They are fashion's newest tribe but, warns Josh Sims, joining them might be harder than you think
With his short back and sides neatly parted, his Oxford shoes polished to a parade ground shine and his double-breasted grey flannel suit buttoned over a spread collar shirt and double Windsor-knotted tie, he is, in matters of style, the archetypal Englishman. But then he is Jeremy Hackett, founder of Hackett, international purveyor of English sartorialism.
Not for nothing is the Hackett logo a bowler hat with crossed umbrellas. And yet, despite a recessionary, patriotic renaissance for local goods, Hackett's wares are most enthusiastically snapped up in Italy. Why? Because abroad a full-blooded 'English' style is free to escape the connotations that, by his own admission, Hackett has helped to define - and turn into a £64m company, one opening its first store in Italy, in Milan, in February.
"I think we've probably romanced that English look a bit, because a plain grey suit is just a plain grey suit," he says. "Yet if that English look doesn't really exist as it's imagined then people certainly like it, extraordinarily so. It's a look that's probably worn much more outside of England than inside it - Italians are the best-dressed Englishmen there are. Distance lends enchantment. I mean, we all love Armani and Prada here in Britain. Well, I don't - but you see what I mean..."
Certainly, while the paving stones of Via Montenapoleone or Via Veneto may be pounded by heavy brogues, atop which might be found loud socks, even louder country cords, Tattersall check shirt, tweed jacket and Barbour - as though Milan or Rome was replete with country estates - then the stones of London's Bond Street or Sloane Avenue carry the heavy burden of the phenomenon in reverse. Here Belgravia bankers and Essex barrow boys try on the international codes of Italian men's style - a boisterous, high-collared shirt worn undone one button too many, a cashmere sweater draped around the shoulders and seemingly never actually put on, tight, ankle skimming trousers and soft loafers, with no socks at all.
In blunt defiance of dressing appropriately for their respective climates, some kind of unspoken cultural exchange seems to be afoot: le style Anglais trying warmer weather, sprezzatura braving the wind and rain; the former replete with suggestions of formality, propriety, lineage and etiquette, the latter with those of pizzazz, sexiness, cock-sureness and easy living. We want what we do not naturally have. "We Brits are seduced by the luxuriousness of Italian dressing," says Hackett. "It's all those suntanned, slick-haired guys in the ads. It's the glamorous aura of the Italian football managers compared with English ones - the way they tie their scarves even. They grow up knowing that kind of thing."
But beware. "It's true that Italian men like English style too because they consider it to be very elegant and refined - they tend to think English fabrics, for example, are the best in the world. Then you come to London and find that Englishmen think Italian fabrics are the best," explains a bemused Angelo Galasso, inventor of the Interno 8 watch cuff (a cut out section in your shirt to better show off your statement watch) and now founder of his eponymous label. "What unites the two nations is an appreciation for the history of dress and a mutual conservatism - in Italy a concern with being judged by outward appearances, in England a regard for traditions. Dipping into each other's national look is fine, but one garment too many and you can look like a clown."
Indeed, the lure of the dressing up box may be strong, but seeming to be a caricature of either Italian or English style is arguably no less fancy dress - and no more stylish - than deciding to go about kitted out as an astronaut or fireman, as viewers of Made in Chelsea might appreciate. Perhaps the movies have underpinned the style swap, suggests Carmelo Guastella, owner of London's Melogy salon: the Anglos take their better cues from the likes of La Dolce Vita, the Italians from Brideshead Revisited; just as likely are more current deals - bunga bunga hedonism for Windsor reserve.
Even hair comes under the influence, Guastella reckons: "Styles that are sleek, tapered, very precise - the kind that Italian men get when they're kids and keep for life - are big here now," he says. "Expect to see a rise in selftanning and hair transplants too - it's the Berlusconi effect." Might anything more appealing come out of this cosy correspondence other than tea-stained faces and a questionable thatch?
The Italian dressed like an extra from Downton Abbey and the Englishman turned Capo di Capello may both be hyperreal extremes, ones that would look laughably so if suddenly airlifted to the lands of their inspiration, where typical Englishmen and Italians dress in somewhat more mundane fashion. But perhaps this fine romance could inspire an offspring, something 'Britalian'?
Both sides of divide reckon so. Clive Darby, founder of Brit brand Rake, suggests that a hybrid style is already happening - heavy British cloths cut with a lightweight Italian construction, formal on the outside, louche on the inside and fast becoming the new standard for the well-travelled dandy. "No question the father of that unconstructed style was Armani but it needs an English touch," he suggests. "Too much of either Englishness or Italian style just looks contrived. It even makes me cringe."
"Anything is better than seeing these stereotypes around," agrees Italian tailor Luca Rubinacci - whose father, tellingly, originally established the business in the 1950s under the name London House. "I don't like them at all, especially since more and more men are finding their own style, taking ideas from both English and Italian dressing as best suits them. Look, I'm Italian and it's true that I don't wear socks - when it's 55 degrees and you really don't need them. But I saw this guy the other day in London and he wasn't wearing socks and he thought he looked cool. But it's not cool. It's freezing, literally."
This article originally appeared in a "Lo Estilo Italiano" supplement in December 2011 - published by Raconteur Media and distributed with The Times.