Francesco Barberis-Canonico — An Interview

Francesco Barberis Canonico is the Creative Director of Vitale Barberis Canonico, one of Italy’s oldest and most respected mills. And one of the most elegant men I know.

BR: You represent the 13th generation of your family in this company. Is this a pleasure or a burden?

FBC: I think it is a bit of both really. We are always very aware that we have a long history. But I think we mustn’t take it too seriously. Because otherwise you will be scared of doing anything and you will just think about your past. I think it is important for a company like us to have very strong roots and to know the past. But also we have to look ahead and think of the future. We have to think of the new generations of our customers.

BR: How long have you been working here?

FBC: I started working in the factory in 1998. I took over from my father and my uncle with my cousin in 2010. My cousin Alessandro is the managing director, my cousin Lucia is the CSR manager, I am the creative director and I am also in charge of the communication and the image of the company.

BR: How have you been prepared and educated for this job? Have you studied textile design or textile engineering?

FBC: No, I have studied business in England. I grew up in England, I spent almost ten years there from 17 to 27. I returned with a strong English background which I think helped in this field.

BR: People say that you are the most English of the Italian weavers…

FBC: That’s correct.

BR: What does that exactly mean?

FBC: It means that we are very traditional in many ways. The way the fabric is set. The way the fabric is constructed. We construct fabrics really for the tailors. We always think about the tailors. It is designed and constructed that it works well with the canvas. It works well for tailors but also for the clothing manufacturers.

BR: I have seen huge quantities of cloth in your warehouse. You must sell also to others. Tailors can only be a small part of your business.

FBC: Yes, tailors are a very small part but it is one part that is very interesting because the people who go to the tailors are the most passionate people. They start by choosing the fabrics and they choose us. So it’s a very personal relationship. The fabric is very important because it is the architecture of the suit. From the fabric you are starting to think: Here I am going to go. I am going to make a suit. I am going to make a jacket. I will go double-breasted. I will go single vent. I think the fabric is really the first form of inspiration to a man who goes to a tailor. That is very it really all starts from. We consider the tailors not only as the connoisseur but also as the people with more passion. Tailor could also mean a made-to-measure business. Because now tailors are disappearing and in many countries there are hardly any left. This is why we have to think of tailors and also suits that are made-to-measure.

BR: What was your first personal experience with a tailor? Have you been there with your father or grandfather?

FBC: No, my first experience was actually in England. Because I had a friend who was very well dressed and he took me to his tailor. I remember how I started flicking through these bunches of English fabrics and tweeds and I started making a few things and then I realized it is a very strong passion. This is how I started. Then my father took me to his tailor when I came to Italy and I realized it was a very big difference in construction. But I found both very fascinating, the English tailors and the Italian tailors. The English have a strong tradition. They have invented the suit. We have to bow to the English in a way.

BR: What that the moment when you decided to work in your family’s business. Or was that clear from the start?

FBC: No, I had many passions. I liked music. didn’t know what to do. Of course this was the easy choice. But when I was young I wasn’t really interested in clothing. This developed all of the sudden after I went to this tailor.

BR: Your style is very elaborate and you have a very special style. Has your style changed a lot? What was your style when you were 25?

FBC: It was different. It wasn’t so formal. I was more casual. But gradually by working in this field I become very specific. Everybody looks at what you wear. I am a bit obsessive with my clothing. I like to research a lot. I like the history. I think it is nice to have your own style. Which doesn’t have to expensive. It doesn’t have to be something really special but to have your own things that make you special, you know. For example I like to wear frayed shirts. I became famous for the frayed shirts. I think it’s nice to be unique. In Italy we have a thing called Sprezzatura. It’s a nonchalant way of putting things together. Showing that your effortless but in fact there is a lot of effort behind. I like this very much. I think it’s very special.

BR: Sprezzatura has become almost a cliché now when you look at Instagram. Everybody speaks about it.

FBC: People often talk about it but they don’t know what it is or they don’t have it. It’s like playing music. You can try as much as you like. It’s in there. Sometimes there are very old pensioners who have Sprezzatura or very old tailors. I remember Sergio Loro Piana who has passed away. He was a very elegant man. Gianni Agnelli is a great example of Sprezzatura. They actually deliberately put some accessories that didn’t fit at all but somehow managed to catch your eye and all of a sudden became very elegant. It’s something really very clever. It’s like when you play music and you play a note that is not in the key. It makes your ear tense and then you go back to the right key and then all of a sudden it sounds beautiful, you know? It’s a way of catching people’s attention. Now it’s overrated with all these Pitti Peacocks. They try so hard to be different that they all look the same now in many ways.

BR: Why are people in the classical field of menswear so fascinated by Italian style everywhere you go. Asia, Europe, the US. 100 years ago everybody tried to achieve English style. Why is Italy so attractive, also in other fields?

FBC: That is funny because up to a few years ago the Italians wanted to look British and the British wanted to look Italian. We both admired one another. I like the English very much. I like the fabrics, the tailors etc. But I think the English have slept for many years. They have never renovated. They have always been showing the same fabrics, the tailors haven’t changed so much over the years. Whereas the Italians when this became a business have become more refined. They made a better suit, better fabrics. Also with the cuisine. We were famous for the Lasagne, the Bolognese. Now we have three Michelin Star restaurants. There was an article a couple of years ago in “The Economist” that said that even in the most remote areas of the world the first sign of civilization is the opening of an Italian restaurant. We are really very lucky because Italy is a very special country. We are surrounded by beauty. Wherever you go you see some beautiful architecture, you see beautiful people, nicely dressed. I think this is reflected in the product that we make.

BR: Can you explain a bit about the region where we are now? Why has your company been founded in Biella in 1663?

FBC: Biella was very famous because it is very rural and very mountainous. The mountains mean that we have a lot of water. The water is important for two reasons. First of all the hard water was very important for the dye and the finishing of the fabric. But it was also very important to the power the machines because they were all powered by water and they made the looms work. Most of the companies started with one hand loom in the cellar. The gradually grew. A bit like the Harris Tweed today. They gradually grew and bought another loom next years. Then the looms became automated in the last century and Biella became really famous in wool. Here 80 percent are making wool fabrics or machinery to make wool fabrics. We have no tourism, we don’t have any foods, this is what is really special about Biella.

BR: Why has Italy become so strong internationally after WWII?

FBC: The English always showed the same things. If you look at the English fabrics it’s always the same designs. Whereas the Italians renovated every season. And also the Italians, because everybody likes Italy and wants to be Italian, they went off to sell fabrics abroad and when people bought a cut length they felt Italian. They felt it was fashionable. This has helped us a lot globally.

BR: What is your impression of German style? What is the difference between the way a German businessman dressed and an Italian businessman?

FBC: I think the German is more functional. They don’t look so much at the aesthetics. We had the famous TV investigator Derrick and I think he wore nice suits. He was very elegant.

BR: The clothes for this role were made by Max Dietl in Munich, the most famous tailor in Germany.

FBC: I think there are some very elegant Germans. I have seen people in Cafés wearing nice tweedjackets. Obviously when you think of Germany you don’t automatically think of clothing. Hugo Boss is very famous. But when I think of Germany I think of beautiful cars. Germany is a very pragmatic nation.

BR: In England many style leaders have been or are members of the Royal family, like the Duke of Windsor or Prince Charles. Italy is a Republic but you are now leaders in style.

FBC: We have some very strong tycoons who were seen frequently in the newspapers. They were admired a lot. Very elegant people like Gianni Agnelli. Pietro Barrilla was also a very elegant man. Luca Cordero di Montezemolo he is too. People always aspired to these people as being very successful and being very well dressed and that was part of their charme.

BR: You said that you had various interests when you were 25 years old. Do you still have time to follow the passions that you mentioned earlier? Like music?

FBC: Yes. I try to switch off at the weekend and I try not to think about work. I have many passions outside my work that help me to come back Monday with a different approach and a different point of view. I think this is crucial. If you only think about your work and what you do then you have a very limited and narrow view. Whereas if you look at other sectors – I like music, cinema, photography. It is helpful to be very curious and have 360 degree vision of the world.

BR: You produce around 5000 new fabric patterns each year. How do you work as a creative director?

FBC: I bring new ideas every day. From magazines, from books. Also I make the designers travel. We have beautiful mountains here but from staring at the mountains you won’t get any clever ideas. That is why I make them go to London, they go to Milan, the go to New York sometimes. To get new inspirations. And I don’t like them to show me a finished product. We do them together. We start at the season. You know we have a few ideas. They start developing the ideas. They show me halfway through. I give my advice and we take a decision. In fact I look at every single fabric. It has to get my approval to become part of the collection. If I am not happy with the result I make them redo it five, six or even ten times until it is absolutely right. Another example of quality is that we use silk and polyester to make the pinstripes. A new yarn came and that was much more expensive than the yarn that we were using. We tested it because we wanted to see the result. It was much better and we immediately used it. This is the total approach to fabric. We buy the best wool material always. We never ever in our 350 years history made a fabric to a price. We never say that it need to  cost 10, 15 or 100 Euro. We start off with the best possible material, we make the best possible yarn, we weave it the best we can, we finish it the best we can, we use the best chemicals and least harmful. What is incredible is that we are still very competitive. If we made the fabric in China it would probably cost the same. We have very high labour cost like in Germany or Austria. We have one of the highest in the world. But still we manage to this day by innovation, by the skill that we have in this factory to be competitive and to have a world class product that we can sell all over.

BR: How important is the environment for you?

FBC: It is very important. We are here in the middle of nature. We actually give the water out cleaner than we receive it. We take a lot of care and we spend a lot of money. Textile is one of the most polluting industries in the world so we have to be very careful and we try to pollute as little as possible.

BR: Your raw material is regrowing … 

FBC: Yes, we have our own sheep. We own two farms. We also have a very unique type of sheep. Because my uncle has been there for the last forty years. He has done some genetical engineering so we actually have one very special type of wool that unique to us and we think this is very important. It’s like cooking. If you cook with good ingredients than the result will be nice. If you are using cheap ingredients to cannot expect a good fabric. So we really have the best raw materials that we can possibly wish for.

BR: Is your cloth a “green” product without being labelled as such?

FBC: Yes, because first of all we have a heart for the animals. They are free to roam, they are not locked up. This is very important for their well being. We are ethical about this.

BR: So a suit made of your cloth is a green garment.

FBC: Yes, it is very green. You know Prince Charles has buried two suits, one made of wool fabric and one of polyester to show that the wool suit will have decayed after twenty years while the polyester suit will still be there. A good suit lasts very long, you can wear it many times.

BR: A lot of young people are interested in classical style. But when you look on the streets you hardly see anyone wearing suits. In your stock I have seen huge amount of fabrics. Where do they all go to?

FBC: They go all over the world.

BR: Mainly for business wear?

FBC: We have two customers. Business people who wear the suit like a uniform. These people don’t really care. They spend 300 Euro on a grey suit and wear it all week long. They can’t wait to get home and wear a track suit bottom and a t-shirt. But we also have another following. We see them on Instagram and Facebook. They are very young and very passionate. They are saving their money for a suit and they wear it not because they have to wear it but for the pleasure of wearing a suit. So maybe they buy a jacket to wear it with jeans when they go out with their girlfriend or with their friends. We see now a big return. Because these children have seen their fathers wearing jeans so they don’t want to look like their father.

BR: What is your style advice for one of these guys of twenty?

FBC: Try wearing a suit and see how you feel. Find out what colour suits you best. I am one of the few people who wear a jacket on Saturday and Sunday. Not to look cool or to advertise my product. I actually think that a suit is very comfortable. Unlike women we don’t have a bag. In a suit you can out a pen, a diary, your telephone, your keys. It is actually very nice. If I wear a sweater and jeans I don’t know where to put my things. Not only that you look good. As Bruce G. Boyer put it, a man that I respect very much: It is a matter of respecting yourself and other people. If you show up for work or meet someone important you should make the effort. Because they make the effort for you and you should do the same.

Fotografie: Martin Smolka.