the latest Purple Label fabric to a Mount Street Tailor (no-longer around) to have a suit made bespoke and then wear it in his advertisements.

Today I see British greats like Chester Barrie and New & Lingwood sold at House Of Fraser. A real shame as I have trouble believing they are the real-deal.