Photography by Yoko TakahashiSUITING UP | Jackets in the process of being hand-tailored hang in Ciccio’s Tokyo studio. Each typically requires three fittings and starts at $4,500.
AS I ENTER THE SECOND FLOOR suit-making shop, the studio’s master tailor—a man called Ciccio, wearing a soft-shouldered, subtly pinstriped gray suit—greets me with a smile and a casual “buon giorno.” After asking if I’d like an espresso, he leads me to a leather couch where I am left to browse dozens of swatches of the finest English and Italian fabrics. Every detail here leads me to believe that I’m sitting in a traditional suit-maker’s atelier in Naples—except that I entered the shop from a busy Tokyo street, and the real name of the master cutter standing before me is Noriyuki Ueki. As a tailor, he goes by the nickname he earned in Italy. His work—crafting Neapolitan-style suits in Tokyo and elsewhere in Asia—is so highly regarded by Japan’s fashion elite that he’s able to charge as much or more than the top Neapolitan tailors who regularly visit Tokyo (more than $4,500 for just a sports jacket).
Photography by Yoko TakahashiTHE ITALIAN JOB | Hand-stitching is the hallmark of Neapolitan tailoring.
Photography by Yoko TakahashiAll patterns are cut by hand.
Photography by Yoko TakahashiIroning a canvas jacket lining
Photography by Yoko TakahashiNoriyuki Ueki, aka Ciccio, wearing one of his own suits
There are a handful of young Japanese like Ciccio, all under 40, who have aggressively pursued their passion for fine tailoring to the point of apprenticing thousands of miles away at sartorias in Naples, sometimes for years, before returning to Japan to craft handmade suits in that southern Italian city’s signature style. Meanwhile, there’s an acute shortage of young Neapolitans willing to take up their city’s labor-intensive approach to suit-making. Almost none possess the skills or the confidence to branch out on their own, as Ciccio has done, leading to the strange possibility that, in a decade or two, the finest Neapolitan suits will be found only in Japan.
It’s no surprise that traditional suit-making has such a strong presence in Japan. The country remains attached to an almost Mad Men–esque vision of workday attire for men, with glossy magazines devoted entirely to men’s suits—most notably a publication calledMen’s Ex that, in a typical issue, covers everything from shoe-polishing techniques to pairing shirt and tie colors. Back issues of Men’s Ex provide the most extensive guide to Naples’s lesser-known artisan tailors, surpassing anything available in English—or even in Italian. A year ago, while on a trip to Italy, I often encountered Japanese travelers at hole-in-the-wall sartorial operations on remote backstreets of Naples, including some places I’d learned about only from locals in the neighborhood.
What I also discovered on that trip was that most master cutters and tailors in Naples began learning their trade at or before the age of 10—during an era of post-war Italian poverty when child labor was the norm—which means that the top tailors there are, at the youngest, in their sixties. Many more, though, are in their seventies or eighties and long retired. Most wonder openly whether a tailor who starts learning this craft at the age of 18 or 20 can ever attain the technique necessary to become a true master cutter.
As I sip my espresso and admire Ciccio’s handmade suits, he tells me his story: He spent four years in his early twenties working at an Osakan brand called Ring Jacket, which specializes in a neo-Neapolitan style similar to the Italian brand Boglioli, and soon acquired his first Neapolitan suit, an Attolini. Founded in 1930, Attolini almost single-handedly created the modern Neapolitan style. Virtually every tailor in Naples has—or at least claims—some direct or indirect Attolini pedigree. Founder Vincenzo Attolini’s central discovery was that you could eliminate or reduce most of the thick material used to line men’s jackets and offer a natural shoulder with little or no padding and a collar that’s flexible and casually elegant rather than stiff or stuffy. For Ciccio, his first Attolini was a revelation: It was soft, light and comfortable to wear. He desperately wanted to know how to make a garment with such qualities himself. So Ciccio would come to the Ring Jacket workshop alone on weekends to refine his own jacket-making technique, something he couldn’t do during normal business hours. “My dream all along,” he tells me, “was to go to Naples and learn from the people who invented this style.”
When Ciccio finally managed to move to Italy at age 25, the culture shock was extreme: “The streets were crowded with cars and people,” he says. “It was chaos. But it was also more free and flexible than Japan. Here all things have to be done the one correct way; in Italy each tailor has an original distinctive style.” He went to work for a Neapolitan tailor and, eventually, was allowed to work on everything but the collars and sleeves, which require the most dexterous handwork. He wasn’t only learning Italian techniques—he was also absorbing the Italian perspective on style: “Japanese people look more closely than anyone else. We master the small things,” he says. “But Italians look from afar. Their style is rougher. The whole is cool and it’s beautiful, even if they don’t pay attention to every small detail.”
Wanting to master the cutting of the collar and the sleeve before returning home, he spent two more years apprenticed to another tailor in Naples, Antonio Pascariello, where he acquired more experience—and his Italian nickname. “I couldn’t remember his Japanese name, so I called him Ciccio,” explains Pascariello. “These young Japanese have a grand passion for tailoring, and they work very hard at it. For Neapolitans you either start when you’re a child, or it’s very difficult to become a tailor.”
When he returned to Japan, Ciccio founded his own atelier in the fashionable shopping area of Aoyama. Six years later, he now employs two full-time workers, each of whom dreams of following in his footsteps by making a journey to Naples to apprentice there. Ciccio’s business has expanded across Asia, and he now travels to Seoul to meet Korean clients.
At 35, Ciccio is the most well-known of the young Naples-trained tailors in Japan, but there are others in Tokyo and across the country: Yusiche Ono, 37, went to Naples as an apprentice a year after Ciccio; Noriyuki Higashi, a 34-year-old who makes suits in Osaka under the Sarto Domenica brand, is so fascinated by Neapolitan suit-making that after returning home from a stint in Naples and taking a day job, he spends nights and weekends making jackets. Unlike every other Neapolitan-style tailor I know of in Japan or Italy, Higashi also does everything by hand and nothing with a sewing machine.
I meet Ciccio and Ono at a pizzeria called Seirinkan in Tokyo’s Nakameguro neighborhood to discuss the future of Neapolitan style in Japan. (The owner went to Naples to study pizza-making, and now makes pies as good, perhaps even better, than any of the pizzerias I’ve eaten at in Naples.) Ciccio, who’s wearing a brown suit he made himself and a white cotton scarf wrapped around his neck, says that he needs to get back to Naples every couple of years in order to recapture that city’s distinctive way of seeing. “Technically, I’m much better than I ever was,” he says. “But the danger is that here in Japan you get so focused on the small things that you lose that bigger perspective that Italians have.”
Ono nods, folding over a slice of his pizza. “Some-times, back here, I feel that my eyes are getting rotten,” he says. “That I’m losing the ability to see what looks right and what looks wrong. That’s something I never felt in Naples.” Ciccio and Ono are both trying to explain something that’s difficult to hold on to a world away from its origins: the Neapolitan sense of effortless, instinctive and uncultivated style. Their dedication has allowed them to master physical techniques. Now, as they mature, the question is whether they can also cultivate what Ciccio identified as the beauty of authentic Neapolitan tailoring: a style all their own.