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AI is cool but can it tailor a $50,000 suit?

The death of celebrated Neapolitan clothier Cesare Attolini reminds us that fine craftsmanship never goes out of style

From Cesare Attolini's fall-winter 2022-23 collection
From Cesare Attolini's fall-winter 2022-23 collection

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In the winding streets off the Bay of Naples, lived and worked Cesare Attolini, the great master tailor of the soft-shouldered suit. The maestro, who died in November at 91, numbered among his clients A-listers from movies past and present: Clark Gable, Al Pacino, Marcello Mastroianni and Denzel Washington. At his funeral a month ago, actor Toni Servillo wore the canary yellow blazer that adorned him in the Oscar-winning movie The Great Beauty.

With his passing, Attolini joins an Italian pantheon that includes the likes of Michele Ferrero, who created Nutella, and Leonardo Del Vecchio, the icon of the modern eyewear industry. That’s to say, he became the latest in a long line of overachievers of Italy’s postwar period to depart the stage. But Attolini’s life and death have something to say about the future, specifically a lesson about the pleasures of craft and career for our AI age. As digital technology becomes more pervasive, a sense of touch and humanity will be more sought after. For that reason, Attolini’s death may well mark, not the end, but the beginning of a new age of master craftsmanship.

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Attolini lived suitmaking from cradle to grave. It was his father Vincenzo who first had the bravura to dare to question the strictures of the traditional English suit. In doing so, he brought about a revolution, managing to make the jacket softer and lighter like a shirt or a cardigan. Among Vincenzo’s six children, Cesare was the one who most shared his eye, touch and passion. He was soon brought into the business and, typical of the second generation, broadened out to a more international clientele with a wider product offering.

Top-end handmade suits—each requiring 25 to 30 hours of labor—were made in Naples, and there were stores in Milan, New York, Miami and Moscow for fittings and an off-the-rack selection. In the summer, the Attolinis would also descend upon the yachts moored off the Amalfi coast, catering to holidaying millionaires and billionaires.

When I visited their historic factory a few years ago—before an expansion to larger premises as Silicon Valley tech bros and newly minted Chinese billionaires were ready to drop 50,000 euros ($53,000) on a handstitched vicuna fiber suit—Cesare was there, running his fingers over lines of tiny cross-stitch as if playing the piano. In the finished-suit cupboard on the lower floor hung garments with a scrap of white paper pinned to the lapel with the handwritten names of their buyers, including former Russian President Dimitry Medvedev.

His sons Giuseppe and Massimiliano, who are leading the family’s third generation, insist the business won’t be sold. That’s not to say no one has approached them. Acquisitions of high-end niche manufacturers in Italy are at an all-time high, Renato Mason, the head of the artisan lobby in the Veneto region, tells me. Buying up such specialists represents a new deal mania in Italy. 

Part of that fervor is down to an unabated demand for luxury goods. But there’s also a more nuanced story at work. A 2013 study from Paris School of Economics that’s often cited among luxury executives argues that with inequality comes heightened luxury consumption, but also a demand for more opulence and uniqueness as the wealthiest want to show off in more elaborate ways.

That’s driving a renewed attention on ancient trades: lacemaking, leatherworking, weaving and, yes, hand-stitched suitmaking. Andrea Morante, a former Gucci executive turned banker who is now chairman of QuattroR, a Milan-based private equity group, recently told me that we are seeing a return to luxury from an earlier age.

“Everything has to be luxurious, right down to the chain on a handbag,” he says. Big houses like LVMH, the conglomerate that has made its owner Bernard Arnault, the world’s richest man, is gobbling up Italian manufacturers. It announced the acquisition of Florentine tannery Ally Projects and a high-end manufacturer of clothing called Robans in September, aggregating them in a subsidiary called LVMH Metiers d’Art. Buying control of your supplier means your competitor cannot use them.

That’s also driving a search for more skilled artisans as my Bloomberg News colleagues Alessandra Migliaccio and Flavia Rotondi recently wrote. Two decades of industrialization of luxury goods have given way to a return of consumer yearning for opulence. As a result, luxury houses are scrambling to find skilled workers. Attolini has been training new tailors for decades. Some 140 artisans labor at its enlarged headquarters. Cesare’s son Massimiliano tells me they have long searched for apprentices in the families of current suitmakers believing, as owners did in past centuries, skills run in the family.

But there’s a simpler message from Attolini’s life. In “The Craftsman,” the 2008 book by Richard Sennett, the founder of the New York Institute of the Humanities, argues craftsmanship embodies an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake. It stands in opposition to jobs “that measure a person's capacity to manage many problems at the expense of depth suit an economic regime that prizes quick study, superficial knowledge, all too often embodied by consultants who dart in and out of organizations.'

Attolini's life and death defines that dichotomy. His son Giuseppe says the work Attolini loved was animating him until his last hours at the family dinner table. Then he went to bed and did not wake again. “Even up until that last evening we talked about work,” Giuseppe says. Attolini was 91 years old and for 65 years had been married to his wife, Anna. For white-collar workers vying with robots for supremacy the simple human dignity of a handmade life may well become the real luxury.

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