How Florence changed with the pandemic: Abbarchi, Ugolini, Vestrucci
“It was really eerie, Simon, with all the tourists gone."
“I know that was the same everywhere," says Simone Abbarchi (above), "but seeing the Piazza della Signoria empty made it feel like we’d gone back in time. Like the Medici could just step out of the Palazzo [Vecchio].”
Simone is telling me what it was like in Florence during the pandemic, over coffee in the café Rivoire.
“I came into work almost every day, into the shop,” he says. “Or had to go to our workshop, just near to the Fortezza [da Basso, where Pitti is held]. It was strangely silent - not even a bird, somehow.”
Florence is probably the city I know best after London, having visited so many times over the years, and having good friends there now. It was nice to talk to them about what those times had been like. But also a little sad.
Shirtmaker Simone Abbarchi had to move shop, because the landlord refused to lower the rent despite Simone not being able to open - or more importantly to travel, given most of his business comes from London and New York.
So did shoemaker Roberto Ugolini, on the south side of the river. Both vacated shops they’d had for years, and moved to premises nearby.
That was a familiar story in many parts of the world. “The landlords just don’t care - the empty city scared them, given so much of their money comes from tourism, but local makers leaving do not,” he says.
Fortunately, Roberto doesn’t need to be in a prominent location. He was already a little off the beaten track, next to the student nexus of Santo Spirito, but even there he would get daily inquiries by people who had no idea what bespoke shoemaking was.
“Honestly Simon, I wasted so much time explaining to people what went into bespoke shoes and why they cost that much,” he says. “They’d often say they’d come back to the next day, but they rarely did. It’s too alien a concept - the work and the time involved.”
So Roberto moved into a shop round the corner, which is on a quieter street and gets less passing traffic. Simone, however, felt he needed the footfall.
“It makes a difference to people if you have a shop on a good street, they think of the shirts differently,” Simone says. “Also, it’s not too much to spend if someone wants a shirt made while they’re on holiday.”
Simone’s shirts start at €165 for made to measure, with bespoke from €230. With a lot of luxury ready-made shirts around that price he’s always been great value (and in my experience, very reliable too).
So he moved to a smaller shop on Via delle Terme, 15R (for those readers that asked recently, having visited Florence, whether he had closed).
It’s still pretty new, with little on the walls, but actually it could end up being a nicer space than the old shop, which was always quite dark.
The fitting area is next to the big glass frontage, which brings in a some natural light (that’s Lucas above, by the way, who runs the PS Shop, being measured up).
There’s a nice sitting area round the corner for browsing through a wall of cloth books. Helpfully, the area for packing shirts and for storage is also on a mezzanine above the ground floor, reached via a nice iron staircase.
And there’s a big table in the middle of the shop, where all the various options for cloth and colour can be laid out. In the picture below - taken from that mezzanine - Lucas is selecting an awning-stripe linen for a camp-collar shirt similar to the one featured in our Summer Top 10.
The shirt I went with in a similar style is pictured below. I think it’s fair to say Lucas has bolder tastes than me.
I wouldn’t say Simone puts a lot into design work - he’s not a brand - but he has made a huge variety of shirts over the years, and will often have made something similar to any idea.
When I asked about more casual summer shirts, which could be worn untucked or tucked, he suggested this camp-collar design and the one-piece collar that Italians often call a Loro Piana or transformable collar. It’s difference from a normal one-piece is that the collar can still be buttoned, and so worn with a tie.
The shirt also has a squared off hem, which makes it easier to wear untucked. This means there is a little compromise when it’s tucked in, as it won’t stay tucked as functionally as a regular length. But for an easy summer shirt, that’s fine. (It’s also easier if you wear really high-rise trousers.)
Other shops in Florence have closed too. Sartoria Vestrucci, for example, closed its little shop and relocated to be part of Stefano Bemer.
This makes sense - the two were both owned by Tommaso Melani, and the beautiful converted church that Bemer uses is a natural home for tailoring. It feels like a home for crafts and craftspeople.
Vestrucci is also restricting its bespoke business to those that visit Florence, and will concentrate on made to measure. I really hope that model works - the Vestrucci combination of sharp cut and lightness is unique, and I love my flannel suit (which I had altered when I visited).
In fact that goes for all these wonderful people and the clothes they make. These are not easy times to operate a bespoke business, and Pitti Uomo - which brought so much attention to the city - still has an uncertain future.
It was lovely to see everyone again, and I fervently wish them the best for the years to come.
All photography, Jamie Ferguson, except shots of Stefano Bemer, Peter Zottolo
A very simpatico article although somewhat sad.
Is it inappropriate to ask the provenance of the popover worn by Lucas ?
Hi, it is an old one by drakes.
Thank you for responding. I thought it might not be current.
I thought I recognized it. I have the same one!
I think I sold it to you 😅
I’m fortunate (ok, spoilt) enough to have been able to go all over the world and tried a huge number of shirt makers (T&A, Charvet, Venturini, loads of the Neapolitans, Milanese etc etc) and honestly, I think Simone is the best by some way on a quality-price ratio. He’s also SUCH a nice chap but probably only warms up when you’ve worked with him for a number of years. No, he doesnt have the handwork of 100 hands nor does he keep Carlo Riva fabrics but for really nicely made shirts with the ‘right’ amount of ‘style’, he’s fantastic, consistent and reliable. Been with him 12 years and don’t see that changing 🙂
My experience with Simone has been very much the same – he’s incredibly helpful, very consistent and reliable, and great value for money. I’ve been ordering shirts from him for some time, now and, as I have a well-established pattern, was able to continue to do so over the last couple of years, by email. I’ve never been able to go to his shop in Florence, but I really hope to be able to do so at some point in the near future.
Good morning…will the great city of Florence rise again?……. YES!!!!!!!▪
Nice article! May I ask you if you are going to have long sleeves on that casual camp collar shirt?
Yes I am. Or rather, I have
Long sleeves with a camp collar, that’s very unusual…don’t believe I have seen it before.
I already have one actually, it’s very nice. Makes more sense in a fine cotton or linen, so it automatically looks more dressy. It will also have a little structure inside, which camp collars don’t tend to. It’s fairly similar to a one-piece collar in that respect
I too would like to add my best wishes for the Florentine artisans.
We are facing difficult times following the pandemic and now further economic challenges. Also the change in peoples taste, needs and reduced disposable income.
Maker’s of fine clothes (as with most other businesses) will need to evolve and adapt to survive as you mentioned in your article. I recently read about how Saville Row (and surrounding area) businesses are adapting by to survive in a changing commercial environment You have written about this also and in your own way have helped these businesses through your articles about them and also your pop-up shops bring arguably new customers to the area.
Whilst I do understand the issue with retail landlords, they are not all greedy. It’s worth recognising renting is their business with related income sometimes for repayment of capital investment or with the bigger businesses investment by shareholders including pension schemes. Unfortunately there are no simple answers.
In our own small way we can support the small businesses where we can and for them in turn to adapt to try to become more accessible and relevant.
Thanks again for another interesting piece.
Picking up on the footfall comment, my main problems when recently visiting Florence were:
– opening hours of shops weren’t actually that convenient for a tourist passing through
– trying to find a comprehensive list of “where to go” that wasn’t the more mainstream fashionista venues proved troubling
If both of these two were addressed I think sales would pick-up for some of these small businesses.
There is a little craft guide that used to be put out by the city – the shoemakers were often in there. Worth seeing if you can track one of those down
Hi. Building on CJ’s comment )and my own), you shouldn’t have to track something down, it could / should (?) be proactively marketed. This is an example of what I meant by adapting to a changing environment.
I agree Stephen, but often these things cannot be ideal because of other restrictions – such as a little amateur project with some small artisans clubbing together, as I think that book was
My first ever adventure in the world of bespoke , having read PS for a number of years, was MTM shirts from Simone.
Such a helpful , wonderful man.
Of note , even more so then the fact the shirt was made to my requirements , was the quality of the cloth.
I wish him and all the ateliers of Florence the very best.
Simone is a very nice chap – looking forward to my first set of shirts from him.
For those not properly initiated with Florence addresses (like me), the “R” in the street address represents the colour of the street numbers. It may save you walking into a random apartment block.
Does Simone Abbarchi do non-fused collars/cuffs as an option?
Good question – to be honest I’ve never asked, as it’s not what I wear. Sorry
Great article, the pricing from Simone definitely sounds very fair! Not to move the focus away from Florence, but does anyone know the rough price currently for a bespoke business shirt made by Luca? I’ve been looking around on the site and internet generally but couldn’t see anything.
As far as I know it starts at € 250 including VAT.
Thanks very much Alexander, very helpful!
Asked the identical question last month and was told €270 (so about £230 at todays exchange)
Bravo Simon! Viva firenze!! Despite the Florentines natural borgese lean (aka the good families : ) there are enough of the proletariat (aka those from the wrong side of the river : ) to balance it all out. Firenze amore mio!
Before anyone gets too pissy about the aforementioned political slants I am just having a go at the two tomassos’ of bemer/vestrucci, who despite all these years are still not related : )
Interesting article, Simon, and probably a story that is replicated in so many cities around the world. I have an observation and a request.
First, the observation: when I was in Florence this June, I had never seen the city so crowded. The main tourist axis of Santa Croce-Piazza della Signoria-Duomo was an absolute river of people. It may well be pandemic-affected memory, but I had never seen so many people packed into the city like that. Friends had sent me photos and video of Florence during Italy’s lockdown and the contrast was astonishing. Milan, too. I am happy for the businesses that depend on tourists and their money, but to see so many was still remarkable. Yet, just a few blocks off of that area, Florence was calm and uncrowded. And bloody hot!
And so the request: you mentioned in the article that Pitti Uomo faced an uncertain future. Can you share your reasons for thinking that, or elaborate on what you’ve heard?
It was good to see you, briefly, in Florence, as always.
Yes, you’re right the city itself was very busy – there was a big build-up of tourists that had wanted to travel for a long time, many people commented on having conversations along those lines.
However, Pitti itself was no more than 60-70% of its normal summer attendance. You may have noticed one whole building was still closed off, and many brands from the UK weren’t even there. There was also a serious lack of Asian buyers.
I think January might give a better guide to the future of Pitti, as hopefully restrictions will be less everywhere then (fingers crossed) and winter is always busier.
However, Pitti faces bigger issues. Before it became the kind of place where someone such as yourself would travel to, it was primarily a trade show, populated by brands and buyers, and only a small cohort of press. Quite a lot of business was done there, as in buyers placing orders. That is increasingly done in Milan instead, and the amount of wholesale generally has decreased as well, as multibrand stores have closed and department stores have been in trouble.
So its role now is primarily a marketing one, and that’s not an easy role to hang on to, particularly as so much is now done outside of Pitti, in the rest of Florence. Personally I think they need to do their best to bring that kind of event and activity inside the Fortezza.
There’s no obvious alternative to Pitti at the moment, and I can’t see it going anywhere soon, but being a marketing event depends on a critical mass of attention and press – and as you could probably see inside the Fortezza and outside the gate, that attention is drastically reduced, perhaps even more than the overall attendance.
Thank you for that insight, Simon. It’s true I’m merely a tourist gadfly at Pitti, but I enjoy the show itself for the chance to meet and talk to brands that I care about. Even though most have no reason to talk to us, so many representatives are generous with their time, and we are mindful of that. Most of all, we’ve met many truly delightful people who have become friends. We’d certainly miss it if the show came to and end, for selfish reasons, obviously. But I think it would be unfortunate for the industry as a whole if the show ceased. As you say, we might get a better sense of the long-term viability, then, at the January event.
It would certainly be a huge loss, yes. For visitors such as yourself but also for everyone else – I can’t see something similar being built anywhere else with just that marketing angle. Fingers crossed for January.
This is interesting. Here, where I live, in the USA, the government issued a moratorium on evictions. Additionally, the government provided companies with loans and renters with subsidies to help pay rent. This did not happen in Italy?
Has Shibumi closed the Firenze shop?
Good point, I don’t know actually Paul. It was always more of a studio, and Benedikt is now living in Japan, but I don’t know whether that Florence is still there, I’ll ask.
He told me that there is no shop there any longer. Sadly. I was looking for it last year.
Ah, one more for the list then. Thanks Alexander
My image of Florence during the pandemic is that of incidentally running into Antonio Liverano with his mask on at the local market.
I adore the person and the tailoring style of Liverano just like most people who are into tailoring. But since his personal sense of style is emphasized so often (also because not many tailors can offer that) I was surprised about several accessories that I saw at Liverano. The skinny braces attached by a metal clip (those things ruin every look for me, and it is not funny or playful), the more than colorful ties. I don’t want to call the ties ugly because this is not ment to be offensive. Any thoughts on that from fellow readers or you Simon? Is this crazy tie thing not also a very British thing (John Bercow comes to my mind)?
I think Antonio’s style in accessories has always turned that way – see the bright scarves (some with donut patterns) they’ve done for years. He’s more admired usually for sense of colour in tailoring.
I do hope crazy ties aren’t particularly British. There’s certainly no stylish tradition there. If anything, we have a tradition for strongly patterned shirts on Jermyn Street because men at one stage tended to wear only two ties – their regiment or their club – and shirts were one of the few avenues for expression.
The crazy British tie thing was best epitomised by Duchamp, who went into liquidation in around 2017. Perhaps having Berco as a poster boy did for them.
We do have the tradition of the silk ‘neat’ .
It was very common in Manchester, (Although that might be due to the close proximity of Macclesfield ).
During my first office job in the 80s. I was very solemnly told to go out and purchase several.
Thanks Peter. That isn’t a loud tie by the sounds of it? Did it refer to the pattern or the make?
They are small pattern (geometric ) ties. They can be any colour of silk so can be quite loud.
Still made in Macclesfield and Bollington silk Mills.
Thanks – I’m familiar with a Macclesfield tie, so sounds like they’re pretty similar
Concerning crazy ties, I don’t think they are a specific British thing (I liked the Rt. Honourable John Bercow‘s ties, by the way, which added some sort of, I apologise for not finding a more accurate expression, hilarity, to the gravitas of his post), especially if you take makers like Leonard or, from times of yore, Gianni Versace into consideration. Not only do (or did) they offer “loud” colours like e.g. T&A, but also quite extraordinary or even extravagant patterns and designs.
Could I suggest ‘levity’?
Your suggestion sounds perfect. Thank you very much indeed for your help.
The British are also known for their loudly colored dress shirts.
Over the next couple of years I think things are going to be very tough for our Artisan brethren and many will go to the wall.
Cutting your overheads in a labour intensive business is always difficult and adding spiralling raw material and distribution costs will make for a heady cocktail.
As always, the best chance of success is to keep the quality of the product at the highest level, not to diversify and to have the right retail relationships.
Personally I am becoming very adverse to waste and although I will spend when I see something I like which will make sense on a cost per wear basis, I’m having a lot of stuff repaired.
What’s more, competition for my dollar is coming from different areas. I was in Cornwall recently I saw the most beautiful ceramic. I found myself pontificating on the purchase and then I thought I’d blow the same amount on a bespoke suit without thinking. The vase is now in my seaside home .
I’ll too add my recommendation for Simone. I’ve met him a couple of times on his last two trips to London. The shirts he has made are excellent quality and, as it already says in the article, are comparable in price to that of some luxury RTW.
He is also kind, and very patient! As I’m keenly learning the language we conducted most of the appointment (sometimes slowly!) in Italian, bar a few technical words here and there.
Nice article . I think ltaly always does the best shirts . We do made to measure in Lecce and it’s a great product using fabric like albini
Simone (like many readers noted) is an absolute gem. We visited Florence in Sep/Oct and were lucky enough to see him before he headed to the US for a trunk show. The city was heaving btw.
I was wondering whether you had any pictures of the finished camp collar shirts he made for yourself and Lucas? I’m considering ordering one and was simply looking for a bit of inspiration.
Not yet, sorry Tim, but I will try and take one for the site some time