On the rise of neo-sartorialism

Posted on 21 March 2019

On the rise of neo-sartorialism

In conversation with master tailor Adriano Carbone, on how it feels to wear a suit that’s been made just for you

Talk of classic suiting often evokes images of well-dressed men from dapper days of old. Like pictures of the shawl-collar dinner suits worn by Connery in Dr. No, or the perfectly pastel 1920s styles seen on DiCaprio in the latest remake of The Great Gatsby. But while there’s no denying that the shapes of suiting past are categorised as classic for good reason, a lot has changed when it comes to the construction of clothing. No longer does the old school look call for primitive technique. Men’s tailoring has upped its game, and the result looks seriously suave.

Image courtesy of @mrsimonhancock

“The future, for me, is romantic,” Belgian fashion designer Raf Simons once said. “I don’t understand why people say the past is romantic. Romantic, for me, is something you don’t know yet, something you can dream about, something unknown and mystical. That, I find fascinating.”

Someone else who appreciates the enigmatic allure of the future of fashion is Adriano Carbone. Based in Melbourne’s iconic Block Arcade, the master tailor has taken garment construction to a place that has redefined the art of tailoring itself. Boasting a skill set that includes old-fashioned, modern and futuristic techniques, Carbone has re-engineered the concept of what is considered classic, reinforcing its seams with cutting edge innovation.

When it comes to the calibre of menswear that’s made in Melbourne, we have a rich past and present to be proud of. Our city was, and continues to be, celebrated for its talented tailors, and known for its above-average ratings of dapper and chic. But many years have passed since the days Flinders Lane stood as the heart of our rag trade, and since Connery first rocked his Conduit Cut suits when he played James Bond.

In an age where the rules regarding a man’s appearance are no longer clearly defined—many of us are still trying to figure out what “normcore” even was—the suit has become far more than just a symbol of one’s status. It is, to a certain degree, and depending on the quality and cut, a sign of the rise of neo-sartorialism. We may often daydream of the way suits were, but master tailors such as Carbone are proving that the more times change, the more tailoring need not stay the same.

KATHRYN CARTER: Can you recall your first memory of noticing a man’s suit?

ADRIANO CARBONE: I’m thinking about that 70s, Saturday Night Fever kind of stuff, that was the first time I got insights on men’s suits. But pretty much straight after that, bang, the suits became very fitted and slim.

KC: So in the 80s things really changed?

AC: Yeah, that’s one of the things I first noticed. Because I actually grew up in the industry, as a little boy, watching my father.

KC: So your father was a tailor as well?

AC: Yeah yeah, he was a great tailor.

KC: And was he making clothing in Melbourne, or in Italy?

AC: I can’t remember what year my father came to Melbourne, but he had his own business before he decided to buy a company called Dunn Brothers. This was in the 70s, in Franklin Street in the city.  [From then on] he was always in the made-to-measure business. As a young boy, you can’t help growing up in the industry. So, being a second-generation tailor, I fell into it, and I loved it.

KC: You’re located in the Block Arcade, one of the Melbourne’s most iconic destinations. Do you feel as though this central position allows you to stay in tune with the city’s sense of style? Allowing you to feel more connected to the wants and desires of your customer?

AC: Not necessarily, because an average client for me is not always the average guy who has the perfect figure—he can go anywhere to get a suit. My customers are either off-shape, or they just want to be serviced, to the max. [So] I have this massive retail space and workroom all in one, with the ambience of a place that you’d find in say a Versace store overseas, it has that presence. But that’s only one aspect. I also know my product, my fabrics, my clientele and what they want.

KC: As someone who grew up in the business, you’ve experienced so many eras of fashion, is there a particular favourite that you have?

AC: No, it’s just a cycle. I remember when I did the Jersey Boys circa 2009, that was the beginning of the pencil trousers, tight-fitting suits and all that. Then after that came the trend of everyone being a high fashion blogger. All of a sudden all of these people appeared and everyone knew about fashion, and everybody was a tailor. You know what I mean? You know what I’m talking about because you see it all the time.

KC: I do, I really do.

AC: So as a tailor I have to watch, and I have to follow these people, to see what they are doing, what they are writing about. Because they’ve taken a perfectly [useful] word like bespoke and changed the meaning, now it can be [referenced in writing as] a custom made suit, a made-to-measure suit.

Image courtesy of @mrsimonhancock

KC: I know, terms are no longer used correctly, it’s so frustrating.

AC: No, they are not always used correctly! On my website, I have a made-to-measure product, I have a tailor-made product, and I have a bespoke, handmade product. They involve three different forms of tailoring. So you need to educate people on these terms.

KC: So true.

AC: And as beautiful as social media is today, you are only a rooster for five minutes, and then you are a feather duster the next. People get bored so quickly, you know? So, the best recipe [for success] is to learn from A-Z in whatever you want to do, especially in tailoring. For me, I sell the garment, [but I also] cut the garment, make the garment, and fit it. In all the years that I’ve been in business, for the last fifteen years, I’ve cut every single garment that has been made on my premises. No one else cuts for me.

KC: It’s comforting to hear that, especially in a time when it’s becoming harder to find such attention to detail, and locally-produced garments, what with the arrival of fast fashion retailers such as Zara, COS and UNIQLO all in the same pocket of Melbourne CBD. H&M moving into GPO, in particular, truly broke my heart.

AC: It does! I’ve been a Melbournian all my life. And I’ve always said that the minute you let Zara into the country, along with all these other international, global businesses, you’re going to kill your MYERs and your David Jones. And that’s what is happening, I predicted this twenty years ago. But for these young people that are into it at the moment, ten years will pass, and they will earn more money, and they will want to go to the next level.

KC: And you’ll be there. As someone who obviously appreciates quality, tailored clothing, do you feel like tailor-made garments will start to become more of a widespread trend, as opposed to a more niche area of fashion interest?

AC: If you grew up in the eighties you understand that the eighties were a great time, but the sixties were better! You’d dress up everywhere when you went out, you’d wear your black tie, or your Reefer jacket. I see a lot of this coming back. A lot of people are reading about sartorial this, and sartorial that. What should be and what shouldn’t be. But that’s only stuff that they’ve gotten out of books. I know the technical side of making these kinds of garments for our contemporary world, unlike other tailors who work in more old fashioned ways.

Image courtesy of @mrsimonhancock

KC: How do your techniques compare to those of old-fashioned tailors?

AC: A typical tailor cuts a bespoke suit pattern and bastes it together, then they try it on the client—it’s a guessing game. I used to do it like that, but now I’ve devised different systems. I take the measurements, and I go straight to a forward fitting. Basically, I make a jacket with a collar and one sleeve basted onto it; it’s already 90% there at that stage. It bypasses thirty or forty steps.

I’m not an average tailor, I’m more of a freak, I’m like a glamified engineer. As one would say. I look at your body and I know, automatically, how to cut your suit, and how it should fit. I’ll throw loads and loads of questions at you, and within five minutes I’ll know exactly what you need, and I’ll get it done. Because that’s what people need; I am my business.

KC: Yes, you really are your business.

AC: I have to be the person who educates. The one who makes the garment, who cuts it, who fits it. People love that. The minute they meet me it’s like, wow, because I’m a bundle of knowledge.

KC: How does having a suit made by you differ to having one made by someone else?

AC: With me it’s about giving the customer what they want, but also what they need; giving them something that they are going to feel good in. Because I do have a certain signature about my garments. When you put it on, it’s weightless; most people say that they feel like they’re not wearing anything. Other people who make garments with lighter fabrics still produce garments that feel heavy, because it’s all about the weight distribution, whereas most tailors will not talk to that. No one teaches you that, that’s something that you need to develop in yourself, as a tailor, to really understand it. And I’ve tried to share that with other tailors, and they just don’t get it.

KC: Are there often differences between what men want in a suit, and what you feel they need?

AC: What I tell people is, there is a difference between the way the garments are put together, just like with how cars are made. Men tell me that they want a bespoke, old-fashioned, handmade suit. And you know what I say to them? Do you want a 66 Bentley, or do you want a 2019 Bentley?  Some prima donnas still say they want the 66, and you know what I say? Have you got a mechanic that can work on that? Because you’re always going to break down. But if you’ve got a 2019 model, it’s actually hand-assembled, the doors are lined up, you’ve got warranty, it goes nought to 100 is under five seconds, it’s got air bags everywhere, and it’s backed up globally.

Image courtesy of @mrsimonhancock

KC: So the completely old-fashioned, handmade suit is to the tailoring industry what the 66 Bentley is to the automotive industry?

AC: Yes. And I’ll be honest with you, a 66 Bentley has a beautiful shape. But if you really look at the way it’s made, it’s been put together badly. So if you look at a bespoke suit made by a tailor who works completely by hand, [let’s just say] you don’t want to look at the buttonholes, they’re disgusting, terrible. They are bubbling and they are buckling. You think god, how do they get away with that? A 2019 Bentley is made for today, just like my suits are. I’ve got old fashioned, modern, and futuristic techniques. I don’t only work in a primitive way. I don’t want to become one of these tailors in one little tiny room, with one machine. I can’t be that, I’ve got to be more into futuristic wear. I get a lot of clientele who want the old-fashioned thing, but within five minutes I’ve converted them. Not to go completely for the top, top, top end, but there is always a sweet spot.

KC: Just on the concept of futuristic wear, over the years so much has changed in the fabric trade as well. How important is it to work with quality fabrics when you’re tailoring suits specifically?

AC: It’s not important at all. Having said that, you’ve got to get a fabric to a certain level of standard, but it doesn’t have to be a reputable brand. I’m known as the “cloth bitch” around the world. Because people are trying to sell me fabric all the time, but if it doesn’t feel right in my hand, I don’t buy it. Some fabrics feel cold, some feel warm. Some feel smooth and some feel coarse. The ones that feel cool in your hand are beautiful fabrics. The ones that feel warm in your hand are no good. To me, the feel of the fabric says a lot. But my favourite? Is Scabal.

KC: Having a suit tailor made is quite an investment. Do you feel like the men you serve still appreciate the value of wearing garments of this standard?

AC: I’d say 90% do and 10% don’t. The 10% do it just because they want to be different. But 90% of them, when they get their garment made, they really look after it.

Image courtesy of @mrsimonhancock

KC: And do you think a man holds himself different when he is wearing something that has been made just for him?

AC: I’ll tell you what happens all the time. A man comes out of the fitting room [in his suit] and says this feels so light. Then he stands in front of the mirror, and the first thing he says is Adrian, this feels weightless. Then all of a sudden you see his posture change; he stands up straighter. And then he walks, [but] with a greater presence, as one would say. Once you give that to a client, it’s just like, wow. And you’ll see that same effect, as long as you have a suit that fits you well, you’ve got the colours right, you know? It doesn’t have to be tailor-made, or made-to-measure, or handmade bespoke. Some people are gifted, [they can wear anything].

KC: In your opinion, what are three key pieces that every man should have in his wardrobe?

AC: It’s very, very important that you must always have a classic charcoal or navy suit, depending on your complexion and hair colour. And every man always needs a tux, and some sort of a sports jacket and matching slacks. But that’s all you really need, because you can just add on from there. With your sports jacket, you can wear your jeans, or your chinos, and your funky shirts or your polo tops. A man doesn’t need much in the wardrobe to make it happen, you know what I mean? But they are the bare essentials for someone who does not wear suits every day.


By Kathryn Carter

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