interview with Domenico Mazzarelli

Can we talk about the company history?

Our story began with my father, Marino Mazzarelli. He was a parachutist in the Second World War, then in 1960 he opened an artisan workshop making top class men’s shirts, here in Castellana Grotte. He loved shirts. He didn’t like speaking to us about the war but my mother told us of how, in one of the many moments spent in the shelters, he happened to sew a shirt for himself and one for his companions - a beautiful shirt using the material from a ripped parachute that they’d picked up. I’m the second generation. I supervise all the company’s work and personally look after all production control, thoroughly checking every last detail. Camiceria Mazzarelli now employs 26 members of staff, including seamstresses, cutters and tailors. For some years my elder daughter Monica has been working alongside me.

What makes an Italian shirt stand out? What are the differences between our style and that of Londoners, Parisians or New Yorkers?

In London the classic shirt reigns supreme. Londoners adore popelines, stripes, and the bold and often eccentric patterns that distinguish their look. Double cuffs are very popular, along with white collars and cuffs contrasting with the rest of the shirt. Parisians like collars that aren’t too wide open. They prefer thin coloured stripes, not over-defined; they often go for plain colours, especially pink (in a slightly brighter shade than those generally sold in Italy). In New York the shirt is often button-down, for work situations too. The most popular fabrics are Oxford and pinpoint. The casual shirt is widely used, especially in brightly coloured checks or stripes. We Italians love open collars and a snug fit. We tend to opt for plain white and light blues for work, keeping the coloured “washed” effect shirts for leisure use.

Tell us about the tailoring tradition in Apulia. How does it differ from that of Naples, Rome or Milan? Are there actually any differences?

The roots of Neapolitan tailoring lie firmly in jackets, once the monopoly of British tailors but then becoming a Neapolitan speciality with the creation of the “Mappina” sleeve, later used on shirts as well. In Apulia, for a long time the shirt continued to be a home-made article, sewn by individual embroiderers for their own families or to earn a little something extra by making them for the local élite. In Campania however, the shirt was already associated with the concept of the jacket, and quickly acquired an industrial aspect linked to tailoring rules. Factories were already springing up in Milan in the mid 1800s, affecting the clothing sphere too. Sewing machines replaced the meticulous handwork of seamstresses, and the first stores appeared, selling ready-to-wear items. The situation was very different in southern Italy though, where the skilful hand-sewing of tailor-made articles was still sought after. Here in Apulia, the shirt is a traditional “gift of love”: young girls embroidered them as wedding gifts for their spouses. There’s always been an artisan tradition in this area - just think of crochet and wedding dresses. When they weren’t working in the fields, women prepared their daughters’ trousseaus. If we dig a bit deeper, we could say that the tradition dates back to the 12th century, when the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II arrived in Apulia and personally designed and had built the famous Castel del Monte. It’s said that, to stock his wardrobe, he provided his farmers’ wives with silk from his estates in Palermo and Messina. He chose specific styles and materials for his various roles as king, poet, soldier, and so on. These were the first embroiderer seamstresses, who’ve passed their skills down to us over the generations.

Italian craftsmanship and Made in Apulia - what are the distinguishing features?

Apulia has always been the home of brilliant, creative minds that have often emerged in small or large artisan workshops. Ours is an economy founded on small- and medium-sized businesses, and it has evolved thanks precisely to the skills built up over time and the technical proficiency of the workers who inherited the ancient tailoring tradition. Nowadays, most of the famous brands searching for a truly “Made in Italy” product turn to Apulian companies, able to ensure a 100% Italian product made using the traditional methods.

Let’s talk about the production process. Maybe you could let us in on a few secrets for making a top quality shirt?

Forgive me if I keep the secrets for myself; you’ll discover them by wearing our shirts. Before it’s cut, the fabric is washed and ironed along with the interlinings. The paper patterns are then laid out and the shapes are drawn in pencil. The fabric is cut by hand, using the famous tailoring scissors (not a laser, as is the case with industrial shirt-making). The pieces now have to be put together. After ironing the front right and left pieces of the shirt by hand, creating a large pleat, the yoke is sewn and our label is added. The yoke/shoulder piece is ironed to obtain better accuracy in the following steps. The sleeve placket is applied to the sleeve, creating an arrow shape thanks to the skill of our seamstresses. The two front sides are sewn to the yoke, stitched and felled by machine or by hand. With our artisan system, the sleeves are seamed in three phases: the sides are stitched and felled, then the sleeves, and finally the sleeves are fitted into the armholes with hand stitching and felling. This operation gives the sleeves the best possible perpendicular form - essential for a fine shirt with optimal fit. When we put together the collars and cuffs, we use washed interlinings to avoid any risk of shrinkage during future washes. The fabric is cut according to the model. For the Green Stone line, a non-adhesive lining is used. There are many different shirt collars - our archive contains over 100 models (the collar is one of my obsessions). The collar stay pockets are then created and sewn onto the under-collar. The collar points are manually rounded and, after being stitched, are attached to the band collar. The cuffs are stitched at the same time. The collar and cuffs are ironed by hand. Now it’s the turn of the buttonholes and buttons (always mother-of-pearl). Once all the excess threads have been removed, the keepers are hand-sewn onto the placket and the gusset is inserted by hand to join the sides. Then comes the quality control. The shirt is ironed by hand and then packaged using 100% ecological material, avoiding the use of pins and using only the amount of plastic that’s absolutely necessary. We can boast an excellent made-to-measure service for customers the world over: they fill in a form with their data and measurements, and then only have to let us know what they’ve chosen from the thousands of fabrics available. They can also specify the model, type of collar and cuffs, the buttons, and any monograms or other details to be embroidered by hand. How many types of fit do you make? We have various lines - from traditional, comfort and slim to more unusual ones - so our customers can choose the more suitable one. Hand sewing can be used with any fit, but the essential peculiarity of our company lies in our ability to make specific alterations to the standard fit, not only for tailor-made articles but also for regular production. This option is possible only for those who, like us, can boast all-round internal production and artisan methods.

What do you think about the debate between hand sewing and machine sewing? Is hand sewing better?

AHand sewing is a typical feature of the old artisan tailoring tradition, and it makes the item more special - I’d even go as far as to say unique. But there’s a particular stage that adds a practical aspect too, and it’s the hand-sewn armhole. Hand-sewn stitches in that area make shoulder movements much easier. The hand-sewn stitches of the shirt are resistant to wear and repeated washes. Our seamstresses do their work with painstaking attention, leaving the minimum gap between one stitch and the next. The yarn has to be kept constantly taut to avoid creating any fabric yield, but without exaggerating as this would then cause wrinkling. It’s a question of an extraordinary balance that can only be attained with lengthy experience. We finish off the sewing with top stitching done by hand, making it as resistant as machine sewing.

How important is the choice of good fabric when it comes to making a shirt, and what are the characteristics of a good fabric?

Fabric, finishing materials and labour are the fundamental elements behind a good shirt. I choose my fabrics personally. They’re made with the best yarns and the best cottons, produced by Italian and Swiss companies. A good fabric needs to be resistant, easy to iron, soft and pleasant to touch, and keep the same characteristics even after it’s been washed many times. All these characteristics can only be achieved by using an extra-long Egyptian cotton fibre to make the fabric: the result is a sparkling, resistant cotton structure. Our favourite companies, that we’ve always had an excellent relationship with, are Cotonificio Albini, T. Mason, DJA and Alumo - leaders when it comes to top class fabrics.

Is the future of Italian craftsmanship at risk, or do you see talent and passion in the youngsters interested in learning this trade?

TI think that Italy, like most of the European countries, is experiencing a serious identity crisis and we’re losing our sense of beauty and tradition, but difficult times are made to be overcome. Youngsters need good teachers who’re able to guide them, helping them face and get through those moments of difficulty. In recent years, all too often this hasn’t happened. Many companies, even strong and healthy ones with prestigious names, have chosen to outsource purely for reasons of profit, thereby harming their own skilled staff. A lot of excellent local artisans have lost their jobs, when they could have been training the new generations. Of course, there are (and always will be) new emerging countries where labour costs are lower, but they can’t compete with all-Italian creativity and craftsmanship. Our company is light years away from these strategies. We love our local area and it’s here that we want to work, convinced that values and quality are always rewarded. We organise training courses for young girls in order to promote artisan work and create continuity between the past, present and future. I’m confident and convinced that by continuing on our path and creating a genuine, excellent product, we can win over professional customers who are increasingly demanding and well-informed, not looking for just a logo but authentic artisan quality.

Is the future of Italian craftsmanship at risk or does it identify talent and passion in young people, always more interested in learning the job?

I believe that Italy, like the greatest part of the old-country, is experiencing a severe identity crisis and we are losing the sense of beauty and traditions. Still, it is possible to overcome hard times. Young people need good teachers, capable to guide them even in times of trouble, to face and rode out them. In the last few years this didn’t happen. A lot of companies have chosen to relocate, even if they were healthy, strong, with prestigious brands yet, only for their own gain, causing great damages to their skilled manpower. In this way we have lost many work opportunities, including talented local artisans who could have continued to train new generations of craftsmen. Of course, today there exists and there will always be new emerging markets, where people pay workers more cheaply, but they will not be able to compete with the current typically Italian creativity and craftsmanship. Our reality is far from most of these mechanisms: we love our country and it’s here where we want to work, sure that values and quality always reward. We organise training courses available to young girls, in order to promote handicraft and to maintain continuity through past, present and future. I am confident and sure that by walking on this path, with the creation of an authentic and excellent product, we will keep on achieving professional customers, increasingly demanding and knowledgeable, not only looking for a logo, but seeking for the authentic artisanal quality.

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