Kiton’s take on Neapolitan tailoring is light and relaxed thanks to the ocean, CEO Antonio De Matteis tells Peter Howarth...
The large sunlit atrium of Kiton’s HQ, a 20 minute drive out of Naples, is more a private villa than a centre of industry. There are leather sofas and other pieces of classic antique and modern furniture, and walls covered with paintings, old and modern; every year the shareholders use part of the profits to buy artwork for this building.
All of this is intentional, says CEO Antonio De Matteis, the 53-year-old nephew of founder Ciro Paone. “My uncle wanted this place to feel like a casa,” he says. “We are a big family here – people work here in an unpressured way, with passion.”
Like his uncle, De Matteis is Neapolitan born and bred, and Kiton, he explains, was set up to produce beautiful clothes first and be a business second. “It sounds strange but when we decide to develop a new product, we work out what we want to do first and then calculate the price. That way we don’t make any compromises.”
It is, of course, the way some people commission boats – dream of the result first, and worry about the cost later. “Exactly,” says De Matteis. “We have many customers who own beautiful boats. Our relationship with them is similar to that which they have with their boat builders. Many come here to visit the factory during the summer months when they are on holiday in the area.”
The family atmosphere is noticeable: visitors and workers alike greet him as Toto (his childhood nickname). We are in a large building full of people sitting in groups stitching by hand, or working steam presses. Everything here is made by hand – whether it is a jacket or coat that will be sold as ready-to-wear, or as a made-to-measure or bespoke commission. One of Kiton’s points of difference is that everything is constructed to the same standard. “If you have a garment specially made, it is made to your own pattern, of course, but the rest of the process is the same.”
There are 350 master tailors in the building. Only a master tailor can genuinely fashion a garment by hand, De Matteis says. There is something of the Latin lover in the language he uses to describe the sensual nature of handling the cloth and the care and attention paid to every detail. Unprompted, he confides that his uncle always says that a customer should handle a suit in the same way he would a beautiful woman.
Without the sea, Naples is not Naples. Growing up here, the dream of all of us is to have a boat. It’s the only place in the world where all the problems go away.
De Matteis claims he learnt everything from his uncle, who took him under his wing in 1986. Paone founded his first factory in 1956, registering the name Kiton in 1968 – the name comes from chiton, the ancient Greek word for a ceremonial garment. “I was very young and travelled with my uncle for more than 20 years. He was my mentor.” Paone, now 84, still comes to work every day. “It is his life. For him, holiday is the worst time of the year!”
Not so for his nephew. This year he took a break in August and went to Ischia, the island off Naples. He spent his time, as he does most holidays, on his 15 metre Riviera fishing boat. “It’s a motor boat. I drive, I do everything; my hobby on board is to cook. I spend most of my time in the galley. I keep it in Naples and cruise all around the Mediterranean – to Greece, Sicily, Corsica and, for sure, to Capri and Ischia.”
De Matteis has had the Riviera for 11 years, and other boats too. He spends about 40 nights a year on board, often with his family. “Without the sea, Naples is not Naples. Growing up here the dream of all of us is to have a boat.” He loves the sense of freedom it gives him. “It’s the only place in the world where all the problems go away; I feel very relaxed.”
Though Kiton is best known for tailored clothing, it has a “relaxed” style. “Neapolitan tailoring has always had a relaxed spirit in its construction – its softness – and we stick to that. But Neapolitan style was always a little too much for my uncle, a little too showy. Our style is more natural, less heavy.”
The result is more international (Kiton now has more than 40 stores in 15 countries) and more modern. As well as suits, shirts, ties and shoes, all made by hand on the premises, Kiton’s boat-owning customers will find in the collection a soft blue blazer that De Matteis says is a must for anyone on the water, a host of sportswear made from natural fabrics, as well as linen and denim jeans, beachwear, knits and trainers.
Crucially, everything, both smart and casual, is made by Kiton in its factories with the same philosophy of hand-made excellence, (even the cloth), ensuring 100 per cent quality control. The CEO proudly introduces a table of men hand-stitching jacket breast pockets. “There’s a machine that can make 400 of these in a day,” he says. “But we do it by hand, and only make 85 a day. To make 85 pockets takes us…” and he counts the number of tailors, one to 10. “You know,” he confides, “after customers come to visit us they often say they think that for what we are making, our prices are too cheap! And we make the most expensive clothes in the world."