Brioni is known for outfitting high profile and high style figures from James Bond to Donald Trump, as well as world leaders. Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief, Douglas Gollan, traveled to Penne near the Adriatic Coast, approximately 140 miles East of Rome, where he spent the day at Brioni’s factory with co-CEO Antonella De Simone, the granddaughter of co-founder Nazareno Fonticoli. Their conversation ranged from the company’s unique management structure to how the couture tailor is increasing productivity and preparing for the future, and of course, to the passion that goes behind creating hand-sewn garments for the most influential men and women of the world.
ET: Can you give us a brief history of how Brioni started?
Antonella De Simone: Nazareno Fonticoli and Gaetano Savini founded Brioni in Rome in 1945. The name evokes Brioni Island in the Adriatic Sea, which in the 1930s and 1940s was a hotspot for the European elite.
Nazareno Fonticoli, master tailor, was 40 years old and hailed from Penne in Abruzzo, a land of profound sartorial tradition. Gaetano Savini, his enterprising 35-year-old partner, was of Umbrian origin and had a great talent for business and communication. They decided to build an ambitious atelier that would satisfy the best customers in an increasingly international capital. From the start, in fact, Americans were a driving force behind the label’s growth; the world of cinema and entertainment on the one hand, and the community of formal institutions and business on the other, found in this Roman shop the epitome of Abruzzo technique and style.
Unparalleled fabrics and lines that were clean yet cutting-edge pleased Hollywood stars like Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, and actresses including Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor and Anna Magnani. Immediately, in fact, the demand for impeccably tailored clothing spread to female customers, building the reputation of a name that in a few decades would became one of the most successful luxury brands in the world.
ET: How many suits a year does a typical customer buy and what are the price ranges?
Antonella De Simone: Our suits start around $3,000 and range to $50,000 for limited edition Vicuna, of which only 10 from each pattern are made worldwide. The price for all suits depends on the fabric. We have our own proprietary A to Z grading on the complexity of what is being requested. Made-to-measure is about 15 percent more and amounts to about 30 percent of our business. Sometimes the first time a customer comes to us he will buy one suit, but once they are a customer, five to 20 suits a year is typical. We had one customer who bought 40 suits every 20 days for a while. We make 75,000 suits per year but we will not increase production of our men’s suits. We want it to be like that plane or yacht or special watch, which are limited productions. We can say a Brioni suit is like a Kelly bag for women.
ET: What about women?
Antonella De Simone: We have always made clothes for women, but women today are just eight percent of our business and it is an area we want to grow. The Brioni woman is not an accessory. She is a powerful woman and so we have, where possible, tried to create a unique shopping environment for her.
Here at the factory, we are seeing more women who are interested in becoming master tailors. I am happy there are now more women than in recent years in our school, The Brioni Academy. I don’t know if it was easy for the men to accept at first, but they have, and as a women who is a CEO, I am pleased.
ET: Have you ever considered starting a more accessible or entry level brand, for example, like Z Zegna?
Antonella De Simone: Brioni is not thinking about starting a more accessible or entry level brand, but we are pushing the leisurewear collection which is becoming more important season after season. Today 30 percent of the turnover is made by this collection.
ET: What is the process for making a Brioni suit and why is it special compared to maybe the tailors of Saville Row?
Antonella De Simone: For a suit there are 8,000 hand stitches. For a tux 12,000. There are 180 steps to make a single suit. On Saville Row one tailor might make the entire suit. At Brioni we are organized into teams for each step of the process. Each team is a group who are experts specifically in that step, and we check the quality of each step along the way. Each person who works on a suit signs his or her work when they are done so you can actually come here and see the list of everyone who worked on your suit. We also have the Brioni Academy which was started by my grandfather in 1986 and is a four-year school. In the school you learn every step of making a suit and by having the school we are keeping our craft alive. I think on Saville Row the tailors are getting old. Here we are quite young, or I should say young and old. Two of our three master tailors, both of whom are under 35, came through this school. We have hundreds of people who apply for the approximately 20 slots, and we hire only the four or five best at the end of the four years. We also teach English because we think that is important for dealing with customers. At the Academy oftentimes current employees will come here if they want to practice something, so it is a great way to always make sure Brioni is the best.
At our factory we have over 1,100 employees (400 are tailors) but many come from the same families—brothers and sisters, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. I come here every couple weeks because it is like seeing old friends every time I come.
Also, people say Brioni suits are like wearing a second skin because they are so comfortable. But they are also different for different nationalities. American men like their trousers more comfortable while Italian men like them form-fitting. German men like to carry their big long wallets in their chest pocket so we do a different cut with a bigger pocket for their wallet. We have about 40 different variations in styles.
This business is about service. Our clients are very busy and they want us to take care of them. For example, one customer just sent us 30 suits since he had lost a lot of weight and we are resizing them. The reverse happens as well. If you take care of a Brioni suit you can wear it for 20 or 30 years.
ET: Speaking of Saville Row, Brioni has always had a close association with the British. What is the British connection with Brioni?
Antonella De Simone: We have a very long history with the British starting in 1960. At first I think they thought it was just another ice-cream man from Italy, but Brioni was the first tailor to bring color to men’s suits, and we did this in the early 60s. The designs were really amazing and it was really the image people have of the British man in the 60s. The filmmakers of James Bond knew our heritage and came to us; we don’t pay for product placement. Our customers don’t care about things like that. But in Britain, Brioni is really very loved, and I enjoy going there. The Royal College of Art in London’s menswear division has a program where their top students come here to Penne to learn, and last year there was a contest to create the “next generation” of tuxedos. This year it will be the travel jacket and they will all come here to Penne on February 8, 2009. The British really appreciate what we do and that is nice.
ET: What are your top markets?
Antonella De Simone: First the United States. We have a great heritage with American customers dating back to when we first opened in 1946 with our store in Rome. After the war when celebrities such as John Wayne, Rock Hudson, Clark Gable and many other notable Americans came to Rome, they came to our store. In those days the store had one window; today it has 13! After the U.S. it is Italy and then Russia. When I say Russia, I mean only sales in Russia. This doesn’t include Russians who buy at our London stores or in other places. In fact, it is amazing that Russia has only been a top market for less than the past five years but has grown so fast.
ET: Are there any new stores planned for 2009?
Antonella De Simone: For 2009, we plan to open stores in Beirut, Zagabria, Dubrovnik, Lugano, Istanbul and St. Petersburg. We also plan to open in Atlanta in 2010.
ET: There are no Brionis among the founders. Where did the Brioni name come from?
Antonella De Simone: Brioni has always been about and represented the good life. When the founders were starting and looking for a name, they choose the Croatian island of Brioni in the Adriatic Sea. At the time it was considered the chic place for the jetset of that day to go. So that is where the name comes from. Brioni is closely associated with polo again because this is a sport of the good life, and Brioni is the good life. We are sponsors of the St. Moritz winter polo tournament with Cartier, Julius Baer and Maybach. Last year one of our master tailors attended an event there with Julius Baer clients and ended up taking orders for 26 suits.
ET: As the person who has to make Brioni stand out in a crowded field of luxury companies and luxury wannabes, are there any companies you particularly admire?
Antonella De Simone: Hermès. They are amazing with their integrity and their dedication to the brand. I also really love their web site. Every time you go on it you get a different experience. Also Louis Vuitton’s new campaign is amazing. The Keith Richards advertisement is incredible.
ET: What about line extensions?
Antonella De Simone: Maybe home would be nice. Brioni is a lifestyle so that would be a good fit. We have had offers to do a hotel here in Rome, but for the time being we are not going to. We made the furniture for the Brioni Suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Milan.
ET: Italy is a country that has a reputation for labor trouble, but Brioni has some interesting ideas it has implemented in operations.
Antonella De Simone: Many of the employees in Penne are women and they have families and children to take care of. We need a high level of production so we have a six day work week, but it is six days of six hour shifts so it’s a 36-hour work week. We have two shifts per day so there is a morning shift for six hours and then afternoon into evening for another six hours with a completely different set of employees. So we are able to get 12 hours of production six days a week. The satisfaction of the people is also very high because they are less tired each day and they have more time with their families.
ET: Can you tell us a bit about Brioni’s current management structure?
Antonella De Simone: The structure is we have three co-CEOs. Andrea Perrone is the CEO for business and development, Antonio Bianchini is the CEO for finance and operations and I am CEO for marketing and communications.
We each have a very distinct area of responsibilities, which is good, so there is no confusion, but we are always talking. We talk every week about what is happening and share ideas. It works very well.
ET: Do the families get together for holidays and is there business talk?
Antonella De Simone: Yes, we do see each other and no we don’t really talk much business. The families are quite large now with many children and grandchildren. However, there sometimes is talk of business. My mother who is part of the second generation will always ask “How is Brioni doing?” just because within the family there is so much love for the company. As of yet the fourth generation is not involved and the fifth generation is too young, so when the families are together it is more about family and other things rather than business.
ET: Have you always worked at Brioni?
Antonella De Simone: No, for eight years after school I worked outside the company, including for the Italian Trade Commission and several other companies. This was a very good experience, and it was really the only way that made sense. If I had just came in as the granddaughter of the co-founder, people would have questioned why I was here. But when I came in I already had very good experience so I think people respected that.
ET: Are you concerned about the economy?
Antonella De Simone: Surely it is tough right now, but we think that the value of our product, the craftsmanship, the tradition will overcome.
ET: In the press you have previously said you want Brioni to remain independent. What is your recipe for success in being an independent brand competing against the ever larger multi-brand houses on a global level?
Antonella De Simone: The very first secret is to be faithful to your own peculiarity. Our strength is to be unique and special.
ET: Parents sometimes have trouble getting their children to dress nicely. How was it with your son?
Antonella De Simone: From the time he turned 18, he has taken on the Brioni style. Before that, I didn’t think it was that important, but of course he still wears jeans when he wants. We do have many clients who dress their children in Brioni. It does look very nice!
ET: Would you like to see your children involved at Brioni at some point?
Antonella De Simone: I don’t know. The future will tell us.
ET: So when you travel, do you have any favorite hotels or resorts you like to stay in?
Antonella De Simone: I like to stay in hotels or resorts which know how to make you feel welcome and at home during your stay so you don’t miss your usual comforts.
ET: Anything else about Brioni you would like to share with our readers?
Antonella De Simone: Brioni can provide personalized apparel to every important man who wants to express himself and his power through the way he dresses.