Since the 1930s the Corneliani family have been making exquisite clothing for discerning men, and with their new flagship stores in Shanghai and Hong Kong, the Mantua-based tailors have ambitious plans for Asia. Daisy Zhong reports.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, with the underlying declaration of “Man is the measure of all things”, is said to have perfectly captured the humanist spirit: a circle within which a square is inscribed, symbols of Heaven and Earth, both occupied by man, the core of creation.
“One important message from the Renaissance is that man is the centre of the world. We believe that what a man has internally, his inside style, needs to be freely expressed. The way an individual dresses is an important way of defining what he is,”
says Cristiano Corneliani, the global sales director of Corneliani, as if the association between a fashion brand and humanism or Renaissance is the most natural thing in the world.
But the linkage is both authentic and fundamental for Corneliani. Just as da Vinci depicts the beauty of human body, Corneliani helps express a man’s elegance through its suits. As its first boutique in Hong Kong was opened in October at the Landmark shopping mall in partnership with The Swank group, Corneliani marked another step in its global expansion, with a role of Italian cultural ambassador deeply attached to its roots in its birthplace, Mantua.
“Mantua is a very important city in the Renaissance. It’s also part of our DNA.” The town of Mantua, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is steeped in art and culture, reaching its height during the Renaissance under the rule of the Gonzagas. Having lived in Mantua since those times, the Corneliani family came to be known in the 1930s as a pioneer in menswear when Alfredo Corneliani set up a craft business making raincoats and overcoats.
Production was halted by the Second World War, and Alfredo’s sons Claudio and Carlalberto went on to found Corneliani SpA in Mantua in 1958, giving the company a size, identity and standard which made it a global reference point for the finest Italian goods and a byword for style. Today the company’s headquarters and operations centre remains in Mantua, and the city continues to be the nexus for design, research and production for its clothes and accessories.
Despite growing quickly as a global enterprise, Corneliani is first and foremost a family organisation. Following Carlalberto, who created the company with his brother Claudio, their sons all hold specific roles: Corrado is production and logistics director; Maurizio is finance, legal and strategic marketing director; Sergio is creative director; and Cristiano is global sales director.
In December 2012 the company launched its first mainland flagship after opening 40 other stores in China.
“We wanted to create something special for the flagship in China,” says Cristiano Corneliani. The result is a brand new concept of facade decoration that features a metal shell with chain-linked bronze rings above a marble-effect backdrop, a contemporary design inspired by Andrea Mantegna’s decorative invention for his masterpiece, The Bridal Room in Mantua’s St George’s Castle. The same composition of elements defining the entire facade takes its cue from the principles of axial symmetry typical of Italian Renaissance designs.
The motif embodies the idea of humanism in the same way as Vitruvian Man, using the circle as the symbol of perfection. Humanism is about encouraging individuals in free thinking and discussion, and Corneliani believes that
“the man who is wearing Corneliani clothes is open, curious, and active; they love to compare and understand. For us it’s very important to dress such kind of people”.
Corneliani says the motif also pays homage to Chinese culture.
“When designing it we were thinking of how we can match this Italian Renaissance heritage with Chinese culture. One of the symbolic meanings of the interlinked rings is linked to the concept of Guanxi, the network of personal relationships which the Chinese strive to build and sustain throughout their lives.”
The interlinked rings motif is also evident in the 2013 autumn/winter knitwear designs, where it is hand-embroidered, coloured or embellished with ultra-light leather laces. Other pieces in the new collection include the pea jackets featuring a double reverse in contrasting materials, a classic biker jacket reworked with a stylish twist and finished off with suede trimming, and panel-structured jackets playing on inserts and contrasting fabrics.
Corneliani emphasises that the brand carries with it an important cultural mission in its global expansion. “We continue investment around the world but I think it’s not enough to only open stores. I think it’s more important to transfer our knowledge, culture, and view of elegance to customers around the world. If we succeed in doing this, we can secure our value. Value of the brand is not only about the brand name and the store – it’s more about what is behind.”
He firmly believes that Milan is still the centre of fashion for menswear. “The best dressing for men is in Italy. If you go to Milan you can see that local people all around the city have incorporated this Italian style. You see and you feel it’s real.”
With the opening of the Corneliani boutique Hong Kong’s gentlemen now have access the brand’s unique style. And its Asian journey does not end in Hong Kong; the fashion house has plans to open a further 20 boutiques and flagship stores over the coming three years.
“The Far East will play an increasingly central role in the brand’s development and international consolidation strategies,” says Corneliani.
“The ‘Greater China Region’ will serve an even more vital function as it continues to evolve at such a fast pace. Today the test bed for excellence is here.”
More stories like this are available in Quintessentially Asia.