WHENEVER YOU HEAR about a leather-goods workshop located in the hills of Tuscany or a shoe factory nestled among the Palladian villas of the Veneto region of Italy, you're likely to picture idyllic settings in which apron-clad workers passionately devote themselves to the task of creating wonderful objects of desire. While this is for the most part a valid assumption, a detail that often goes unmentioned is that those dedicated artisans are usually past their prime, closer to retirement age than freshly graduated.
Finding a new generation of craftspeople – men and women who want to use their hands instead of sitting all day in front of screens for supposedly more prestigious and remunerative corporate jobs – is a major issue in Italy, a country whose economy is based on the export of its savoir faire. Not many young job seekers are willing to learn a craft and apprentice for years in a factory as their parents did, which is why some luxury brands are taking matters into their own hands and actively working to find young talent to replenish their ageing workforce.
Due in no small part to the crisis that has swept Europe and has particularly affected the young, with unemployment reaching double digits in many parts of the continent, the stigma associated with working in a factory or as a tailor is fast fading, although demand for skilled workers who want to learn the intricacies of making high-end products still outstrips supply.
A luxury brand that has been particularly active in the search for manpower is Brioni, the legendary suit maker to Hollywood stars and international moguls that is celebrating its 70th year in business this year. An important milestone in the long history of the menswear house is the foundation of a sartorial school, Scuola Superiore di Sartoria Nazareno Fonticoli, which was established in the town of Penne, located in the Abruzzo region, 30 years ago.
What makes the school different from training initiatives in place at other luxury houses is the young age at which students join the programme. Because the course offers a complete high-school curriculum in addition to classes in pattern cutting, fashion design and tailoring, teenagers as young as 13 years of age enrol right after middle school. As course coordinator Emilio Fonticoli explained on a recent visit to the institution, it's important to get them while they're young because “at that age youngsters have a special sensitivity to their hands and can also more easily develop the right postures and hand movements needed to become good tailors”.
The town of Penne has been known for its sartorial heritage since the Middle Ages and, until recently, every family had at least one tailor or someone working in the textile business among its members. All students of the Brioni tailoring school hail from the area, which is a way for the brand to keep the local craft from ebbing away, a plight that has befallen many Italian regions that are losing their manufacturers because of a lack of interest among new generations.
The school is the only one of its kind, and its founding mission was to train new skilled workers after the first generation of tailors employed in Penne in the '60s started to retire. Brioni's Chief Master Tailor Angelo Petrucci graduated from the first class of the school and is still at the company. “I started the same day the school was founded,” he recalls. “My first day was the school's first day. Back then we couldn't compare the school to anything else because there was nothing of the kind and there had been no previous classes, so we didn't know what to expect,” says Petrucci, who still visits the school for the occasional lecture or workshop. “We thought we were only going to be making suits. The students now have many more resources and things to look back on, but we didn't so it was quite simple back then. I remember that the first day, when all the machines arrived, we students had to assemble and clean them. The first thing the teacher did was to tie our fingers to get us used to the correct hand position because the way men use fingers is different from women. Posture is also very important when sewing and cutting clothes. There's the right position for everything. The first month at the school you have to learn how to stitch and work in the right position.”
The ultimate goal of pupils is to learn how to make a jacket by the time they graduate (to give you an idea of what this entails, you just need to know that Brioni's tailoring method includes 220 steps and that one single jacket requires about 6,000 hand stitches). Some students join the Brioni ateliers right after graduation while others become tailors in one of the shops around the world, which is why they also need to have a well-rounded background to be able to interact with high-profile clients. “Young people are finally realising that having a job that has to do with using your hands is not something to be ashamed of and that it can be even more rewarding than sitting at a desk,” says Petrucci. “Many master tailors get access to places such as Buckingham Palace or work with celebrities, and that's definitely a great perk of the job.”
While you may think that this is a way for Brioni to give back to the community, it is also a matter of self-preservation because unless Italian companies are able to hand down such hard-to-master skills to a new generation of artisans, the luxury industry, which is the backbone of the country's economy, will be in deep trouble. Just think of all the shoe factories in Tuscany or silk weavers around Como that in the last two decades have succumbed to the rampant competition from cheaper producers in developing countries. It's a destiny that proactive and long-term-thinking companies such as Brioni have so far managed to avoid, by preserving what Italy does best: beautifully made pieces meant to last for a lifetime.