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Smalto: bespoke tailor, Paris

14 November 2012

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French tailor Smalto is not talked about much by the bespoke enthusiasts of the world. Yet it is the second-biggest bespoke operation in France (after Cifonelli), has a great history – having been established by Francesco Smalto in 1962 when he left Camps de Luca – and a very strong style.
 
That style is most clearly identified in the Smalto lapel: a smaller notch, known as a fish mouth among English tailors, in which the lapel angles upwards from the point it meets the collar. It can be seen as half way between a notch and a peak lapel.
 
 
 
The jacket style is also characterised by a well-padded shoulder and close waist. While still being lighter in construction than any of its Savile Row cousins, the Smalto suit is cut and made in a strong, masculine style – similar to how Camps de Luca suits used to be, when the house style was driven more by Joseph Camps than the de Luca family, as currently.
 
There are other similarities with Camps de Luca such as the teardrop-shaped ticket point on the inside of the jacket (see picture, top) and – like all French tailors – Smalto the fineness of finishing on the linings and buttonholes.
 
 
One thing that sets Smalto apart from everyone else, however, is its method of cutting. It works from a series of plastic patterns for set chest sizes and styles. These are used to make a very rough, basted fitting using waste cloth, which is substantially altered to cut the actual cloth. One advantage of this system is speed – a first fitting can be done the same day as no cloth is required and the cutting is very simple.
 
Other French tailors often use waste cloth to do a fitting. Cifonelli, for example, has done so with me when I’ve been in Paris for just a day, and Lorenzo Cifonelli particularly likes to do so with female customers and with trousers for a first-time customer – as both can be tricky in the re-cutting.
 
But no one works off plastic in the same way that Smalto does (though it should be pointed out that this is by no means the same as just adjusting blocks, as some cheaper bespoke tailors or made-to-measure systems do). Smalto also uses a three-part cutting process, in which the most important person is the measurer and fitter. He does no cutting himself, but passes on changes to someone else who creates and uses the paper pattern, who in turn passes it to someone else to do the cutting.
 
 
Most large tailors use an undercutter to the do the striking of the actual cloth, but I’m a little sceptical about the virtues of not having the measurer/cutter have any connection with the cloth itself. Then again, I have not tried the Smalto process so I do not pretend to pass judgment.
 
Smalto is not just a tailor. It has two full fashion lines, with ready-to-wear suits retailing at around €1000 and €3000 (bespoke is around €6000), housed in a glamorous corner house. The styling is fairly brash, redolent of Zilli. All the bespoke appointments are taken upstairs, rather than in the same building as the tailoring itself. This does have the advantage that all the RTW can be quickly altered, and to a very high standard.
 
 
As mentioned in my piece on Camps de Luca, French tailors have lot of African clients, and around Smalto you see a lot of lightweight, unlined and Safari jackets/shirt jackets. This does have its downsides in terms of style – one African leader who will remain nameless had ordered a suit in a Scabal cloth that is woven with the client’s name as the pinstripes.
 
But overall, Francesco Smalto’s reputation for quality and innovation seems to be intact. As an example of the latter, one room we visited was covered in print-outs of suit styles and cloths – the working drafts for a Smalto app that will allow bespoke customers to go through the hundreds of options available in cloth and cut, so they can design everything before they even arrive at the shop. 
 
 
Photography: Luke Carby