With his deep tan, slicked-back hair and pencil moustache — not to mention some immaculate tailoring — Lorenzo Cifonelli looks every carefully measured inch the matinee idol. But, he is, he stresses, a working man. “Customers like the idea that this is a family business, that it’s not all ‘brand communication’. It’s not fake. I’m not just a manager. I’m the guy who cuts the cloth. And, as with any good tailoring, at the end of the day it’s not about the name on the label, it’s about whoever has actually made the suit. It’s the cutter who is the heart of any tailoring company.”
Cifonelli puts down a gigantic pair of scissors. “I grew up with tailoring,” he says. “It was natural that I’d become a tailor. It is a hard business. There is a lot of work. I don’t see my daughters as much as I would like. But I do love it.” And he loves messing with it too: amongmore left-field creations of late are a knitted tailored jacket (double-breasted but with a single-breasted lapel, modelled on one worn by Roger Moore in The Persuaders); and jackets with their own, more contemporary lapel shape, one that can fasten around the neck. The firm is also making jackets and coats in soft, but hardy, yak wool, a kind of tweed with a Tibetan twist, in a vibrant greeny-yellow.
“I don’t want to make clothes in the same way my father or grandfather did,” says Cifonelli. “Tailors are too often rigid in their ideas, too stuffy. But you have to keep moving forward and understand how people are living now.”
Cifonelli — with more than 40 tailors working for the company, probably the biggest independent tailoring atelier in Paris — was actually founded in 1880 by his great-grandfather (and that of his master-tailor cousin, Massimo, with whom he runs the business). That was in Rome. In 1926, spotting a gap in the market in Paris for fine tailoring, he relocated to the Rue Marbeuf premises Cifonelli still occupies. That edge still plays well: “Paris is less well known for its tailoring for men,” concedes Cifonelli, “but those that are here are very strong on the details, in that couture way.”
Certainly, Cifonelli quickly won influential business, not least making dinner suits for Josephine Baker (Lorenzo still has a signed photo of her, addressed to his grandfather). The company has developed a distinctive style over time: a blend of Italian preference for a softer construction and a roped shoulder; and, thanks to grandfather training in London, the English preference for a fitted waist and high arm-hole. Also distinctive are the details, such as the striking way button holes are finished, with a hand-stitched, pronounced raised edge. It perhaps explains why full bespoke here starts at €5,300 and perhaps why half of its customers are, on their first visit, new to bespoke. But now Cifonelli is also pushing its new made-to-measure service and Italian-made ready-to-wear line — from tailoring, to shirts and socks. It has just opened its first store outside Paris, in St Petersburg, Russia.
“It’s a good city through which to introduce Cifonelli to Russia and a good way of introducing new customers to bespoke,” Cifonelli says. “That’s because the ready-to-wear is still made to our own patterns, still has a lot of hand work and keeps the Cifonelli spirit. We haven’t just bought a load of clothes and put a label in.”
Indeed, one can sense that, for all that Lorenzo Cifonelli might have missed a career on the silver screen of the silent era, his love lies with bespoke. “Twenty-five years ago, people with money went to a bespoke tailor unthinkingly. Now they go because they love tailoring and want to understand it. And it’s a personal business, both with the product and the way it works,” he says. “It’s why I won’t let a suit leave the building unless I’m entirely happy with it. The happy customer might tell a few of his friends. The unhappy customer tells everyone.”