Brioni Redefines Itself, With a Whisper and a Smirk

A look from the Brioni fall 2018 collection.

PARIS — As there is a German word for everything, so there is a German word for one of fashion’s first world problems: “schwellenangst,” the fear of crossing the threshold — into an intimidating museum, theater or, relevant to the example below, a shop.

It was schwellenangst that Nina-Maria Nitsche, the new creative director of the Roman tailoring concern Brioni, had on her mind at her first presentation for the label in Paris last week. Too many stores, she said, feel cold and clinical, devoid of a human touch, unwelcoming to those who may dare breach their borders.

But she just as well could have been talking about the house of Brioni full stop. Its august history notwithstanding (among its claims to fame are hosting the first men’s wear runway show, in 1952, and dressing plutocrats, world leaders and select James Bonds in uber-expensive suits in the years since), the house has become a bit confused in the contemporary era, as it has cycled through creative leaders in the last few years. Why should the man of means spend his hard-earned six-figure bonus on Brioni, rather than Brunello, or Berluti, or anyone else?

Part of Ms. Nitsche’s brief is to redefine what Brioni means now — and now more than ever, following the tenure of Brioni’s previous designer, the Australian roustabout Justin O’Shea, who U-turned the collection toward the flagrantly flashy (he spoke of adding gangsters to its client base) and departed after six months.

Ms. Nitsche represents something of a U-turn herself. She spent the last 23 years at Maison Margiela, many of them alongside Martin Margiela, the Belgian ur-conceptualist who helped set the direction for high fashion for years. Brioni, by contrast, represents a retreat into the wardrobe. But Ms. Nitsche found them in many ways parallel.

“For me, at Margiela, in the middle of the interest was also the original garment, the stereotype,” she said. “Of course, it was much more about concepts, in a certain way, and Brioni for me today is not so much about fashion.” Brioni, she said, was not for any one particular man, age or type but for people who “want a little bit more, how do you say, ‘spezzato’?” The word means broken, but she meant its more popular sartorial definition, mismatched, or as she put it, “unexpected.”

There is something a little broken, a bit winningly off-kilter, about Ms. Nitsche’s Brioni; it even has a touch of humor not always in evidence when a label is turning out $163,000 alligator jackets. (Ms. Nitsche suggested throwing one on under a suit jacket.) Her beautifully tailored tuxedos come in black, but also almost black: a dark chocolate brown and an almost imperceptibly fir green, a private joke on the black-tie circuit for the man who wears it. The jackets alone can require 220 to 230 steps of construction at the hands of Brioni tailors in Penne, in the Abruzzo region of Italy, whom the label recruits from the tailoring school it supports.

Ms. Nitsche’s three-piece suits come classic and correct, but also in versions that are, as it’s said, spezzato: in checks that, on inspection, turn out to be subtly mismatched piece to piece. (One of her waistcoats: Surprise! It’s a cardigan.)

These are minor upsets in the grand scheme, but they speak not only to a Margielian sense of mischief, but also to a commendable desire to speak small, to the man who wears the clothes rather than to the public that recognizes them at 50 paces.

Likewise her presentation: the clothes on rails and the models real men — doctor, lawyer, record collector — displayed in photographs taken at their homes, homes that spilled out, in clever, quiet ways, into the presentation itself. (The flowers in the vase of one had dropped their dead blossoms onto the floor; one man’s son’s Legos had overflowed from his living room into the presentation.)

“When Brioni started in the ’50s, everything was so classic, and Brioni was quite revolutionary because they did things in colors and fabrics which normally were used for women’s wear,” Ms. Nitsche said. “They said, ‘It’s the peacock revolution!’ I think today there are so many brands and houses doing fashion for men, so I said, ‘Brioni should not do fashion. They should do garments.’”

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