PERFECTLY TURNED OUT in a chalk-stripe navy bespoke suit, Umberto Angeloni, chief executive of Brioni, is urbane, courteous and buttoned up. So it comes as a surprise when, after settling a visitor into a chair in his office, he suddenly begins to strip.
"There are places you could get into trouble for this," scolds Brioni's communications director, Alessandra Alla. But not Milan, so Angeloni, 53, continues peeling off his vest to demonstrate what is special about a Brioni suit. He pulls up the lapel to display a cashmere backing (as opposed to the traditional felt) and a special thread to hold a boutonniere in place. He shows off a barely perceptible extra chest seam that requires a painstaking matching of stripes. He points out secret pockets and buttonholes stitched to look as good on the inside as out. (The buttonholes are stitched by 80 women by hand, a skill that requires two years of training. "One bad punch, and you have to throw away the sleeve," he says.) Finally, Angeloni unsnaps the cuff of his pants, a detail that allows for easy lint removal.
Brioni's bespoke suits start at $4,800, require several fittings and take on average 32 hours to craft. Some 70 optional details are proposed. "Not all of them are absolutely necessary, but I know the ateliers can do them, so I ask for them," he explains.
That's precisely what attracted Brioni's most famous client, James Bond. "I was looking for top English tailoring for Pierce Brosnan, and I could not find anyone who could make the number of suits I needed in the way I wanted," says Lindy Hemming, the costume designer who has kept 007 looking sharp in his past five films, including the newest installment, Casino Royale. Spies make for demanding customers. "I need 20 suits exactly the same for Bond but also the stand-ins, the stuntmen," she says in a phone interview from the Royale movie set in Prague where filming has just begun with the new Bond, actor Daniel Craig.
Hemming says there were several "hello-goodbye" meetings with Italian men's labels before she found Brioni. "This is not a product-placement deal, and that's what's quite extraordinary. I explained my dilemma, and Mr. Angeloni said, 'I don't see any problem,' and no money has changed hands."
Brioni, headquartered on the Via Gesù in the heart of Milan's shopping district, was founded in Rome in 1945 by tailor Nazareno Fonticoli and his entrepreneurial Roman partner, Gaetano Savini. Fonticoli had been trained in the Abruzzo school of tailoring, which blends cutting and stitching techniques borrowed from Savile Row with softer, Mediterranean-inspired lines. The pair's Sartoria Brioni on the Via Barberini was named after the Croatian islands of Brijuni, a glamorous golf and polo getaway favored by Italian aristocrats in the 1920s and '30s.