How the World’s Oldest Fabric Mill Is Helping Modern Men Suit Up

“It seems like yesterday,” says Francesco Barberis, as he reflects on joining the family business back in 1998. But the company where he began as a junior salesman and rose to the title of creative director today is no average family firm. It’s Vitale Barberis Canonico, the Italian textile mill that can trace its earliest recorded sale of wool to 1663 (to the Duke of Savoy, no less) and remains family-operated 13 generations later.

Despite its incredible pedigree—which has earned its membership to Les Hénokiens, an international association of businesses with at least two centuries of family ownership—Vitale Barberis Canonico is no museum piece. VBC, as it’s often referred to, sits at the forefront of fabric innovation today, with a state-of-the-art factory that’s won numerous accolades for its environmental practices and safety standards.

In the run-up to the release of Best of Vitale Barberis Canonico—a new fabric book compiled by its U.S. distributor Gladson, which should become available to tailors, custom clothiers, and specialty stores later this summer—we sat down with Francesco at the company’s Pratrivero headquarters to discuss suitings after Covid, tailoring’s relevance, and the fabric he’ll be selecting for his next suit.

What changes has VBC made in the market since Covid?

To be honest, we were expecting to have some difficult times after Covid. But in fact, one of the first things that people did is they went out and bought some suits. Because as the world went back to normal, people started going out to restaurants, spending the weekends away.

And I think some people have actually put on weight. So, they see that the suit wasn’t fitting, and they went out and bought a new suit. So, we’ve had a huge rise in orders. We’ve had a very good season after Covid. I think it has changed the world in a way, but it has also made a lot of people go back to suitings.

Are people buying different kinds of fabrics now? How has that changed?

I think it has changed a little bit due to the comfort, because obviously people were used to wearing tracksuit bottoms and pajamas most of the time. So now people require a little comfort, so it’s stretch in the fabric. So that’s changed, we’re selling more stretch fabric now.

What are your current best sellers?

Our current best-sellers are the fabrics that [Gladson CEO Michael Solomon] is running, which is the famous Perennial and the Revenge. There’s also a surge in flannel. We’re selling a lot of worsted flannel in winter, and also some sports jackets, and a few—not a lot—of technical fabrics.

Like for example, [gestures towards a flannel swatch] which is our standard fabric, but with a waterproof finish. So, you can go out and the rain will just wash off. Just some added function to our traditional fabric.

As the world starts to become warmer, has VBC seen a change in the way clients are choosing cloth?

Not really. People are looking for comfort, and also for lighter-weight fabrics. We are already the leading producer of lighter weight [fabrics], so it doesn’t really change all that much, to be honest.

So, other people are going towards where you’ve already been.


I know that sustainability is very important to VBC. Beyond using renewable energy and CO2 offsets, what other processes do you plan to adopt?

I think that the suit by itself is actually very sustainable, because we say that a good suit with a good fabric should last 20 or 30 years. Purchasing a suit and wearing it for 30 years is already very sustainable rather than buying 200 T-shirts over the same length of time.

VBC is now one of these few family businesses that has existed for 200 years or more. What factors have allowed VBC to exist as a family business for that long?

I think the ethic of the family, bringing the tradition up to date, and also common beliefs and common culture.

And what will be needed for VBC to continue that for the next 350 years?

That’s a very heavy-duty question… I think continue what we’re doing and also invest in innovation, technology, and keep our eyes open to the future for the younger generations.

What is the one VBC fabric that every man should have?

I would say our Super 110s, because it’s a beautiful year-rounder. You can wear it all year round… I think if there was one suit, that would be it.

And what is the next VBC fabric you intend to commission for yourself?

Maybe something white. I’m looking forward to doing a white tropical as a suit. I think it’s very elegant to wear in the summer.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the business since you joined 25 years ago?

The biggest change is the world—especially Italy and Europe—going less formal, more casual. Unfortunately.

What can tailoring do to ensure it stays relevant?

I think we need to convince the younger audience to wear tailored clothing, or to try to wear tailored clothing… Like our common friend [menswear writer and Robb Report contributor G. Bruce Boyer] said, it’s a matter of respecting yourself and also other people. So, when you dress up, it’s not only for yourself, but also for the person that you’re speaking with. It’s an important value, I think.

Vitale Barberis Canonico

Photography: Vitale Barberis Canonico and Luca Merli

Previously published on Robb Report USA

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