Custom Made-to-Measure: 12 Questions with Couturier Max Girombelli
The concept of customization comes naturally for private aviation users who are accustomed to personalized solutions based on their individual travel needs. When working with an XOJET Aviation Advisor, not only do fliers receive bespoke membership options, but unbiased recommendations for the most suitable aircraft and airports for their personal mission.
It’s much like the philosophy of Max Girombelli, albeit in a different industry: custom tailoring.
Growing up in the legendary Italian fashion industry of the 1970s and ‘80s, Girombelli comes from a long line of entrepreneurs who have shaped the course of global fashion. His uncle discovered a young and talented designer named Gianni Versace. His father and older brother ran their own company and worked closely with leading designers like Enrico Coveri, Marithé and François Girbaud, Franco Moschino, and Valentino Garavani.
Today, Max carries on the family legacy through Duca Sartoria, a New York-based men’s atelier that creates bespoke men’s clothing for some of the world’s most discerning leaders and business executives. He’s not a designer; he’s an expert tailor who meets with each client individually, lets them drive the design process, choose amongst the world’s finest fabrics and materials, and create a detail-rich, Italian-made suit that actually lives up to the phrase, one-of-a-kind.
“When my family decided to sell the company,” he says, “I went to the roots of fashion, which is tailoring. I kept the best tailors from my father’s company and started what was at the time a new market: custom made-to-measure. I took over a modern tailoring shop in Milano and reinvented it into Duca Sartoria.”
To learn more about the brand, and to tap into Max’s vast knowledge of innovative fashion and fabric, XOJET sat down with the man himself for an in-depth interview. From the secrets of Italian fashion tradition to the convenience of “traveling pants,” here’s the takeaway from one of the most interesting men in fashion.
What was it like to grow up in one of Italy’s most influential fashion families?
As every good kid in an Italian entrepreneurial family, I was called to assist my family during meetings with famous designers. It was amazing—so many stories and wonderful memories. I remember, for example, when I was a young child and I met Enrico Coveri for the first time and, with his strong Tuscan accent, he would call me “Girombellino.” He was always asking me, “So who do you think is right? Me or your father?”
I also remember meeting the already forever-young Valentino at his parties in Rome. It was always fascinating to be a part of the process.
How has your family impacted your personal style?
My background has given me a passion to make clothing and a love for the quality of the fabric. The attention to detail and the quality of tailoring is in our family tradition. We don’t make fabrics but we select only the best, as my father always suggested. The best fabric will make the best suit.
How would you describe the hallmarks of Italian fashion design?
As Italians we have a strong sense of local culture and local tradition. When we talk about Neapolitan tailoring, for instance, the image and the spirit of the region and the city—sun and happiness—is reflected in every piece. A brand like Isaia represents the new young and elegant tailor-look from Naples and it is easy to recognize that style.
How is today’s fashion industry different than the one you grew up in?
The market is changing completely and dramatically. Whether you like it or not, today’s fashion is less real-life and more virtual. The in-store experience is becoming less appealing and people are buying more clothing on the Internet. In many cases, it seems the likes you have on social media are more important than the real pleasure of wearing the suit.
Think of it like going on a private jet for the first time and instead of going with friends, having good food, and enjoying the flight, just taking a picture to show your friends on social media. Today’s young generation doesn’t know what a custom-made suit is because they make their own suit on the Internet without even knowing the tailor or doing a fitting. They take a picture to post it on social media and to me that’s not a real experience.
In my business, luckily I’m out of the social media world. People come to my atelier and I want to give them the full experience—to touch the fabric, feel the material, and take the measurements.
What do you look for in great fashion design and tailoring?
I admire great fashion designers and the vision they have for volume and space, and the spirit they give to a collection. We will always remember Coco Chanel for her ability to make a classic suit or accessory. Or Franco Moschino for his irreverence—the way he could make fun of fashion and create fantastic clothing with a sense of humor. Or Enrico Coveri for his vision of colors and unique fit over the shoulder.
These days, there are still great designers but unfortunately much of their creativity is limited by the bottom line. When you see a big designer that is appointed to be the director of an old established company, that brand now belongs to a big managing company. At the end of the day, they want to have a nice fashion show that they can promote on the Internet, but push the sale on the Internet, and push the bottom line.
For instance, when Brioni first started, it was the famous tailor shop from Rome. They were very unique and special, but today they have so many lines and sub-brands. Even if they are doing a fantastic job, the reality is, when they belong to a big group like LVMH, if they’re choosing between quality and bottom line, they always go for bottom line. They sometimes have to take shortcuts and rely on great marketing. It’s good for them but not something I want to follow any more.
Tailoring, on the other side, is my area and I always look at the quality of craftsmanship. It is my first and most important benchmark.
So tell us about Duca Sartoria and your personal approach to tailoring.
Well, I started my own business 25 years ago when Brioni and Zegna where the only two big players in the custom made-to-measure business. I followed their original idea but kept it personal and didn’t want to expand on the retail side. We operate only from our ateliers in New York and Milan, or our pop-up ateliers in Dubai and Moscow. I also travel by appointment, but the important thing is, everything is personal, nothing is lost on the steps of store managers, and we never impose buyers’ preferences on the client.
When a client comes to me, I let them completely drive the process. If they need a suit for business, we start with the material and I try to understand the purpose—is it an everyday suit, a pin-striped suit for lawyers or bankers, or for someone on the board of directors? Then we’ll move to the style and create a design based on his need and the type of fabric. Sometimes I provide recommendations—if you do a funky velvet suit, for instance, going double-breasted might be too heavy and old—but generally it’s all up to the client.
Next we design the inside. My expertise is to create something classic on the outside but with something creative on the inside. I’m crazy about lining and pocketing, so maybe we make a special pocket for cigars or special pockets for phones.
Lastly I take the measurements. Here I use a template, so clients have an idea of how the jacket will fit.
In total, the process takes about an hour, but it can take longer with clients who are curious. As an Italian, we like to work with a good glass of wine or espresso to make the experience more personal.
Within five weeks of sending the design to my tailors and master cutters in Italy, everything will be ready for a final fitting. The suit is done completely from scratch and we put a label on the inside to say when it was done, for whom it was done, and all the information regarding accessories and details.
What is most unique about Duca Sartoria?
There are many competitors who do a nice job, but I stand out because of my level of detail. I can control every aspect of production, which allows me to do exactly what the client wants. For example, Brioni or Isaia are producing hundreds of made-to-measure jackets per day, so they’re limited in their personalization. On the other hand, I can customize everything because I produce a limited quantity per day. If a client wants to put the penholder on the right side—because they’re left-handed—this is simple for me but impossible for mass-producers like my competitors
Also, if a client buys a suit from me now and comes back to me in two years and has gained or lost weight, I will adjust their suit for free. Believe it or not, by providing this careful and detailed service, I still have clients who have been with me from the very beginning 25 years ago.
Tell us about one of your favorite projects.
A big wedding recently made me very proud because we delivered two very unique and different attires. One was a fantastic classic white-tie piece that was short in the front with a long tail in the back, combined with a white vest, white shirt, and white bowtie. We also made these super funky velvet jackets for the best man and the father-in-law. It was something very special because you’re combining the classic white-tie style with these funky jackets for the young kids, with crazy colors and details. Very complicated but very fun.
Something that we’re working on now is a bar mitzvah of two children. Dressing a father with his sons as a bespoke experience is fantastic. It’s a great source of pride for me to pass on the legacy of bespoke tailoring from one generation to the next. Most of the time the kids are equally interested in the suits as their fathers.
What trends in luxury fashion are you seeing in 2018?
There is always something new as far as colors or fabrics, like a recent Loro Piana blend of wool, silk, cashmere, and linen that I really love. It’s an incredible fabric that is fantastic for summer. It just came out and my clients always love to try new styles.
On the fashion side, people are still very serious at work but becoming more and more relaxed and comfortable when traveling. I see a lot of different materials using stretch fabric for jackets, pants, or even dress shirts. It provides more relaxation during everyday moments, but still allows you to be elegant.
The younger generation, of course, prefers the comfortable style even for work. For example, I always like the shortened pants with a funky suit. The younger generation much prefers that kind of style over the traditional pants with a break.
What are your favorite items from Duca Sartoria in 2018?
I am having fun with the watch shirt, a new idea that allows you to wear your collectible watch inside the cuff of your shirt. This came as a request from a client who is a big collector and wanted to show off his watches in a proper way, without being too overstating.
There’s a famous documentary about Gianni Agnelli, the legendary owner of Fiat and Ferrari. He was the richest, and most elegant Italian and he used to wear the watch on top of his shirt. Nobody else can pull that off, so to construct something similar but more subtle, we created a custom shirt where the watch goes inside the cuff without showing any of the band. It’s fun because we did five different cuff styles that allow the watch to sit comfortably. There are different openings available based on your watch brand, and we can also adapt it to people like me who wear the watch on the right.
What do you wear when flying private?
I love the “traveling pants,” a special pant made with a very comfortable stretch jersey material and no belt loops. There’s also a cargo pocket on the right side, to hold your essentials during flight. Think of it as the comfort of sweat pants with the look of dress pants.
I always wear a jacket, of course, but on board I like a classic blue Cucinelli cashmere sweater that is both comfortable and elegant.
My clients like to wear a suit jacket on the plane—mostly done in non-wrinkle, water resistant material—with the traveling pants. Before landing, they change to their normal suit pants, so they’re ready to go to a meeting.
Which brands have caught your attention in 2018?
I’ve been really impressed by the new Dapper Dan collaboration with Gucci. Dapper Dan is a crazy tailor from Harlem who pitched leather and jeans jackets in the ’70s and ’80s. Now he’s working with Gucci to create an amazing atelier, open by appointment. It’s a big name, with a big company, and they are based on the culture of Harlem and the personality of Dapper Dan. It’s a competitor that I really respect.
*All photos courtesy of Duca Sartoria.