Umberto Angeloni, president and CEO of Caruso, talks to PORT about the evolution of tailoring, finding inspiration in Hemingway, and making some of the best suits Italy has to offer
In Caruso’s SS15 collection, there was a red jumper with seven white words woven into the fine cashmere: ‘In menswear do as the Italians do’. It’s not only an eye-catching casual piece in an otherwise mostly formal and dressed-up collection, but it’s also an impressive statement of intent from Umberto Angeloni and his recently reinvigorated Italian heritage brand. Now CEO of Caruso, Angeloni spent 15 years heading up Brioni before leaving in 2007 to look for a smaller project of his own. “I took an 18-month sabbatical and toured Italy to look at the manufacturing of clothes in this country,” he explains over breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel, next door to his Caruso flagship store on Via Gesu in Milan. In the north of Italy, between Milan and Bologna, he founded the Caruso factory in Soragna, Parma, a region known for its eponymous, world-renowned cheese and ham. Caruso, at the time when Angeloni arrived, was a mid-sized tailoring company that only produced suits for other brands. “It was set up in 1958 by a tailor from Naples called Raffaele Caruso. He moved up to the Parma province with his family as the north of Italy was more industrialised at the time.” Only manufacturing for other brands, Raffaele quickly learnt how to make the best possible product with minimised costs. “I found Caruso and I thought it was an extremely fit company, able to be ready for the new post-recession environment by combining technology with fine, fine tailoring. The Caruso suit has the best buttonholes I’ve ever seen. I thought my previous brand did the best ones until I saw these,” Angeloni says in his confident, silky smooth voice.
Since Angeloni took over in January 2009 the brand has been completely turned around. Still making some of the best suits in Italy, Caruso is now doing it under its own flag. Having worked as an investment banker before getting involved with the Brioni family business, Angeloni knows a thing or two about making a brand profitable. In terms of the creative output, he hired Sergio Colantuoni as creative director. The result is a modern Italian tailoring brand anchored in history and traditions, but always looking ahead when it comes to research and development (R&D). “It’s very important for Caruso to always strive forward. We have 30 full-time staff working on R&D. Only six of them are focused on fabrics and materials though – the rest are experimenting on techniques and silhouettes, combinations etc. We make 4,000 prototypes a year, maybe four or five go into production.” It’s rare for such a brand to spend quite so much time and money on the future. Four seasons in, that investment is paying off. Except for presentations during Milan’s menswear week, and the launch of the aforementioned Via Gesu store back in January, the brand is establishing themselves at the forefront of Italian fashion. Angeloni’s approach to success is as much based on sartorial knowledge as his strategic business experience; he knows that in order to stand out and make a mark, Caruso needs a clear USP. In the case of Caruso, that distinct angle is obvious to Umberto Angeloni.
“I’m proud to say that we are very good at suits, that’s our core product and we’ll be sticking to that. It may sound like a humble statement but it isn’t really, because the suit is the most difficult item in a man’s wardrobe to get right.” But the lounge suit, the traditional business uniform of today – a two button, single-breasted jacket with notched lapels – is over 200 years old. Angeloni’s job is to modernise it. “It’s all about the evolutionary path of the lounge suit, that’s why we produce 4,000 prototypes! The evolution used to be steep and now it’s flatter, admittedly. There are still new things to discover and improve though, whether it’s the shape, posture, proportions, details, fabrics, components or colours – it’s a combination of fragments from each of them that propels the suit forward.” But in 2015, many people – at least the younger generations – question the validity of the suit. Is it really a modern garment? Unsurprisingly, Angeloni is quick to cement its importance: “It’s modern because it’s an object of evolution. By definition evolution is the most modern thing there is. It’s not a revolution, where things change overnight,” he explains. “Evolution has a way of getting rid of the wrongs and the useless. The male body has evolved over the years through a change of lifestyles, mentality, sentiments – and the suit reflects all of that. We are on the top of that curve, and there is nothing more modern than that.” He affirms, “That’s why the suit will never die, and will accompany men forever.”
There is no doubt Angeloni is a man of style himself. Breakfast at the Four Seasons is a civilised affair. He’s impeccably dressed, even though the hour is early and last night was prolonged due to the festivities in his new store. Late last year they opened a New York store, and in 2016 there’s a planned Shanghai shop in a Norman Foster-designed shopping complex. In between, Angeloni is considering a retail space in Germany. Wherever Caruso goes, Angeloni seems determined to look for spots off the beaten track; instead of the classic Via Monte Napoleone, Milan’s answer to Bond Street, the CEO went for their current, more hidden, location. He plans to make the street into a menswear shopping destination, even attracting the mayor of Milan to the store opening. “Our target is very clear and concise, we know the customer. We don’t do first, second and third lines, only one line: Caruso,” Angeloni explains. Defining the brand DNA is very important. “There’s research saying that consumers often are confused by what brands do and what they are actually good at. They want certainty.” And so far Angeloni and Caruso have managed to communicate that sartorial message through their blend of traditional wardrobe staples, manufactured in Italy with a modern take on the local heritage.
No one knows better than a seasoned businessman that in order to succeed, a brand needs to know its customer. Angeloni is quick to explain whom they have in mind. It’s evident that he has thought long and hard about this. Maybe the perfect customer was formed in his head before he even acquired Caruso? Maybe the perfect Caruso consumer is Umberto Angeloni himself? “Our customer is ‘the good Italian’. It’s an expression I read once in an Ernest Hemingway book that was published after his death, called The Dangerous Summer. It talks about a summer he spent in Spain and he says in it, ‘if you want to travel in style, travel with good Italians.’” Angeloni goes on, elaborating on the heart of the brand’s ethos: “That expression, to me, means the most sophisticated consumer of menswear: careful, fastidious, knowledgeable and curious. As an Italian brand we should – and do – cater to this consumer first and foremost. We are able to satisfy him and be relevant to any customer with a similar intention and ambition.”
This article is taken from issue 16 of PORT. Click here for more information about subscriptions