The New Generation of Tailors: Bernardo La Guardia
Updated: Dec 6, 2020
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Bernardo La Guardia and I am a bespoke tailor and cutter. I am currently working for an important Italian brand with the aforementioned duties and travel the world to meet clients, take measurements and conduct fittings.
Why are you a tailor? Was it your decision?
I actually decided to take this professional path alone in the sense that my family does not have a tradition of artisanship. Why I ended up doing choosing this job is a bit more difficult to answer; first of all I approached the world of classic tailoring tailored a bit by chance, and without a precise professional interest or intent. It was, simply, a passion for a certain style of clothing. Then when I finished my studies I found myself having to decide which path to take and so I tried the route of tailoring, but without any particular conviction, initially. I discovered the great richness and complexity of this discipline with daily practice and exercise, and quickly realized how many other phenomena -apparently distant- could be observed and studied starting from the artisanal experience. Therefore, I would say that there are basically two reasons why I do the job I do: the actual practice of the job, the technical research, the constant challenge of interpreting desires, attitudes and the perception that a customer has of himself; on the other hand the privileged perspective that this craft offers to analyze and try to understand the vast world of textiles. I never try to forget that the artisan tailor species is in danger of extinction, so in reality paying attention to everything else (that is, the vast majority) of the textile industry is above all a duty, as well as an irreplaceable possibility. I would like to stress that, contrary to what many old masters believe, this condition of "speculative privilege" is not the result of an intrinsic superiority of the figure of the tailor: it is the condition guaranteed to anyone who is in the condition of being able to administer his work in its entirety, without being stuck in a fraction of it as a worker, practically Fordistic (Henry Ford), which prevents him from being able to experience directly everything that makes up the production path of a suit, from the relationship with customers and suppliers, to the technical planning of work, to its meticulous execution down to the basic steps.
How do you see the world of tailoring in the coming years?
First of all, I would start from a basic distinction of the structure of a tailor shop, which varies a lot from country to country. British tailoring houses, Italian workshops, French maisons of male haute couture, and traditional American tailors, have developed for decades, if not centuries (In the case of the English) according to very different business models. That’s why I think it’s easier to assess the future of these tailoring houses on a case by case basis.
In the UK for example the name of the house has always been an element of persistence over time, a sort of "brand identity" ante litteram (ahead of it’s time), a continuity that has allowed companies born even more than two centuries ago to survive their founders, evidently thanks to a large turnover of labor, and of a very high level (I think of the cutters as fundamental in the definition of a style and the production of a high quality garment). The longevity of these brand names has helped to create the myth of British tailoring as we know it today, and at the same time to ensure a constant generational turnover, despite the increasingly intrusive presence of foreign investment funds and large luxury groups in the landscape of Savile row.
The Italian case is different; the tailors have been barely able to survive for more than a couple of generations after the founders, particularly (and this is my personal opinion) because of the family dynamic in the running and management of the tailoring houses. In Italy, apart from a handful of large historic tailors, there has always been a tendency of the old masters to set up a small workshop, often with less than a dozen people employed, between full-time and part-time workers, which ended up creating a structural weakness in the same business model as the sector. Even now, those who are in the business know perfectly well how many tailor shops come to an end with the death of the old founder or with his retirement due to advanced age.
For these and many other factors it is difficult to make predictions on the short or medium-term future of classical tailoring; in regard to the situation the Italians find themselves in, I think the main problem is the chronic fatigue of craftsmanship compared to the rapid evolution of industry, even the robotic one, which is rapidly bridging the qualitative and even technical distance with the great tailoring houses around the world. The risk is that traditional tailors become an increasingly smaller circuit, more and more exclusive, more and more expensive and more and more on track with the luxury industry. The consequence of this gradual transformation of craftsmanship into a form of niche consumption is obviously the progressive narrowing of the customer base (however, less and less aware of the peculiarities of bespoke tailoring compared to the huge world of industrial or semi-industrial bespoke), but above all the inevitable decrease in the employment of new young workforce, preventing a real generational turnover and the widespread experimentation that would ensue.
Having said that, in the last four or five years I have noticed that the classical structure of tailoring (especially the Italian one) is changing into an almost personal business formula, with individuals, young tailors and cutters who keep the costs of maintaining the business to a minimum and taking care of all three hundred and sixty degrees of the production and marketing of the product and business. From this point of view the social networks were, and are, very useful. These tailors are slowly recreating a productive fabric that is spread globally, improving enormously the technical skills of the individual tailor.
The extraordinary thing about this new generation is the ability to experiment in terms of style and technique, influencing each other thanks to social media. In this sense I see a gradual blurring of the clear differences between the various regional or national styles of tailoring, at least the traditional ones to which we are accustomed (Neapolitan, Roman, English etc) in favor of the creation of a wholistic international style that with great intelligence draws from all these schools and styles. Undoubtedly, Japan and South Korea, with their centuries-old attention to the highest level of craftsmanship, have given a great boost in this direction.
Would you describe what the perfect tailor shop would be for you? What kind of characteristics does an important, high-level tailor shop need to have?
A medium-sized structure, with about twenty people employed, among which, of course, there must be figures for administration, relationships with suppliers, customers and corporate communications. The production model of the artisan workshop cannot change much compared to how it has always existed. The strength of a hypothetical high-level tailoring today I believe is in the positive revaluation of everything that is not strictly "cut and sewn". Moreover, today’s clientele has changed compared to fifty years ago; it is not a given that the client has time nor desire to wait two or three months for a suit. It is also not a given that classic dress is of interest to him; therefore it is good to expand the product offering. Why not implement an industrial production utilizing bespoke techniques and maintaining high quality, for other types of garments, perhaps aimed at a younger clientele. I’m thinking more realistically of not only tailors but companies globally established already, such as The Armoury, or Bryceland’s, or the Chad Prom line of BnTailor Tailoring in Seoul, which had the intelligence to expand the commercial offer well beyond the classic wardrobe. A great modern tailor should have this kind of projection, maintaining at its core a traditional bespoke service of the highest level. Finally, I would like to reiterate that I have nothing against tailor-made industrial products, provided they are well made and of high quality. The problem is dishonest entrepreneurs who sell something as artisanal that is not artisanal. I believe that a good tailor should present both types of product, both industrial as well as bespoke.
In the last few years has the quantity of tailors been rising or falling? Are people gaining interest in tailoring as it pertains to a career?
They are definitely decreasing, although there is a lot of interest from the twenty and thirty year-olds, especially during the second decade of the 2000s. Until fifty or sixty years ago there was a tailor in every building, and dozens of shops in every city. The reason why the workforce has been so drastically reduced in traditional tailoring has many causes, but certainly in the sixties-seventies the generation of our masters, that is, the generation that more or less corresponds to our grandparents, encouraged their children to take other paths, to go to university for example. The craft was still seen for what it had been up until then, that is, a humble work, of the lower classes, often subordinated even to the work of a factory worker. The economic well-being achieved by many craftsmen was also a way of emancipating future generations from what for many was not a passion, but a forced choice, a laborious work, sacrifice (and certainly it was so, just look at some of the stories of master tailors still in the business). It is not by chance that in the sector the generation of those born between the sixties and seventies is very little represented. Moreover, just in those years, the textile industry developed exponentially and the period of the great fashion brands, Italian and international brands alike, which left behind the craftsmanship and its traditions.
Have you made sacrifices? If so what kinds?
I made sacrifices in following the path of the tailor where there is neither a university nor a, so to speak, "institutionalized" training or teaching. To become a doctor you have to follow a specific curriculum of studies, to be an apprentice tailor much, if not everything, is instead left to the intelligence and initiative of the individual and his ability to know how to choose the true masters and to understand when it’s time to change his work environment and move on. I was lucky, and I did not need to earn a living in the very first years of apprenticeship, thanks to my family. When I decided to go on my own I accepted the risks of the company. The risks of not seeing a penny for months on end, but this is a story common to the vast majority of those who undertake an autonomous path. This sacrifice, however, was worth the opportunity to fully understand my capabilities and to try new methods without boundaries, and this is a choice that I certainly do not regret.
What do you think are the most difficult processes in the creation of a suit and why? How did you learn said processes and how much time did it take you to become truly capable at doing them? What is the most difficult garment to make?
Excluding the technical preparation phase, which is the cutting (and the correction of fit defects during the fittings) I would say that the top collar and the finishing of the sleeves which would be the process of basting and sewing the sleeve into the armscye and then blocking it to the layers of canvas, padding and lining, working the armholes with the iron and assembly of the roping are the most delicate steps.
As for the garment I can not say with much confidence, probably tailcoats and morning coats but the success or failure of these elaborate models depends almost exclusively on cutting and modeling. A simple very light silk jacket could be just as difficult to work with due to the delicacy of the material.
How did I learn? Practice and exercise of course. Disassembly and reassembly of old jackets helps to familiarize yourself with different work methods.
Do you have any advice for the apprentices of today? Advice for those who are in a teaching role? Advice for current and future clients of bespoke tailoring?
For apprentices (and I believe that a good tailor must never stop feeling a bit like an apprentice) : experiment with different techniques, different styles and seemly “non classic” work methods", although many masters tend to believe that their way of working is the only correct one; always look for the common points between the processing steps to understand the meaning of what you do, the "why". It is difficult, and above all it is something that you need to learn for yourself; even among the greatest teachers it is often difficult to ask why and receive a comprehensive answer. And one last thing, not looking sufficiently at industrial tailoring. There is a lot to learn from the industrial methods, like the repairs that can be done on finished garments, even not of good quality. It is a challenge to improve both from the cutting point of view as well as to stimulate a creative approach to the solution of problems with fit.
As for the customers I think that the best thing they can do when turning to a tailor for the first time is to avoid immediately imposing requests that are clearly far from the style of the craftsman; you run the risk of the experience being a failure for both the master and the client.
Why is it that when I speak to some tailors it feels as though they a trying to hide something or that they are purposefully trying to be ambiguous in their explanations?
In many cases some masters are a bit jealous about the trade secrets (Italiano-geloso, from Latin, aemulor- endeavor to equal or excel someone, rival, vie with; emulate; copy). It is an ancient heritage and similarly to other artisans, was learned in shops crowded with apprentices. The owners of the tailor shops of fifty or sixty years ago, had the need to counter the fierce competition in the sector that was undoubtedly evident, unlike today. They had much more work, quantitatively speaking and even less time to devote to teaching. Moreover, the apprentices were many, and very young, and often paid very little ( or even unpaid). The infinite time these boys spent in the tailor shops made learning slow, difficult, and above all autonomous : the so-called "stealing with the eyes (rubare con gli occhi)” became the way to learn. So in reality, traditionally the craft has never been the subject of a structured teaching, in the modern sense of the term. In addition, the artisan class was of a rather low social ranking and probably also lacked cultural and communicative tools to create a higher level teaching dynamic. I believe the same difficulty that I found in getting answers to my "why" questions is similar to the difficulty that the vast majority of master tailors have when trying to explain this discipline. Surely, there will be some who in bad faith have no real interest in teaching but only to exploit the young labor force, but I think it is the clear minority
How did you learn to be a cutter? Did you use books? Did you have teachers or go to a pattern making school?
I studied some cutting systems, mainly Italian and English but also some German ones. Then of course the help from all of the master tailors I had was useful, not so much for the system itself (I believe that no tailor applies a cutting system as it is found in a manual) as much as to understand the concrete application of the logic of finding errors in the model and the adaptation of the model based on the measurements. A good cutting system alone is not enough to cut a well tailored suit; even more essential than the method is the ability to perceive the differences of the human body and understand how they differ from the "base", that is, from the geometric projection of the ideal body. Fixing and measuring finished garments was perhaps the gym that allowed me to understand the mechanisms behind the correction of defects and their causes.
What tailors do you admire?
I follow with great interest the work of Far Eastern tailors, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, above all. In these countries I see a ferment that no longer seems to exist in Europe, and the quality of work seems to be very high on average. What’s more, it’s building an authentic style that looks nothing like European tailoring, and it’s a phenomenon of great stylistic interest.
What creates a true tailor? When did you feel as though you were a true tailor and why?
That’s an almost philosophical question! I think that when you are sufficiently familiar with cutting and the working techniques are all mastered, at that point you are a “complete" tailor. I think I really had faith in my abilities when I started to test them and had a good success rate. The theory of cutting and modeling as I understood it, the principles of rotation and equilibrium of the pieces and how the paper model is transferred in three dimensions.
Why do tailors speak very extensively with news outlets and journalists but not necessarily with apprentices or employees?
I believe that tailors, as artisans and in general as human beings, are flattered by the interest that has been created over their work in recent years. It’s more than understandable. I wouldn’t be entirely sure that it’s still an “in-depth” way of talking about tailoring, however; after all I don’t think an apprentice can learn much from a technical point of view by reading Permanent Style or other blogs and magazines of a similar type.