Anyone looking to have a bespoke suit made in Milan will no doubt head to the Quadriletaro della Moda, the northern Italian city’s high fashion district where prestigious tailoring houses such as Brioni, Kiton, Caruso and Rubinacci are located. It’s hard to go wrong with any one of these brands known for their quality of craftsmanship and genuine Italian heritage, but somehow you can’t avoid thinking that maybe, just maybe, these luxury tailoring houses with branches across the continent have grown too large, too loud, and too impersonal for their own good.
There are several alternatives to the big luxury brands in Milan, however; low-key tailors of the old- school variety who make it a point to know customers personally and treat them less like money and more like family. One such establishment that comes highly recommended by tailoring enthusiasts is Musella Dembech, a small-scale, family owned, by appointment-only, tailoring house in a nondescript address in the city.
You may also like:
Perhaps a bit too nondescript, actually, because it took me about an hour to find the exact location of their shop after getting off the taxi at the designated street. Unbelievably, the tailoring firm which counts statesmen and industrialists among its clientele, has no sign, storefront, and no name on the apartment building directory. After a few frantic calls to Gianfrancesco Musella Dembech, the young voice on the line gives me directions to his apartment flat with instructions to the lift that takes guests to the floor where the tailor works.
It takes me a few more minutes to figure out how to operate the vintage-style elevator with accordion doors, and when I finally emerge from the lift, I find Gianfrancesco standing at the door ready to welcome me to what vaguely looks like an atelier.
To my surprise, the tailoring shop of Musella Dembech turns out to be the family home as well. The Dembech’s living room serves as a salon and fitting room for clients, while one of the interior rooms doubles as the single workshop where all suits are cut, sewn and pressed. Despite their reputation for providing the wardrobes of wealthy clients, the atelier cum family home is a rather humble affair, although the beautiful mid-century furniture and abstract art on the walls suggest a family with sophisticated taste.
After a short tour of the workshop, I begin to realize that Musella Dembech is an entirely family affair: the young Gianfrancesco manages the firm, his father, Francesco, supervises the production of the suits, while his mother, Matilde, helps both husband and son with minor tailoring duties and with welcoming visitors like me. Assisting the Dembech family are two full-time employees. That’s it, apart from part-time tailors who work on waistcoats and trousers from a separate location.
The small team and the intimate setting of Musella Dembech in a family home is probably one of the reasons why clients don’t mind going through all the trouble to find the elusive atelier. Unlike the big-name brands in the Quadrilatero della Moda, its much easier for customers to interact with the tailors here, even monitor the construction of their suits in person. Nothing and no one feels rushed. And in a cozy environment like the Dembech home, clients genuinely start to feel like family. This intimacy, according to the young Gianfrancesco, is the cornerstone of the traditional Italian tailoring business, though few practice it this way today. “It should be about a series of things: trustworthiness, hospitality, and constructing a long-lasting relationship. And the quality of work, of course.”
Indeed, Gianfrancesco is well aware that no tailor can survive in a competitive market like Milan by relying on sentimental values alone. A large part of Musella Dembech’s success is built on the solid reputation of his father, Francesco. The Dembech patriarch is known within tailoring circles for crafting the suits of famous style icons and billionaires, among them, former FIAT chairman Gianni Agnelli.
Francesco developed his craft alongside legendary Italian tailors like Augusto Caraceni and Mario Donini. His experience in different regions of the country likewise taught him how to combine the best of Italy’s varied regional traditions. His suits exhibit the softness preferred in the south of Italy, where he’s originally from, with the more formal and structured cut of his adoptive city, Milan. Now semi-retired, Francesco has taken a back seat to his son, Gianfrancesco, who represents the third generation of tailors in the Dembech line.
As for the young Gianfrancesco, he picked up his father’s obsession with quality and his penchant for combining the various tailoring traditions of his native country. But the house style the third generation Dembech created for the family brand is his alone: a product of extensive research on the archives of several British and Italian tailoring houses as well as his own experience as a tailor. “First, we do things for functionality, and then, of course, the suit must touch the sensibility of the customer as well.”
Form follows function in every suit they craft - with an emphasis on the comfort and flexibility reminiscent of Neapolitan tailoring, but without sacrificing the structured, masculine silhouette of the Milanese style. Gianfrancesco recalls the many years spent observing tailors across the continent and studying tailoring school manuals before developing the unique design that represents his signature style. He’s particularly obsessive about biomechanics and how a suit shifts shape while the body is in motion. His innovation: smaller egg-shaped armholes with a slightly wider sleeve to create a jacket that stays in place regardless of one’s posture, body angle and movements. It’s the holy grail of tailors. “We make a suit where the collar never raises up to your head, which we achieve by triangulation of certain points in the body.” The purpose of this, Gianfrancesco explains while mimicking an athlete exercising, “is so we can move freely, even go to the gym in this suit, but at the same time feel comfortable.”
Small but thoughtful innovations like his armhole design show a rare attempt at experimentation in a trade where sticking to traditional ways of doing things have tended to stymy creativity. It probably helps that Gianfrancesco trained as a jazz drummer in his earlier years. In a corner of the workshop he keeps a drum set to remind him of the jazz greats that inspired him in his youth - and continue to do so in his current career as a tailor. Unlike ready-to-wear suits and their one-size-fits-all approach, bespoke tailoring requires a healthy amount of improvisation - on the spot, if needed, in order to adjust to the body’s constantly changing shape. “It’s the same with jazz, improvisation is also important” Gianfrancesco, the jazz drummer, says proudly. And he’s right. Jazz has an underlying pattern of chords, rhythms, and melodies, but the music only truly comes alive when musicians improvise.
He reminds me too that the jazz musicians of the 50s and 60s, men like Chet Baker, Miles Davis and John Coltraine, were some of the best dressed-men of all time. It occurs to me that Gianfrancesco does dress a bit like them. And of men of that golden era of style. His favorite look, a double breasted suit, is also the most representative of the Musella Dembech design. From my own experience, double-breasted jackets tend to be stuffy and constricting. Gianfrancesco’s, however, are supple and extremely comfortable. And even without the traditional side vents meant to make the jacket feel less constricting or from bunching up when sitting, they still manage to maintain their softness and flexibility in any position without compromising the masculine structure. He calls the effect “an elegant sense of non-chalance.” Yes, non-chalance. Its a word Gianfrancesco uses a lot. A word that epitomizes his brand as much as his personal style.
After a couple of hours listening to Gianfrancesco talk about art, geometry and human anatomy, and how all these relate to his craft, I realize that he’s much more than just a good tailor. I’m not alone in thinking this. His philosophical approach to suit-making has turned him into somewhat of a guru in the small, but influential, high-end men’s fashion blogosphere. But unlike the flamboyant peacocks and self-obsessed dandies that populate the online universe with their selfies and OOTDs, Gianfancesco remains the quintessential gentleman the former only profess to be. Beyond pricey bespoke suits and fancy accessories, a truly well-dressed man, in his opinion, is someone who conforms to the original spirit of la bella figura, the term Milanese use to describe a person who cuts a graceful and beautiful figure in public. “It’s about beauty, yes, but it’s not exclusively about the distinct beauty of our body or our suits. We say it when a person is beautiful inside. When you are elegant in manners and when you respect other people, that is la bella figura.”
From across the room where Gianfranco and I are talking, I catch a glimpse of his mother, Matilde, nodding along to what her son is telling me. It’s heartening to know that in a world where image trumps everything, the Dembechs, and by extension, their loyal clients, represent the true definition of la bella figura, indeed.
(The atelier of Musella Dembech is located at Via Celestino IV, 9, 20123 Milan, Italy. By appointment only).