Over the past five years, Neapolitan heritage menswear brand Isaia (pronounced ee-sigh-ee-uh) has leapt to the forefront of modern tailoring. The world’s most dashing men sport the label’s luxurious suiting outside the shows in Florence and Milan, where Isaia’s coral branch lapel pin has become the emblem of haute steez. We caught up with the brand’s president and creative director Gianluca Isaia to talk about Savile Row, the best meal on Earth (he also happens to be a jetsetting gourmand), and his vision for the house his grandfather built.
For people following street style these days, and specifically the photos by Tommy Ton and others at Pitti Uomo and elsewhere, the Isaia coral branch lapel pendant has become the ultimate symbol of a modern, elegant man.
Wow, that’s great.
Are you looking at those blogs? Are you a fan of street style in Italy?
I watch everything, especially young people. I watch them all over the world. I’m quite lucky to travel a lot. I go to New York, I go to Russia, I go to Europe, I go to Japan. I always watch young people because they are the most creative stylists all over the world. The real stylists.
You have such a great story, such a heritage and such roots, but over the past five years Isaia has grown in awareness and availability. You have a new flagship and are available in stores all over the world. How have you approached your global outreach?
I think that we developed a very strong identity of our brand. We use history to explain very clearly who we are. We have a long tradition—over 50 years—and we combine this tradition with a contemporary look and contemporary fabrics. Having this in our mind it has been very easy to communicate who we are. When you really know who you are it really helps to build a brand.
I’d say the same applies for men, as well. If you really know who you are you will find your way.
Yes. You spend years to think who you are, really who you are. The moment you find out you will say it is very easy, but the easiest things are the most difficult to get.
I think one of the things that we respond to about Isaia is the quality—of construction, fabric, tailoring. Do you develop all your own fabrics?
Yes. 80% of our collection is exclusive fabrics. We start the new season thinking of a theme—for example, last Fall/Winter the theme was tartan, Scottish tartan. We designed a tartan which we also registered in Scotland (it has become our tartan) and we developed all our fabrics from this theme.
And the fabrics are all made just outside of Naples where you are?
Yes, it is very close to Naples. It is called Casalnuovo. We have been there since we started in 1957 when my grandfather decided to move from Naples to this small town because this town was very famous as the tailor’s home. At that time, in the ’50s there were 14,000 people in the town, 7,000 were tailors.
Yes, it was amazing.
So you grew up in Naples?
I grew up in Naples until 18, and then I went to Milano for university.
You’re very much in the family business—I imagine you grew up with fabric and cut and quality engrained in you. But you have traveled the world, you’ve studied and worked in London, you have done all these things on your own. You are bringing a very unique perspective and a very modern cosmopolitanism to what you do. How has that affected your work at Isaia?
It’s difficult to answer. I think I’ve been very lucky. When I was 12 years old my father took me to London and left me for one month with a family to start to learn English. After that I went back to London every year for at least one month, usually in the summer. Sometimes I worked in stores, sometimes I studied. After that, when I started to work [for Isaia] I traveled around Italy and Europe, around US, around Japan. This is something that really helped me because… I went to this University which is very famous in Milan and I think it is one of the best in the world [Luigi Bocconi Commercial University], and the main thing I got from going to Milano was not necessarily the degree but living as an 18 year old in a place like Milano which in the 80s was the center of Europe. It’s not common for an Italian (especially in the South) leaving the family at 18 years old. In US it’s normal, you go to college, but in Italy, no. Almost all Italians live at home with the mamma and the family.
So you were a rebel. Independent.
I was independent, yes. My mother and father wanted me to be independent and I have to say thank you for that. Italians want the children to be in the family until late. All of these things built in me a different approach. Also to business. To say which part is from Milano, which part is from the states is difficult. It is “experience” that has given me this knowledge.
How did you respond to British tailoring on your trips to London? Did you see shapes and lines and cuts that were different from what you were used to in the Neapolitan tradition? Anything that appealed to you?
I went to visit several tailor shops in Savile Row. I like them very much, I have to say. They have tradition. But the fact that they are too loyal to the tradition has become a problem today. That’s why they lost importance in the last 20-25 years.
Are there any designers out there that are doing things that you pay attention to, that you particularly like?
I have no idea the names but when I go to London and I go to those shows—they’re called underground shows—you can see a lot of talent. For sure. It’s more about vision than tailoring. The tailoring they stopped about 50 years ago. In Italy, but especially in Naples, the tailors are more creative than the British. They adjust their vision to the different times.
You have an admirable philosophy about enjoying the quality of life. I know that you enjoy travel and love good food and wine. Have you had any memorable trips or meals recently?
I just got back from Milano this morning. But the last one was really fantastic was the one a few months ago in California when I went to Napa Valley. It was my first time in Napa Valley and it was fantastic. Fantastic wine. I found out that the best wine they make is not around the world—they keep it for themselves.
Where did you eat?
I have a good friend over there who is Thomas Keller.
Oh, wow, so did you go to French Laundry?
Oh of course. We spent one day over there with him. He took me to the best winery. On his recommendation I got some good wine and for dinner we went to French Laundry. Fantastic, fantastic experience. I had the same experience in New York at Per Se, but being at the French Laundry was a stronger experience because he was there. French Laundry is much smaller. The kitchen at Per Se is so big and at French laundry you cannot understand how they are so organized in a kitchen so small. It was a fantastic meal, fantastic experience. I say, if you do something, do it right, otherwise, don’t do it.