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Wardrobe: Once upon an Island

William Kissel

An impeccably preserved men’s evening suit is draped on a dress form in Alberto Grilletti’s cluttered office on the island of Sardinia. The outfit dates to the mid-19th century, roughly the same time Grilletti’s maternal great-great-grandfather, Giovanni Castangia, was laying down roots as Italy’s premier bespoke tailor. More than a relic, the suit is a constant reminder to Grilletti of his family’s sartorial legacy.

The Castangia story begins in 1850, when the Savoy Dynasty was still governing the Sardinian city of Cagliari. That is when Giovanni Castangia opened his signature tailor shop, the first in Italy, and began making suits for the wealthy and powerful. In fact, the atelier was so well regarded by the Savoys that the family issued the company its royal warrant, which is still embroidered on the label.

"It’s the only suit [brand] I have been wearing for the past six months," says Robert Burke, senior vice president and fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, one of the first American retailers to discover and adopt both the ready-made Sartoria Castangia and the custom Castangia collections. "It’s a real jewel for us, because it is one of the few artisan factories that still does things in the original way." The company has made concessions to technology, adds Burke, "but when it comes to the details—soft shoulders with a slight roll, handset sleeves and linings, handmade buttonholes—the garment has them all, and more."

Burke says the most flattering aspect of a Castangia suit is the shoulder seam, which is pitched toward the back "to give the wearer the appearance of broader shoulders," he explains. Castangia can build a custom suit starting at around $2,400, he adds. "We carry lots of off-the-rack suits that cost more."

Despite Castangia’s relative obscurity in the United States, the 153-year-old suitmaker is hardly an unknown entity abroad. On Sardinia, Castangia owns six signature boutiques, the largest of which Grilleti describes as a "small Bergdorf’s." Additionally, the factory, which contains Castangia’s original workshop, produces suits under the Battistoni label that has been sold in Europe (and at Barneys New York) for years. The firm was also recently commissioned by Paris couturier Michael Tapia to produce his custom suits.

Unlike the products of other Italian suitmakers, which are defined by the region in which they are produced, a Castangia suit cannot be identified specifically with Sardinia, says the boyish Grilletti, who would be practicing law if he were not running the family business. "The suitmakers from Naples have one style that is recognizable around the world," he says. "But Sardinia does not have the same tailoring tradition, so Castangia called tailors from all over Italy to come to Cagliari. Those tailors contributed to the many different patterns and styles we produce today—six altogether." You cannot look at a Castangia jacket and say it is from Naples, Venice, Rome, or Milan, explains Grilletti. "All you can say is that it is an Italian-style jacket, and that it looks like it was made by a true tailor."

Castangia, 212.246.7034, +39.070. 274.068, www.castangia1850.com

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Photo by Ted Morrison