Caruso might have been a supplier of exceptional Italian fabrics since 1958, but it wasn’t until Umberto Angeloni purchased a stake in the third-party power player in 2008 that it began making its own elegant range of menswear. The new CEO came with a serious sartorial pedigree; Angeloni helmed Brioni between 1990 and 2007, until family disagreements (his wife Gabriella de Simone is the granddaughter of Brioni co-founder Nazareno Fonticoli) led to the couple selling their share. Since Angeloni joined, Caruso has opened a stately flagship store on Via Gèsu – Italy’s equivalent of Savile Row – and has most recently worked with Loro Piana to develop ‘Gobigold’, a cloth made from the hair of camels from the Gobi Desert.
Growing up in Somalia as a teenager was an education in what style should be; easy but done with consideration. We relocated there for my father’s work and the community of expats would convene for formal dinners and always dress very elegantly, despite being in the tropics. On vacations to Nairobi I learned about British colonial style. We’d trek into the bush wearing linens, cottons and desert boots and it was practical but refined. Like most young Italian men, as a teenager I was influenced by my father’s wardrobe. He would always have his suits made by a tailor.
My father taught me about fairness and justice. He was a judge and the head of the Somali court and ended up presiding over the Declaration of Independence for Somalia and writing the country’s constitution. He was also a professor and loved to have his students to the house to debate and talk philosophy. I was exposed to those sorts of conversations from a young age and even now I love to engage in philosophy. I’m also an avid reader.
I knew that the customer would come out of the recession with different demands and values. It hit in 2008, just after I invested in Caruso and it changed everything. I felt he would want something that would last, that wasn’t transient, but an investment.
In uncertain times it’s important to home in on what you do best and do it very well. Focus on the core of your business. During those difficult years we concentrated on our fabrics and made sure that was our strength.
Brioni was 17 years of continuous growth and success until family civil war broke out. That was definitely one of my biggest challenges. Managing a family business, especially in Italy, can be a recipe for success or failure. We had 15 magical years developing the house, but sometimes success breeds envy and a struggle for power. It took time to accept that.
When I first joined Brioni, the mantra was "don’t change anything". The decision to dress James Bond was controversial – the traditional side of the company didn’t agree with it. I knew we had to diversify so we ended up dressing Pierce Brosnan for four films during the 1990s.
No one really wants to look at a picture of a man in a suit. What’s inspiring about that? We see that every day. When we did our first ad campaign for Brioni we just had a Falcon jet, shot by Inez & Vinoodh. No guy, no clothes, just a jet on a runway. Sometimes it’s about evoking a feeling about the world a man lives in, not about selling a suit.
Luxury is no longer about lifestyle, prestige and status; it’s about a creating a story and engaging people. We came up with The Good Italian series of films at Caruso to celebrate the finer things in Italian life. We got the actor Giancarlo Giannini to star in them – he’s not a name in fashion but he’s passionate about pesto, he has his own label. Our brand mascot is a slice of prosciutto!
I’m so passionate about whisky, I wrote a book about it. I discovered Italians were the biggest collectors of single malt whisky in the world and – controversial but true – Italians taught the Scots to age it into a more sophisticated blend. Italians were the first to really understand the complexity of it. I have more than 1,000 rare bottles now.
The luxury industry would do well to look outside itself more often. Technology is very good at doing that, but I think luxury brands have a tendency to repeat what they’ve done before, or follow what’s hot at the moment. Apple created a product no one knew they wanted because it didn’t exist. I admire that sort of thinking.