What first made me think that Paolo Martorano just might be a tailor of particular interest was that he listens. This might not mean much to those of you who aren’t familiar with the domain and idiosyncrasies of bespoke menswear, but for aficionados, communication is half the battle of getting what you want in the realm of the needlecrafts—and I choose that term carefully.
The truth is, you can talk to a tailor until you’re peacock blue in the face about how you want your garment made, going into minute details about widths and lengths, bringing along photos or drawings, explaining how you like your clothes to fit and look, and anything else you can think of to make yourself clear and understandable, and still be defeated. I can’t tell you how many tailors will nod, smile and assure you that all your suggestions and directions will be followed to the smallest fraction of an inch… and then go off and do exactly what they want. Every time a tailor’s name comes up in discussion among enthusiasts, the first question will be, “But does he do what you want?” Sadly, the answer is usually, “Only if you want what he wants.” And with the price of bespoke clothes today, that’s simply not good enough. A superior tailor is part psychologist and part cosmetic surgeon. He must understand the image we have of ourselves in our minds and try to translate that into a cloth garment.
I found my own style early on and pursued it from one tailor to another for decades, and I’ve learned enough about bespoke clothing over the years to make a career out of it as a fashion editor and the author of a few books and more than a few articles on the subject. I’ve had a great deal of experience with this particular breed of cat. Funnily enough, when I got to talking with Martorano in his midtown Manhattan atelier on a warm autumn morning, I not only became immediately aware that he listened but also discovered something likely very relevant: Both his mother and father are psychotherapists. Suddenly the penny dropped and the lights came on, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor. So that’s why he takes the time and trouble to understand his customers, I thought. It’s in his background, maybe his DNA.
More fascinating still: His father had behind him four generations of tailors in Naples. Martorano’s paternal grandfather, as it turned out, emigrated from Italy to Buenos Aires after World War II and became a rather famous artisan of bespoke clothing there. Martorano told me with considerable pride that his grandfather made clothes for Juan Manuel Fangio, the internationally famous race car driver and playboy, as well as many Argentinean polo players, team owners and other grandees in the post- war era. Martorano’s father grew up in a distinctly rarefied social atmosphere, and when the family moved to New York, they carried that environment of style, quality and an understanding of craftsmanship with them. Martorano’s maternal grandmother, who was Dutch, was also an excellent seamstress and sewed Halloween costumes for her grandson.
There were fashion books and magazines around the home, as well as cloth-swatch books and garment patterns, which Martorano studied as other boys study baseball cards. As we talked, I became aware he not only had a sophisticated eye, but his comprehension of apparel was absolutely scholarly. He was perfectly versed in the history of Italian and English tailoring, how the various styles developed, the different schools of thought about shoulder construction or the flare of a coat’s foreparts. (“The Florentine tailor Antonio Liverano does an open, curved front,” he said, “the complete opposite of the straight English front of firms like Anderson & Sheppard.”) And he knew, or knew of, all the players, those addresses d’or of the bespoke world. I assured myself he could have given me an instructive discourse on any of the great tailors I would happen to mention in passing. His knowledge is encyclopedic.
Frankly, what made our meeting so—what’s the word I’m looking for? Ah, yes—disconcerting is that Paolo Martorano is but 30 years old. In tailor’s years, he’s a mere child. But make no mistake: He’s got the background and the brains to carry the weight. By the time he graduated from high school, he already had a passion for the craft and, having no professional experience or résumé, rather brashly walked into Alan Flusser’s esteemed atelier haven of the bespoke arts and asked for a job. Flusser was obviously taken enough with the very young man to put him to work sweeping up, delivering packages and sewing on a few buttons here and there. Martorano, meanwhile, watched and learned how the business was run, how to measure, fit and attend to customers, the whole ambience of the place. This was a practical education, getting his first experience in the heart of the business.
Staying little more than a year, Martorano moved on to the custom-tailoring department at Paul Stuart under the direction of tastemaker Mark Rykken. There he learned many of the finer points. “The company and Mark were very strict,” he recalled. “You had to look your best if you were going to advise gentlemen on their wardrobes. They were very strict about those rules of grooming and deportment.” The lesson of cultivating his powers of observation extended beyond his own presentation.
“You became very aware that measurements were just a set of numbers, only the foundation when it came to understanding the man’s figure. You had to develop an eye for posture, various degrees of asymmetry and the importance of balance in a garment. I learned very quickly that measurements never tell the whole story.”
Martorano worked at the store for six years, becoming an expert fitter. When Paul Stuart decided to close its custom department, even though it was reputedly taking in several million dollars a year (the company has since opened a new version, customLab), Martorano joined the British firm of Dunhill and was introduced to the Savile Row style of both construction and business. “I probably did as much measuring in those years as some tailors would do in a lifetime,” he said with a laugh. He was gaining confidence, invaluable experience and a list of loyal customers, all the while dreaming of heading up his own atelier where he could present his own emerging ideas of what bespoke should be.
And so, in October 2017, the then 25-year-old took the plunge and opened his own shop in Manhattan. It was sink-or-swim time, and Martorano swam like mad. After a few months at the wrong site, he moved into 130 West 57th St., an historic old-world sort of building just a few steps from Carnegie Hall, and the atmosphere (if you’ll pardon the pun) suited him. The atelier is a charming, cozy place where a man can relax and have a drink while perusing the fabric samples and chatting about the finer points of hacking pockets or the sweep of a double-breasted lapel. It’s more of a club ambience really, with Martorano providing a bit of history here and advice about the relative benefits of Italian versus English flannel there. When I last spent an hour in the space, we found ourselves sitting across from each other, a pile of swatch books between us on a long refractory table, talking about the English actor Edward Fox’s refined wardrobe in A Month by the Lake, which we discovered was a favorite film for the both of us.
I wouldn’t say there is exactly a house style here, but as Martorano himself points out, there is a house preference.
“I’m very much in favor of restrained elegance, if I may put it that way, not overly designed or gimmicked up with trendy little touches,” he said.
“My aesthetic is more Anglo-centric—perhaps somewhere between Anderson & Sheppard and Huntsman—but with that fine Italian hand for construction. New York today is something of a bridge between the Brits and the Italians when it comes to styling. I prefer a soft, small shoulder and a high arm-hole, but I like just a bit of structure with a slightly firmer, cleaner chest and lapel that holds its shape. We can produce a comfortable upper body without added inches of draped cloth. And the old way of designing the sleeve, roomy at the shoulder end and tapered to the wrist, is both more attractive and more comfortable. Trousers should be cut on the easy side, a bit fuller than today’s fashion, with enough room in the thigh and then tapered to the cuff.”
It’s a well-thought-out silhouette. There’s a sort of rational luxury about it, a sophisticated approach that makes perfect aesthetic and functional sense. All of this, by the way, is not to say that Martorano wouldn’t mind running you up a nice gabardine safari jacket or unconstructed linen sport coat if you wished. If I had to put a label on the aesthetic, I’d call it “contemporary conservative,” a trim, clean, youthful approach, but one that refuses to neglect comfort and has an eye for proportion and balance, a mindset of fine craftsmanship and a respect for tradition.
The process here is much the same as would be found at any international tailoring house of repute: Measurements are recorded and individual patterns are made for each customer, with four basted fittings on the first order. There’s the selection of the fabrics, of which Martorano has as extensive a knowledge as I’ve ever encountered. And then, of course, there’s the listening, as Martorano gauges not only your corporeal map but also your mind to determine how you see yourself.
The future has been a tad iffier than usual for most of us lately, but we continue to make plans. Martorano sees the future of his business in terms of managed growth. He has been thinking for a while about the possibility of adding a made-to-measure option that would still satisfy his standards of workmanship and quality. As things open up again, he’ll undoubtedly be spending more time on the road. He had been accustomed to making semiannual trips out West and traveling to Palm Beach five or six times a year for fittings and trunk shows, so often that “the Colony Hotel is my home away from home.” But all of this is seen through the prism of remaining true to the craft of creating beautiful, handmade, classic clothes. His clients, stylish men all, include jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli, social historian David Patrick Columbia, former chairman and CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue Philip Miller, renowned restaurateur Robert Caravaggi, interior designer David Phoenix and several other high-wattage citizens who appreciate the expertise and taste level of this wise, old, new kid on the block.