When it comes to the very best of men’s clothing one term towers above all others: Italian. Simply stated, the best garments are designed and made in Italy, and this includes everything from ties down to shoes, at least for men. (The considerations for women’s wear are quite different). So powerful is the allure of an Italian designer name that many stores will often carry cheaper goods made in Asia with an Italian-sounding name, whether real or not. But the important part isn’t even the designer as much as the “Made in Italy” label, (although some high-quality brands will also use facilities in a few other European countries, the U.S. or Canada). That label otherwise remains the most frequent and reliable key to identifying high-quality goods, although as we shall see there are others, especially with regard to particular apparel.
At the pinnacle are brands like Gucci, Prada, and Fendi, although the latter two are far more prominent in women’s wear. Fendi is primarily known for men’s ties and watches, while Prada makes excellent sneakers and sunglasses. That is not to say they don’t make everything else, they just aren’t that big of a factor in other parts of the menswear marketplace. Gucci has managed to stay on top for generations with fresh designers like Tom Ford, but it is also one of the most widely knocked-off brands this side of Luis Vuitton. If you find something with their labels unusually cheap, they are almost certainly fakes, and you should be able to discern a qualitative difference. Everything Gucci makes is of the highest quality, and priced accordingly. (One caveat- they tend to be cut tight, so you usually need to go up one size to get the right fit). They do make some occasionally over-the-top items that only really work in Hollywood, and not surprisingly they are more popular on the west coast. But pricing is generally not outrageous for what you’re getting, unlike French luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Hermes, for which there is no possible justification in terms of content. But with these brands you have to be discriminating. For example, I was visiting some friends recently and literally all of the men other than me had on the same Gucci loafers, or a close imitation of them. These loafers with the metal horsebits have been so overdone that they’ve unfortunately become a cliche. Unless you want to make a statement that is part of a chorus they make plenty of other fine shoes.
Other Italian firms tend to be specialized and produce the very best of a particular item. The best shirts are hand-made in Italy by Luigi Borelli. The best pants are made by Zanella. They just seem to drape perfectly and come with many small details in construction you won’t find in many other brands. When it comes to suits it’s Brioni.
Another distinguishing thing about these companies is that they do not produce any cheap mass-market lines unlike many, if not most other designer brands. That trend was started by Pierre Cardin years ago when he started licensing his name on everything under the sun. (Despite that Pierre Cardin is actually one of those companies that still produces a fairly good mid-range line). Now just about everyone does it on everything from underwear to cologne. (Since hardly anyone wears cologne any more I suspect most of it is purchased as gifts that sit on shelves for years). Even Donald Trump has a line, along with other celebrities, but the only ones that matter should come from bona fide designers.
This kind of activity otherwise cheapens the brand and the very best firms avoid it. Even some of the Italians have gotten into the act. Armani has an Armani jeans line and A/X (Armani Exchange) which consists of some pretty mediocre wear for kids. The better Armani stuff comes out in lines like Armani Collezioni these days, though the very best are older which you may occasionally find new, or otherwise used. Dolce and Gabbana is now a kiddy brand like Abercrombie and Fitch, offering little of interest to anyone but gullible teenagers. Many other names like Calvin Klein produce so much cheaper junk that the brand is now meaningless.
Gianni Versace was one of the greatest clothing designers who ever lived. He created some truly original stuff that still never managed to be too far out. Unfortunately he was murdered in 1997 and most of the really good stuff was produced up to then. Not surprisingly these items still sell at a premium and/or have been reissued. The brand continues but is not the same and has a Versace Jeans line as well. In good clothing you want originals, so when it comes to jeans you can do a lot worse than Levis. Otherwise you're paying for little more than a designer label and a few embellishments. For that matter designer brands are a total waste of extra money on things like underwear. You won’t really even impress your lady friend with those, should you get that far, but instead will simply signal you are trying to make an impression.
The most important and expensive part of your outfit is the suit, or alternatively a combination of blazer and pants. Here again the best Italian firms are unrivaled. The leading maker of top quality suits is Brioni. There is also a less expensive line with the label B.Brioni, but it isn’t the same, and Brioni won’t quite acknowledge whether it is theirs or not. In this case however, these suits are also well-made in Italy and are quite good on their own. They just aren’t the same as the top-of-the line Brioni brand, which can run into thousands of dollars, but you get what you pay for. Leaving even Brioni in the dust price-wise is Kiton, based in Naples, whose suits are worn by many of the world’s elite leaders. Their suits are distinguished by an elegant drape on the body but the prices are beyond the reach of most people, and personally I don’t see all that big a difference from Brioni’s, or for that matter other high quality Italian brands. One of my favorites is Ermenegildo Zegna, which, while carrying premium prices, dollar for dollar probably provides the most value. Canali is an equivalent high-quality brand, and Loro Piana, which is primarily known as the manufacturer of some of the finest fabrics in the world, and a supplier to many of the best brands. Loro Piana fabric is a sure sign of top quality no matter what the brand, and you can often find it in lesser known labels. There are others but all the ones mentioned here are those that I have had first hand experience with.
These are brands that have maintained their integrity over the years (most are generations old) by not allowing their name to be purloined on inferior, cheap products. Many, if not most people cannot afford these brands (although there are some ways to get some of them less expensively which I’ll explain subsequently). The point here is that they are benchmarks as to what the best looks like and how it is made, and in that respect no other country in the world comes close to Italy. There are however, many fine mid-level brands made elsewhere we’ll look at subsequently.