Before Gianni Agnelli made them famous. Before they were imitated countless times over by countless brands. Before they were even called car shoes, there was just Giulio Miserocchi, an Italian cobbler in a tiny alpine village, who hand-sewed what would become the first ever driving moccasin. It was back in 1942 that Miserocchi completed his first shoe, a soft leather tie loafer atop a nubby rubber sole. The entire shoe was designed to make it easier on the wearer’s foot as the drove, so the supple upper and loose stitching were meant to help the shoe mold to your foot, while the texturized bottoms were intended to literally grip the pedals.
Florence is a reassuring city. You go there for stone walls, old frescoes and steaks as thick as a reference book. They love their country clothes there (it’s a surprisingly good place to get a second-hand Barbour). You see hunting dogs, tweeds in winter, and it feels perfectly natural when an old man bicycles down the street smoking a pipe. All bets are off when Pitti Uomo arrives with its parade of clowns, though most of the year the calculation remains the same. But there are still surprising ways to visit the city on the Arno and remake the classic equation.
Consider Villa La Massa, your dream of the Italian countryside made real. This 16th Century Medici Villa was converted into a hotel in 1948 and then renovated in 1998 by the owners of the renowned Villa d’Este. It’s set right on a bend in the river, across from fields and gentle hills. It’s about a twenty minute drive from town and they have a shuttle that regularly drops you near the Ponte Vecchio.
You can take your café or aperitif next to pool, there’s a small but elegant spa, and walking paths through a 22-acre garden, with rosemary, irises and pear trees. This is a much less formal affair than Villa d’Este (coats are not required for dinner, but you are in Italy, so why not?). It’s a low-key pastoral setting that’s intimate, handsome and contemplative.
Villa La Massa succeeds beyond its setting: You can attend cooking classes, wine tastings, eat white truffles in October or head out to visit distinguished towns and churches around Tuscany. But it doesn’t make you do more than you want to: You can sit by the river, read a book and drink your Negroni. Villa La Massa understands that you want to travel on your own terms. And in this setting, those terms are always good.
Four years ago I had the privilege of meeting Brunello Cucinelli at his company’s home office in Solomeo. It sounds cliché to say, but it was a day that fundamentally changed how I see the world as a consumer, a businessman and as a human. More philosophical than anyone you will ever meet in the clothing business (possibly in life in general), Brunello is a catalyst for fundamental positive change. It’s just his nature. It sounds contrived when you read some blogger say it, but in reality, Brunello Cucinelli (the man and the company) is one of the most compelling people I have ever met. If character and integrity took the human form it would be Brunello Cucinelli. The fact that he sells some of the finest made and best looking clothing is almost just a happy coincidence.
My pal the esteemed writer Om Malik made the pilgrimage to Solomeo himself to meet Brunello and learn more about the man his billion dollar enterprise operating quietly in Italy’s green heart. His interview is as important and compelling as any I have read. The coversation stands out because of both Om’s beautiful perspective and Brunello’s equally unique world view.
With a nod to the tech world (and John Gruber), below I pulled out my favorite bits and pieces from this great conversation between two men of considerable respect. Here’s the original interview which is a must read.
In the year or so since Agyesh Madan left his position as Product Development Manager at Isaia he’s been busy collecting. Not clothing, the predictable pursuit for a man with Agyesh’s pedigree (to his credit Agyesh describes his personal wardrobe as miniscule) but passport stamps. Born into a military family, Agyesh moved constantly as a child, and he’s carried that transient spirit into his adulthood with recent trips to places like China, India, and Italy. It’s the Italian stamp which I imagine takes up the greatest chunk of Agyesh’s passport. While at Isaia, Agyesh’s frequent trips to Italy to meet with factories and fabric suppliers fostered within him a deep appreciation for the tactile side of clothing design. Since leaving the Napoli based brand last year, Agyesh’s infatuation with all forms of manufacturing has manifest itself in Stoffa, the all Italian-made accessories label which he launched late last month.
Agyesh was friendly with some of the factories that he partnered with for Stoffa from his time at Isaia, but he says that he found many of them by simply driving through the Italian countryside on weekends. These factories are like playgrounds to Agyesh, who despite his formal training (he holds a degree from Parsons) derives the most joy from simply holding a piece of fabric in his hands. He tells me that at Isaia, the actual “design” of a collection took just about a week. The rest of his time was spent in factories, sifting through yarns and studying different production techniques.
The hat hath returned.
And no I’m not referring to the dinky trilbies that you can find at your local mall, nor that raggedy baseball cap in the back of your closet, I’m talking about an honest to God, grown man, make-Gay-Talese-proud fedora. At least for some, that is.
Some call it the Mad Men effect, some point to the revival of classic menswear, some simply chalk it up to pure foppishness, but whatever the reason may be, this (slight) chapeau renaissance has turned the spotlight back towards some illustrious accessories labels that have flown under the radar for far too long.
The Valstar story could be divided up into two distinct eras: Before-Valstarino and After-Valstarino. B.V. Valstar was a completely different brand, one that had been founded in the late eighteen-hundreds as “English Fashion Waterproof” with a focus upon raincoats. In 1911, this company moved their offices to Milan to become Italy’s first rainwear company, dropping their convoluted name along the way in favor of the more streamlined Valstar moniker. For the next twenty-four years they continued to churn out effective, if not ordinary, trench coats, until the creation of the Valstarino in 1935. With its cropped body, knit collar and unstructured design, the Valstarino was a revolution, not just for Valstar, but for Italian style as a whole.
The Boglioli story has always begun with the jacket. Soft shouldered and unstructured, this small wonder of casual tailoring (my favorite pseudo-oxymoron) has defined Boglioli since their inception nearly a century ago. And yet, with their Spring/Summer ’15 collection Boglioli has made it ever more clear that to them the jacket is just the introduction. While some Italian labels have been content to rest on their soft-shouldered laurels, Boglioli is charging full-speed ahead, fueled by admirers that are at once appreciative of the company’s heritage and actively interested in the future of the brand.