What are we poor posh boys to do? There once was a time when the banking set could throw down a platinum card and buy wheelbarrows-full of clothes that looked good but didn’t necessarily survive the season – or a second trip to the cleaner’s. This, we thought, was sartorial luxury. But the days of disposable income have long since passed and we’re scrambling to redefine what luxury – and our wardrobe – really means.
In tackling this sartorial conundrum, some designers have gone traditional, while others have gone preppy, while still others have gone lesbian. (This season, it seemed that if you didn’t want to look like a Stasi agent, a Vulcan officer, a hunter-gatherer, Rick Astley, or some variation thereof, then the runways weren’t for you.) But Antonio Azzuolo, previously the design director at Ralph Lauren Purple Label, and a menswear designer at Hermès, has spent the better part of a lifetime thinking about luxury and what it really means.
When we met for brunch at the second restaurant of our choosing (the first was shuttered with a heavy iron gate, the latest victim of economic circumstances), I was wearing a tattered blue button down shirt I’d inherited from my father, washed so many times that the fold in the collar had worn through. Azzuolo pointed to the shirt admiringly. This shirt – exposed white neckband and all – seems to be an embodiment of the luxury he’s thinking about, and the collection he’s designed.
Born in Montreal to Italian parents – both his mother and father were tailors – Azzuolo lived in a modest community where, as he describes it, “everyone wore bespoke suits, and there was a tailor on every street corner.”
“Growing up in that environment,” says Azzuolo, “there was a ceremonial aspect to dressing, a respect that doesn’t seem to exist on the streets of Manhattan.”
Having moved to Europe when he was 24 years-old, Azzuolo saw a discrete, refined elegance on the streets of Naples and Paris. En tres dimanche, the French call it – dressed in your Sunday best – a slightly condescending term, though when Azzuolo uses it, the condescension’s been replaced by a sense of longing and nostalgia. “You’d see old men who’d been wearing the same suit for many years,” he says. “The trouser-cuff would wear out, the jacket would be mismatched, the sweaters would be the wrong color, the coordination would be slightly off. But still there was a respect for oneself and one’s clothes. They always looked together, and I found inspiration in that.”
Azzuolo’s fascination with vintage clothing and old-world craftsmanship, along with his aesthetic of bringing European elegance to the Lower East Side (rather than bringing Lower East Side “elegance” to the runways of Europe), seems to pervade his collection. What appears is Azzuolo’s unique take on menswear, layered ensembles of grandfather shirts and alpaca sweaters and Donegal tweed coats – looks that, at the hands of a lesser designer, might seem confusing. Though this season’s collection features lots of fur and cashmere, it’s recycled fur – a holdover from his Montreal upbringing – and cashmere that could be your one great sweater, forming the core of a dignified outfit, no matter what the economic climate looks like.
Essentially, Azzuolo prefers to add to a wardrobe rather than redefine it. By focusing his collection on specific items (last season, it was sweaters; this season, coats), Azzuolo interprets luxury as having one good thing rather than many expensive things. In doing so, he has managed to redefine luxury as a necessity. -MARTIN MARKS