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Style: Best of the Best Sportswear: Luciano Barbera

William Kissel

It’s easy to understand why Luciano Barbera has garnered a reputation as Italy’s reigning prince of style. “Understated and deluxe, like Italian cashmere” is how one associate describes him. “He is the Thin Man—Nick Charles—without the martini,” says another. “I’ve always considered him my role model because of his taste level,” adds Murray Pearlstein, owner of Louis Boston. Pearlstein spotted the dapper Barbera in a photograph in L’Uomo Vogue magazine in the late 1960s and encouraged the young fabric maker to design a collection of clothing modeled on what he wore in the portrait.

The Luciano Barbera collection, launched in 1971, is rich, quiet, sophisticated, classic, and always well-tailored—a direct reflection of the man himself. “I always thought that I could offer not just clothing but a way of living,” says Barbera of his highly polished approach to design. “That means showing a man how to combine the right shoes with the right socks with the right trousers.”

Barbera is the son of one of Italy’s premier fabric makers, Carlo Barbera, whose small mill is located high in the mountains in the Biella region of northern Italy near the Swiss border. The family business led Barbera down a different path into design than that of his Italian contemporaries. He studied the art of fabric making—combing, spinning, weaving, and finishing—in England at many of the finest textile mills in Shipley, Hillshire, and Huddersfield. Years later, when he started his signature sportswear collection, his label immediately conjured up images of great British, as opposed to Italian, style.

Three decades later, the British influence in Barbera’s designs is still very much in evidence, especially in his Savile Row–inspired tailored clothing. Barbera’s sportswear also projects a cultured image with its beautifully tailored, fur-trimmed wool/angora/cashmere topcoats, Super 120s wool flannel slacks, precious cashmere pullovers, supple leather car coats, and button-down brushed cotton shirts.

Because of his association with his father’s textile mill, Barbera’s collection has the distinct advantage of developing its own fabrics from scratch. As a result, the label has been used as a testing ground for new fabric technologies, including the first electromagnetic super wool that prevents harmful ultraviolet rays from being absorbed through the skin. Such envelope-pushing vision can prove to be a challenge in the risk-averse menswear business. “I’ve always designed things that I personally love, but they aren’t always accepted by store owners,” says Barbera. “The clothiers would say, ‘We always buy flannel, show us flannel.’ And I think, my God! How can you continue to attract your customer if he has already seen flannel?” Nevertheless, says the designer, fabric innovation continues to be the root of his collection. “When I refer to fabric I am referring to the soul of every man and woman,” he adds. “First and foremost, clothing needs to be made from fabrics that can support traveling, humidity, and changes in lifestyle. This is a very important aspect of my design.”

And Barbera’s design is always dictated by his own personal style rather than fashion fads. Unlike Italian designer mega-labels such as Gucci, Prada, and Giorgio Armani, who, Barbera says, “design for armies rather than individuals,” his label will always remain small and special to appeal to a man with a connoisseur’s tastes. In the end, Barbara insists, “A man should feel comfortable, and never be just a mannequin for another man’s ideas.”

Luciano Barbera, +15.7465200, 212.315.9500, www.lucianobarbera.it

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Photo by Ted Morrison