Mr. Acampora's Haberdashery

November 11, 2011

La Sartoria Acampora was in a small “vicolo” (side street) in the old part of the city, near the historic church of “Casa Professa.”

“Abiti su misura” —custom-made suits—promised the sign outside. The wording was etched in black on a gleaming oval brass plate demurely affixed to the wall beside a beveled glass door. “Distinguished,” I thought.

I did not know it then, but I was about to enter one of the last bastions of a dying art. It was an old-school haberdashery featuring the kind of hand-cut clothing for men that is hard to find today.

The space was large enough for its purpose, but not extensive. A long, brown chesterfield-style leather couch occupied one side of the room, with a large painting of some pastoral scene hanging languidly above it. A set of ornate, heavy draperies in red damask was affixed precariously over a set of large windows overlooking a small garden below. There was a fountain in the middle of the garden, but supposedly it had not worked in years. Like all things in Palermo, this sanctuary of the sartorial arts also had a few oddities of its own.

Customers gathered there for the company and the conversation. It was not just a tailoring enterprise, it was a social club. There was an older gentleman, the chief assistant, who often disappeared behind the heavy curtain that separated the “atelier,” as Mr. Acampora liked to call it, from the cutting room. He always brought espressos and pastries to the waiting customers from the coffee bar next door.

The head tailor, principal designer, master cutter and showman par excellence was Mr. Acampora himself. Inside this atelier of his was a universe in which one could be peacefully cocooned. Outside, there was the roar of the city—a raging assault on the senses, a screaming cacophony of sounds from its incessant traffic.

It was the late ’60s. Things were happening, businesses were prospering, and there were cars everywhere. Consumerism was growing; we all wanted the “American lifestyle.” Yet, there stood this “antique” outpost of delicious civility.

The haberdashery of Mr. Acampora still held onto a slowly receding group of modestly prosperous businessmen who loved style more than money. What made Mr. Acampora’s store so special was the way he made his customers feel inside, the moment they wore their (bespoken) garments for the first time.

Tall, fat, short, slim—it did not matter to him; he treated them all with equal respect as he went about taking measurements. There was never a cross look, a malicious comment; it was all about the garb. Mr. Acampora recited aloud a litany of options, ranging from the type of stitching, to the canvas for the interfacing, to the lining, the buttons, the shape of the lapels, the cut of the shoulders, the rise of the collar, etc. He went on and on, with much more than I can remember… it was magical to hear him talk.

I grasped only a few things, but I was curious to know how this man could deploy his magic and make his suits hang with such a precise cut and elegant drape. Mr. Acampora’s handmade garments carried with them a sortilege, or sorcery, of some kind. The wearer became more confident, his body seemed to change, and all his flaws were hidden as he gazed at his own reflection. Mr Acampora did not just make clothes; he also draped the souls of his customers.

There is an art in the making of a custom suit; it is a form of applied mathematics, mixed with the purest form of perceptive design. It starts with a series of exact measurements, followed by a succession of exacting cuts to carve out the pattern that has been marked on the cloth, and finally the assembly of the suit’s various parts.

What happens in between is a myriad of individual processes carried out with military precision for the sole purpose of achieving the perfect cut and the ideal drape.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, the essence of mathematics melds with an artistry that turns numbers into stitched miracles, until the suit emerges. Finally, the cloth drapes softly over the body, not tugging against the problem areas; rather, it caresses our physical flaws with a gentle promise of a better look.

When you wear a properly crafted custom-made suit, it is as if you are wearing nothing over your body. You move unhindered by the pulling and tugging of cloth. It feels as if your body has learned to walk freely for the first time.

I did not understand any of these things then, but later in life I came to comprehend all the mysterious words Mr. Acampora proffered so freely as he took each and every measurement.

Some men sell and some men paint pictures with words, using each word as a masterful brushstroke that helps to depict a landscape filled with the possibility of a better reality. But Mr. Acampora did more than that; he delivered the goods.

He had a melodious voice and always spoke in Sicilian dialect. While, in its raw form, it could be construed as the lesser language next to proper Italian, Mr. Acampora connected his words together the way musicians put together the notes of a pentatonic scale to make music come alive. He was a true Sicilian poet.

I loved being at the haberdashery; I loved everything about the place. I especially loved the ceremony of picking up the cloth for the suit, the description of the wool, the selection of style … and let’s not forget about the Spezzatura.

Italians subdivide a successful outfit into a series of individual touches. While seemingly independent of each other, these sartorial choices define our results and are akin to the penmanship of our written signature. These “little pieces” (piccolo pezzi), assembled together, create a look. Two men could plausibly wear the same suit, cut by the same tailor and paired with the same ties, shoes, cuff links and shirts—yet both men could look totally different.

The concept of “Spezzatura” is the display of our inner artistic self through the assembly of seemingly innocuous decisions—when these small choices, like the lining of our jackets, the style of tie knot we use, the type of collar we choose for our shirts, the length of our jacket sleeves and, most critical of all, the break, where our pants meet our shoes, all come together. Think of each of these details as a single brushstroke aimed at creating the perfect painting of a landscape. By themselves, the brushstrokes seem irrelevant, but together, they paint the picture.

As good as it might be, an idea, a concept, if not communicated properly, is nothing more than a gust of wind. But Mr. Acampora possessed the innate nature of a storyteller. He painted pictures people could relate to. He was able to describe the proper sartorial choices to hide a flaw or to enhance the look of an outfit. Those men, his customers, all powerful decision makers in their own right, listened to him intently as he guided them gently through the corridors of fine haberdashery theories, straight to the best look to fit their image, and their own inner expectations.

This tailor might have been seen by others as a simple tradesman, but to me he was a genius. Even as a small child, I knew I was in the presence of someone special.

I never had a suit made by Mr. Acampora. He retired long before I became an adult; however, I often snuck into my father's closet when he was away at work and tried on his suits. I assembled them from scratch—shirts, ties, jackets and pants—and whilst they all hung on me like a potato sack because of my childish small frame, in the mirror, I saw myself handsomely garbed, just as I knew I could look, one day in the future.

Even now, when I am in the presence of my tailors here in California or back in Italy, I think of Mr. Acampora, and I smile. So it should come as no surprise to you to know that in a recent interview, when asked, “If you had not chosen to be a chef, what would you like to be?” I stole a glance at myself in the mirror, and I responded, “A tailor!”

©2013 Nick Stellino Productions