Icons & Innovations: Brioni: Clothes Horse Sense

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Umberto Angeloni went to a lot of trouble and great expense to express his views on how important the polo shirt will be to fashion this spring. Last summer, the chief executive of Brioni had 200 of the brand’s best customers shuttled to the Croatian island of Brijuni (formerly the Italian island of Brioni and the source of the brand’s name) to spend the weekend watching professional polo. The Brioni Polo Classic—a series of exhibition matches with players from Argentina, Italy, and Austria—returned the sport to the island after decades of absence. In the early 20th century, Brioni was an Italian resort destination that frequently hosted the international polo set (as well as the dolce vita crowd that follows such events), before it was bombed in World War II and abandoned.

During the Brioni Polo Classic, Angeloni presented a sneak peek at the company’s new line of polo-derived sportswear that includes regimental-striped cashmere blazers with leather side tabs, ultrafine cashmere V-neck sweaters, snug-fitting jeans with a single tricolor belt loop (in the burgundy, navy, and white colors of the newly formed professional Brioni Polo Club team), and, of course, the classic pullover knit shirt. “I guess you could say it’s a bit dandyish,” says Angeloni, a self-proclaimed armchair athlete who fancies himself the prototypical connoisseur for such elegant leisure attire. “It’s what the players might wear after the game.”

When asked why a world-class suitmaker was compelled to introduce a collection of sport-inspired garments, Angeloni responds, “Sports are a growing part of the lifestyle of our clients, but it’s important that we stick to what is relevant to a luxury brand.” Brioni selected polo, he explains, because it is “the only elite sport left in the world.” 

Polo has been a component of the brand from the beginning. Company founders Nazareno Fonticoli and Gaetano Savini selected the Brioni name after seeing a 1937 Italian State Tourist Board poster that promoted the island with an elegantly attired polo player. The company also adopted the image of a polo player as its insignia, which still is stamped on many of its blazer buttons. Brioni registered the logo in 1952, nearly 15 years before Ralph Lauren began using a variation of the symbol.

When Italy ceded the Brioni island to Yugoslavia in 1947, then-Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito banned tourism and designated the island—now named Brijuni to reflect its Yugoslavian control—as his private retreat, which it remained until his death in 1980. The island then became a national park, just as the country’s civil war began. The bombed-out and deserted locale might have stayed that way if Angeloni had not intervened. He envisioned restoring the island’s five-star status just as Aga Khan had transformed Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda in the 1960s. Two years ago, Brioni partnered with the Croatian government with plans to finance the construction of lavish hotels and spas, one of Angeloni’s many interests and the subject of his second book, Seducing the Senses. (The first, Single Malt Whisky: An Italian Passion, celebrated his penchant for single-malt Scotch.)

The resort project is part of Angeloni’s ongoing effort to raise the profile of the 60-year-old Brioni brand. When he assumed the helm in 1990 after years of consulting for the company, the firm was run by opposing descendants of Fonticoli and Savini. The internal conflict, Angeloni says, was harming the brand’s image. “From being a leader in style, it had become an unglamorous manufacturer of suits run by two unrelated families with no sense of history or future vision,” he explains. “There was only the philosophy of ‘Let’s not change, and save money.’ It was basically a recipe to stay in a niche and, after that, ultimately demise.”

As a visionary with an M.B.A. and an arbiter of style with strict standards of quality, Angeloni reversed Brioni’s decline. Intent on restoring the brand’s former luster, he eventually visited the Brioni archives searching for design ideas. In 1999, he thought the brand’s full-canvas, wide-shouldered executive suit from the late 1970s and early ’80s—the model that inspired the term “power suit”—seemed ripe for resurrection. Brioni originated this executive wardrobe essential, which others quickly emulated, and Angeloni modernized the design by adding a third button to the jacket and softening the shoulders. He named the new model Millennio, which subsequently became one of the company’s most popular silhouettes. To this day, owning a Brioni suit remains a badge of success in the business world.

Brioni also explored retail and marketing opportunities that once had been dismissed as too costly and ineffectual. “I thought the brand could be exposed and expanded without diluting it if we simply reinvested in its core value, which was tailoring,” explains Angeloni. He applied his considerable charm and business acumen to gain the trust and support of the members of both founding families. In 1999, he unveiled his concept of the ultimate Brioni store, the company’s flagship located on Via Gesù in Milan’s golden triangle of retail. To cater to the privacy and service demands of his elite clientele, Angeloni installed a concealed VIP room behind movable walls, as well as the only in-house tailor outside Brioni’s Rome headquarters. He since has expanded Brioni’s retail empire to 26 shops worldwide, most with in-house tailors.

Even Brioni’s first venture into sportswear, or “leisure wear,” as Angeloni prefers to call it, was another meticulously orchestrated venture that he envisioned in a distinct way. “For me, it was about dressing the Brioni man on Saturday and Sunday as opposed to simply coming out with a line of sportswear,” explains Angeloni, whose weekend staple is a superfine navy cashmere blazer. “That is a completely different target, level of quality, and vision.” Despite the more casual nature of the collection, he insisted that it exhibit the same hand-tailoring and high-quality fabrics employed for Brioni’s business attire.

Angeloni views the new Brioni Polo line as an extension of that effort and sees great opportunities for expansion. “We are working on new interpretations of the polo overcoat with details such as a polo player’s sash that can also be applied as a tie to a robe,” he says, noting that he is overseeing the editing of a third book that explores polo’s influences on fashion. “These kinds of special details have always intrigued me, and I believe the Brioni customer feels the same way.”

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