Carlo Brandelli: The Modernist

The creative director opens up about bringing his distinguished style back to the renowned Kilgour on Savile Row

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One afternoon recently, Carlo Brandelli was sitting in his temporary office on Savile Row reviewing the unexpected turn of events that had resulted in him getting his old job back. “They say you should never go back,” he explained. “You should leave things the way they were because then the image endures and the myth gets bigger. But there’s just too many people who said, ‘Come and do it’. I’ve been humbled by the weight of enthusiasm. So, really, what are you going to do?” he said. “It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?”

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Brandelli, who is 46 and TV-star handsome, was talking about Kilgour, the Savile Row institution that has been around since 1882, but in 2003 came under his stewardship for the first time. One of England’s oldest and grandest tailors, Kilgour was established as Kilgour, French and Stanbury and specialised in equestrian gear, earning several royal warrants. Later, it became a favourite with Hollywood; Rex Harrison, Louis B Mayer and Robert Mitchum all wore Kilgour. Fred Astaire’s tailcoat from Top Hat was Kilgour. Hitchcock was another major fan. The grey two-piece Cary Grant wears throughout North by Northwest has become so iconic it’s been called the men’s style equivalent of Audrey Hepburn’s little black Givenchy dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

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It’s the kind of storied heritage that brands love to play up to. Brandelli, who has no formal fashion training having failed to get into Central Saint Martins twice, first for art and then for fashion, chose to ignore it. Instead, he ushered in a radical overhaul that was both modernist and minimalist. Where Kilgour had made exclusively bespoke suiting, he concentrated on ready-to-wear. Those suits came sharp and skinny, single-breasted and one-buttoned. Shirts were fly-fronted so as to hide the buttons, a way of “distilling” the shirt, Brandelli said, “ to make it as simple as possible”. Texture was prized over colour – anyone looking for something other than navy blue or charcoal grey was largely out of luck. The advertising campaigns were shot by the uncompromisingly contemporary photographer Nick Knight and art directed by Peter Saville, best-known for his coolly clean and atmospheric record sleeves for Joy Division and New Order. The brand’s triple-barrelled name was similarly trimmed for fat. “Kilgour, French & Stanbury is an indulgent use of words to describe what you do,” Brandelli told me.

In 2007, a new Kilgour store opened at 5 Savile Row, one Brandelli designed himself. A glass-fronted, rigorously geometric, limestone box with mash-oak fittings embedded with mother-of-pearl polka dots to echo Kilgour’s signature pattern, it featured architectural shelving and no visible mirrors, lest it look too much like a tailors. Its centrepiece was a fish tank containing three black-and-white spotted Leopoldi stingrays – Brandelli was delighted to discover nature had also come up with a way of echoing Kilgour’s signature pattern. Many of the Row’s old guard, whose bread and butter was dressing pear-shaped businessmen in wood-panelled rooms full of ceremonial military ephemera, were scandalised. “Everyone lost their minds,” Brandelli recalls.

The style press loved it. Bryan Ferry, David LaChapelle and Bobby Gillespie became customers and Kilgour was heralded for bringing a trendy new clientele to the most traditional of menswear addresses. In 1999, Brandelli dressed Jude Law for the premiere of The Talented Mr Ripley. In 2004, he dressed Daniel Craig in Layer Cake. Noting that the script demanded Craig, a gangster, to wear clothes like an English gentleman, Brandelli hit upon an idea. “Let’s dress him like Bond.” Two years later, Craig actually was Bond, in Casino Royale. “Someone said that the publicity we had generated in those eight or nine years was 10 times larger than all of the history of Savile Row, from the beginning,” Brandelli says. “That was the effect.”

Brandelli, who is of the school of thought that designers should design clothes that they would like to wear and was always mystified when his contemporaries would shop at Kilgour, may have had his point proven when he was voted both the British Fashion Council’s Menswear Designer
of the Year and Britain’s Most Stylish Man. His image as an aesthete and a conceptualist was compounded by the interviews he gave at the time. Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol were influences, he said, but so was the Pope. Asked to name the most important item of clothing in his wardrobe, he replied none of them. “The hangers and the wardrobe are far more important.”

In 2008, it was off to the catwalks of Paris, one of the first Savile Row tailors to show there. As it turned out, it was also the last, as Kilgour was acquired by the Dubai-based JMH Group, a $250m concern that supplied chemicals to the construction industry, and Brandelli resigned – apparently clashing over its decision to return the focus to bespoke tailoring. The Paris collection never went into production.

But last year, the wheels of industry turned once again, and in a rarely-seen volte-face within the business (Jil Sander’s return to Jil Sander notwithstanding), last September, it was announced that Brandelli would be back at Kilgour as creative director, at the behest of the brand’s new owners, 14 Savile Row – a company established by the Hong Kong-based Fung Capital that also controls Hardy Amies. This summer, a new store will open on Savile Row selling his new A/W ’14 collection. Before that, Mr Porter will sell Brandelli designs that can justifiably be called classic – his unreleased Paris collection.
“It wasn’t a case of coming back and coming up with something different,” Brandelli explained, of his decision to return with a five-year-old collection.“I tried to make my designs timeless. It was always modern, it was always minimal. A lot of menswear is so strict, how you work, the styles, the design – everything. You find something that works and you buy it season after season. You change the fabric a little or you update, then you move on. It’s just a continuous refinement of what you do. The new owners said, ‘We’d like you to bring it back. Come and finish what you’ve started’.”

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That’s good news for Brandelli’s army of fans, people for whom he provided the best of both worlds: the handmade quality and process of Savile Row with the eye of a fashion designer. “Carlo’s approach is defined by his respect for the traditions of Savile Row while not being bound by them,” Peter Savile says. “This combines uniquely with his innate Italian sensibility of reductive luxury.”

That Brandelli returns as menswear is at the tail end of its love affair with dandyism – tie bars, pocket squares, double-breasted tailoring and the all rest – seems only fitting. “Since 2008 and the crash, there has been an uncertainty in the world. So you turn to things you trust. Which means tradition. Let’s not do contemporary. Let’s go back to tiepins and waistcoats and cufflinks and all those elements because we feel safe,” he said.

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At Kilgour, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything quite so ostentatious. “I don’t think elegant men should wear things that shout, quite frankly. It’s ridiculous. You know, bright orange, bright green.”
He is, I suggested, no big fan of colour.
“Yes I am. Just not very harsh colour because it has no context. There’s no point in doing bright orange or bright green in the centre of London when, predominantly, it’s grey.”
That’s amazing, I said.
“Why amazing?” he asked.
Because most people would argue the opposite: you know, wear a bright tie and cheer things up.
“When you’re talking about something as important as style, I think their attitude should be reserved and serious, not whimsical. And bright green, bright orange, to me, is clown-like. If you’re talking about coming somewhere like Savile Row and being discreet and elegant… If you’re wearing those things in a hot country, it’s different. Just throwing in colour for the sake of it, to be noticed, I think is lazy.”

This is a big Brandelli thing – appropriateness to one’s environment. “Have you got opening, functioning buttons on your jacket sleeve?” he asked of me at one point. “Well, it makes no sense at all. Originally, the people who could afford bespoke were wealthy professional people, like doctors and surgeons. Surgeons in whenever it was – 1880? – were very formal, so they wouldn’t take their jacket off. They’d just roll their sleeves up. How often have you rolled up the sleeves on your jacket? It’s an affectation.” (Brandelli’s own jacket featured single-button vertical sham cuffs, “which gives you the idea of tradition but done in a contemporary way.”)

In the intervening years from 2009, he decamped to Milan, returning to his roots to take up his first love, sculpture. He exhibited successfully in both Paris and New York, though his stark, stone, modernist columns were Roman through and through. “I worked in travertine stone because you can only get it in Rome, from the original quarries every Renaissance artist used. I just get to the purity straight away, and the truth as quickly as I can. That’s just what I do. Whether it’s stationery or the type of paper you use, I always try and find the correct thing.”

Brandelli is terrific and enthusiastic company, able to expound on his own theories at length – even if he sometimes leaves you a bit unsure exactly what those theories are. “I don’t know what intelligence means,” he offers at one point. At another: “What is style?” A conversational trick is to pepper his answers with your name, perhaps to show you have his full attention. “Yes, precisely,” he approved, when I agreed with him on something. “Very perceptive of you, Johnny.”

Brandelli was raised in Highgate, north London by “artisan... craftsmen” parents who had emigrated from Italy. He says his interest in fashion was ever-present. “It’s the DNA of every Italian. Most of them are interested in clothing, culture, architecture, design, it just goes hand-in-hand.”
As a young boy, he was unable to differentiate between them. “For me, clothing was part of design. Because I was interested in design, in buildings, in architecture, in music. So it was all the same aesthetic, Johnny. From as far back as I can remember. I was just as interested in the shop I was in as the clothes and how they presented them.”

Aesthetics, in short, were everything. “If a store didn’t look right, if I got the wrong feeling – I wouldn’t go in.” It’s an attitude he has held on to ever since. “It’s an instinctive and immediate reaction to what you see. You think, ‘Oh, that’s correct’. When you see a great piece of furniture or a great piece of design, you can’t quantify or qualify why, you just instinctively know it’s great. And it’s usually because you can’t change anything. You know that feeling? It’s just right. It can be traditional or it can be modern, it just has to be correct. The criteria are non-specific. You have to be intuitive. It’s the same as you walk down Savile Row. You know the ones that are for real and the ones that aren’t.”

In his teens, his eye for correct things led him to the Parisian flea markets around Le Marais. There he would buy design books, sculptures, objets – and tailoring. “It had a whole area dedicated to bespoke and there was something from every English tailor. You could see the difference in quality, cut, design, weight, how the label was presented… it was all there.”

Brandelli brought these suits back home and hung them in his first flat. Not in the wardrobe. On the walls. “I’d have images from Joy Division and then there would be a bespoke suit on the same wall. To me, it was the same thing. It was only later when I got into [Fluxus artist] Joseph Beuys and discovered he’d produced a felt suit which he’d hang on the wall, and read about his concept regarding what he thought that was, that I started to see other people were thinking in those terms as well.”

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On occasion, he would wear his second-hand suits into the appropriate Savile Row store. “I was doing it in a provocative way. I was just curious to know if these old, crusty establishments would recognise their work. Was it real, or was it not?”
Someone at Gieves & Hawkes passed the test, complementing Brandelli on the cut of his cloth. Then they blew it by asking whether the suit was actually his dad’s. “It was 24 years ago, they wanted to be condescending to young people. Whereas now they need the younger customer. And you should put that in [this article] if you can, Johnny. I wanted to change that.”

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But before Brandelli arrived on the Row, and after playing in a band, developing a keen interest in karate and toying with the priesthood, he first set-up nearby – opening a studio in Soho’s Brewer Street in an attic that used to be a brothel. There the then-22-year-old started producing his own designs under the label Squire, clothes that favoured the same narrow trousers and nippy silhouette beloved of his Italian father and uncle. It was the continental style of La Dolce Vita, one designed for showing off your new loafers or zooming around town on a Vespa. The shorter, leaner look that one contemporary men’s magazine noted was unsuitable for the man “who has a bay window”.

In 1992, modernism and minimalism existed in Japan with Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons but not so much in the West. Up until Tom Ford’s arrival at Gucci, Italian fashion was still best defined as boxy and roomy – well-made and luxurious, but never really sharp. Brandelli proposed mixing modish English tailoring with Italian flair. Almost immediately, Squire became known as London’s hippest label. Dazed & Confused magazine had opened down the road and Brandelli says the first three people through his door were Isabella Blow and the stylists Katie Grand and Simon Foxton, all of whom spread the word. One person they told was Nick Knight.

“Carlo really had something unique in his vision,” Knight says. “When mods in the Sixties ran a rigorous Italian design ethic through their clothes, it was like that. When you listen to the music you’d hear in the early Sixties dance clubs, there’s a speed to it. Carlo’s designs had that feeling. An authentic, vital soulfulness, but also a speed. He reminded me of the Small Faces, that vision of ‘we are the thing’. Carlo was a very savvy young man. Bright-eyed, very alert and very aware.”

“He’s smart,” says Peter Howarth, MD of creative agency Show Media. “When I first met Carlo, he was working for the Japanese store Isetan – he would have been 20 years old. I was working for Nicole Farhi and he came in as a buyer. Somehow he convinced the Japanese that this kid was the best person to advise them on what brands to buy.”

By 1995, Squire had moved to Clifford Street, Mayfair, and yet another former brothel where he opened neither shop nor art gallery but something in-between, a “space” where he could display furniture by Olivier Mourgue and art by Allen Jones and Bridget Riley. The clothes hung in the middle. “Pop art wasn’t particularly respected then,” Brandelli says. “Those artists weren’t the forces that they are now.” As for the furniture: “people needed to sit on things, so why not put beautiful things in?” Peter Saville and Nick Knight did the invitations to the opening night, called In Glorious Colour after the art, which was all black and white. “We had a closed-door policy, which everyone said was never going to work, but on the opening night Pulp were on one of the sofas, Oasis were in the backroom. Jude Law was there. We had people from David Chipperfield Architects and Ridley Scott’s company. Damien Hirst painted something, which the cleaner, the next day, scrubbed off the walls. Alexander McQueen turned up with Bowie. It was silly. Silly.”

McQueen was an avid early supporter, calling in one afternoon to get something to wear for his big Givenchy interview that evening and leaving with a cream moleskin covert coat and some trousers. He was back the next day grumbling that all Givenchy wanted to talk about was what he was wearing. There were other designer fans, too. “I remember Helmut Lang paying very close attention,” Brandelli says.

The Squire space turned out to be the perfect background for Britpop-era swinging London. A gloriously mixed-up time when an artist like Damien Hirst would make a pop video with Blur, and an indie musician like Björk would step out with Goldie. “It was a gallery, so people would just come and hang out and sometimes they would buy a picture and sometimes they would buy an item of clothing and it was the same. We were before [Paris retailer/ exhibition space] Colette. Dover Street Market was way, way, way later. I just thought: well, this is all design, what difference does it make?”

By 1996, Squire had multiple retail outlets, including a space inside Harvey Nichols, an outlet in Liverpool and was looking at another in Glasgow as well making US headway. It was also looking at selling its label to the retail arm of the Japanese mega-brand Onward Kashiyama, whose menswear sales alone were worth £760m a year, apparently after one of their senior staff bought a Squire suit he liked. (Alexander McQueen partnered with the same company for womenswear.) But the deal never transpired – Brandelli says his business partners weren’t behaving “correctly” – and he wound down the company.

He’d done enough to attract the attention of Kilgour, though, and he was soon applying his rigorous aesthetic to the venerable tailors. One of the first adverts he took out on their behalf was in Frieze, the art magazine that up until then wasn’t known for pulling in fashion ads. These days, of course, art and fashion are happy bedfellows, from Louis Vuitton underwriting exhibitions at the Whitney Museum in New York to Salvatore Ferragamo sponsoring a Leonardo da Vinci show at the Louvre, to the cutting-edge gallery Hauser & Wirth currently at 23 Savile Row. “Now it’s normal,” Brandelli says.
It’s perhaps easy to see why he might have upset the Row.

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“When he got his hands on the train-set, the pattern-cutters and the tailors, he said, ‘Right, you’re totally skilled at making the best tailoring in the world but on this street we’re making stuff that people’s grandfathers wore, and I’m a guy who walks into Yohji and Comme, so let’s do that’,” says Peter Howarth. “We’ve never really done modernism here. In America they have Calvin Klein. Helmut Lang is Austrian. Jil Sander is German. Carlo can wax lyrical about art and architecture but when it comes down to it, it’s all about rather beautiful pared-down clothing. And he had that all to himself.”

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“Savile Row started to become a museum,” Brandelli says. “It became pastiche over heritage. You’ve got people in a craft who are maintaining something others have invented and not adding anything. It’s laziness. Even in the most traditional companies, designs move forward. Car design – you couldn’t be more contemporary.”

“With style, it’s better to look to the future,” Nick Knight says. “That’s quite hard if you’re looking at a single-breasted, charcoal grey suit. But there are certain things you do with the lining and the padding to make it a bit more modern. Carlo’s very hard to please. He’s always cutting back and cutting back and getting rid of all the stuff he doesn’t want to be associated with.”

Then again, the upset over the cutting back wasn’t always justified. Take his controversial one-button suit. Not really that controversial at all. “It was presented as the most contemporary idea of all time, but people had forgotten that it was the style that dominated Savile Row in the Fifties and Sixties. Because proportionally, it’s the correct shape – the best shape – for a guy. And if you really don’t know that as a tailor… well, there’s a problem.”

It was December 2013 when we talked and Brandelli had been back at Kilgour for a matter of months. His clothes wouldn’t be available until the spring and there was nothing he could show anyone. But it was important to get something out there, something to announce the comeback, so he and Nick Knight had produced a film. Brandelli suggested that we watch it. We climbed several flights of stairs to a room containing little more than his mood board, a rail of clothes that served as his archive and an iMac. He clicked the mouse.

“It’s only one minute and 20 seconds long, so I’ll play it and just let you watch then I’ll play it again and I can explain.”

The mood piece featured a set filled with panes of glass inspired by Gerhard Richter’s sculptural work, within which impressions of a man’s reflection faded in and out. It was accompanied by ambient music written by Tara Ferry, the 24-year-old son of Bryan. It was arresting, beautiful and unlike anything you would associate with Savile Row, menswear or indeed fashion. It featured no clothes at all. “The glass layers represent layers of thought,” Brandelli explained. “Reflection meant as contemplation, not actual reflection. It’s deliberately slow, it’s elegant. It’s not about brash images of fashion and all that stuff.”

The plan was to post it  on Kilgour’s website, accompanied by an essay on fencing by the artist James Peel, part of a series of writings that would build to create an impression of the label’s aesthetic. Then towards the end of January, a thick piece of card arrived by post. It featured a graphic representation of the film and the news it was now live on the website. The card was hand-produced in a limited run of 400 and stamped with three individual layers of foil on an old German press, of which there are only two in existence.

“That really is the first product,” Brandelli explained when I asked him about it. “That’s more important than seeing the collection first, because the clothes will be fantastic anyway. The imagery, the semiotics – we have to gradually get people to understand that.”

The layering in the foils made a direct relationship to Kilgour’s paper patterns, the ones used to cut the clothes. More cards would be sent out over time which Brandelli hoped people would collect. “Then in 10 years, you’ll be able to look back and think, ‘Oh, what’s left of Savile Row? Look at Kilgour, things were quite good.’”

I wondered whether he thought people would pick up on the subtle messaging of the cards, or if this even mattered. “It’s a big jump to expect everyone to make,” Brandelli said. “But that’s how we need to communicate, because we’ve all stopped thinking. We get all this crap nowadays from all these different brands that it’s difficult to reach intelligent people.”

“Maybe I should send a little note?” he said. “But then I think that’s pretentious. And not very English. Is it?”

Taken from Issue no. 3 of The Big Black Book: our biannual style manual on newstands now. You can download the Esquire UK app here.


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