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Italian fashion designer Smalto dies at 87

Italian designer Francesco Smalto, who as one of the stars of the men's fashion industry clothed princes, heads of state and sporting icons, has died in Morocco aged 87.

Italian fashion designer Smalto dies at 87
A picture of Italian fashion designer Franceso Smalto (L), who died in Marrakech, aged 87, taken in Paris in 1993. Photo: Pierre Verdy/AFP

The "creative visionary" provided men with "an allure and unique style" his fashion house said in a statement on Monday, adding that Smalto had died in the night from Saturday to Sunday in a Marrakech hotel.

Smalto enjoyed a lengthy and successful career but his image took a tumble in 1995 when he admitted in court that he had provided call girls as well as suits to then Gabonese president Omar Bongo.

For that he was handed a 15-month suspended sentence and a hefty fine.

Smalto was born in the southern Italian region of Calabria in 1927 and showed a precocious talent for custom-made clothes, creating his first suit at the age of 14 for a friend.

But it was in the fashion capital Paris that he dreamed of forging his career and his fashion house went on to provide the French football team with its formal suits for last year's world cup finals in Brazil.

His early years in the fashion world saw apprenticeships at Parisian tailors such as Cristiani and Camps as well as with Harris in New York, who provided suits for President John F. Kennedy.

In 1962 Smalto created his own brand, installing himself in a chic part of the French capital and rapidly building a reputation for clothes which were comfortable and expertly tailored.

Among his celebrity clients were French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, crooner Charles Aznavour and Morocco's late king Hassan II, the father of the current monarch.

Smalto retired in 2001, selling his business on to the Alliance Designers company.

Korean stylist Youn Chong Bak, who became the Smalto fashion house's artistic director in 2007, mourned the loss of "the master and an extraordinary person."

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DESIGN

Inside the world of Italy’s designer to ‘the 0.001 percent’

Florence-based luxury designer tells of super-rich customers who shop by private jet, and his experience of dressing the Pope.

Inside the world of Italy's designer to 'the 0.001 percent'
Italian luxury designer Stefano Ricci (C) poses with his sons Niccolo (R) and Filippo, during a preview of his Spring/Summer 2020 collection. Photo: AFP

Italian luxury clothing designer Stefano Ricci and his sons are touring the sumptuous Reggia di Caserta near Naples by horse-drawn carriage as they unveil their latest clothing collection.

The tour the vast gardens at sunset, stopping to sip champagne as models in impeccably-tailored suits in grain yellow, flaming red and galactic blue pose near an ancient fountain.

The grounds of the Reggia di Caserta palace  near Naples. Photo: ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

The decision to host an intimate preview of their Spring/Summer Collection 2020 at the UNESCO world heritage site, rather than during Milan's frenetic fashion week, is emblematic of a brand the New York Times dubs “Clothier to the 0.001 Percent”.

The Florence-based menswear and accessories brand, founded in 1972, has outfitted celebrities from Andrea Bocelli to Morgan Freeman and Tom Cruise, as well as world leaders like Nelson Mandela, and even Pope Francis.

The latest collection, which features pinstripe suits, colourful knitwear, field jackets and a tux, is named “King for a Day”.

Models wearing Ricci's creations. Photo: ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

In an era where designer goods can be bought online or snapped up in outlets, Ricci says he offers the world's wealthiest men a personalised experience in buying Made in Italy items created using traditional Florentine sartorial techniques.

“Our customer still needs to experience the emotion, to touch the product. Have it explained to them in person, see the tailor, have his measurements taken, be told a story,” Niccolo Ricci, the company's CEO, told AFP at the preview this week.

“He wants to be pampered for an hour,” he said.

Collected by private plane

“Sometimes we have superstitious customers who want trousers, a suit, shirts for example for important appointments, and given the extremely tight deadlines they give us to deliver the clothes, they send their private plane to get them on time”.

Whether hankering after a 5,050 euro suede jacket or a 1,600 euro silk-and-crocodile baseball cap, the typical client is an “alpha-male”, preferably an outdoorsy type with “a love of antique art”, according to Stefano Ricci.

Stafano Ricci. Photo: AFP

“The Ricci man loves the mountains, the woods, dogs and – I'm not afraid to say it – hunting,” he said.

The bearded designer, 67, a keen hunter himself, says his passion for high-end tailoring is “a virus”.

“When it gets hold of you, you produce more, more, more, until you say 'what the heck can I invent now to better this?'”

His latest challenge? “Creating a material which has a compact structure but is at the same time extremely soft… and luminous, not like polished glass but like the skin of a beautiful young girl”.

“No price limit”

Focusing on the richest segment of society in emerging markets like Russia, China and the Middle East – the brand is about to open a shop in Turkmenistan – has shielded it from factors weighing on sales at other luxury houses.

“We've found there is no price limit if the customer finds himself with a quality product,” Niccolo Ricci said.

READ ALSO: The richest Florence families in 1427 are still rich today

“So even for a suit that costs 25,000 euros, if the customer understands the work that has been done on it, the quality of the fabric, our commitment to sourcing quality raw materials for our exclusive collections, then the customer is on board”.

The 2018 financial year closed with a turnover of 150 million, and the company registered a five percent growth in the first quarter of this year “despite difficulties such as the tariff war between the US and China, (and) Brexit or no Brexit”.

Photo: AFP

“I have been lucky enough to do something I love, to work with my wife, my family, and I've now passed the baton to my sons,” Stefano Ricci says as he stands at the top of a vast marble staircase leading to the royal apartments.

“I design the collections a bit, I give guidelines, I participate in the process, but I'm much more relaxed now”

Among the highlights of his career is a white silk vestment made for Pope Francis in 2015.

“I dressed the pope! I can't do better than that, it's the truth,” he laughs. “I couldn't hope for more”.

READ ALSO: The little-known tax rule that's got the super-rich flocking to Italy 

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