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2011 December 16

Suiting Up with Michele Savoia

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Michele Savoia Michele Savoia
Photo courtesy Michele Savoia
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(NEW YORK) Need a gust of grandeur in the sea of low-slung skinnies and throwback high-tops hailing out of Hipsterville? Meet Michele Savoia, the tattooed, needle-wielding daredevil (and FIT prof) who gets his kicks from crafting forties-inspired bespoke suiting for the likes of Robert De Niro, Mickey Rourke, Chris Noth, and Matt Dillon. We rang the designer's Essex shop for a double serving of Savoia. BY MARIA DENARDO

What's your backstory?
I was born in Hoboken, around the corner from Sinatra, so I'm a nice little Italian boy. My neighborhood was a cross between A Bronx Tale
 and Goodfellas. My father ran night clubs, and my Sicilian grandfather was a master tailor, who landed in Hoboken from Ellis Island in 1933. Basically, my father taught me how to dress, and Popop taught me how to tailor. He had his tailor shop down the block from our house, and I got kicked off to him every day. Before you knew it, I had a needle in my hand and was making patterns and sewing. I got into all kinds of trouble. I'm definitely the bad boy of fashion.  

Did you always want to be in the industry?
I actually wanted to be a cartoonist and run off to Disneyland. Do you remember the artist contests where you'd have to draw Bambi or some guy flipping a coin in the back of TV Guide? I won my first submission, but you could only win once so I started to use friends' names and addresses to submit. I kept winning for two years! Everyone on the block had an easel by the end of it.

What was your first fashion gig?
When I was 13, I was the manager of a menswear shop that was the go-to place in the neighborhood. I lied to get hired. Celebrities and gangsters went there. Pimps shopped there. Every Cuban drug dealer imaginable stopped in. They'd roll up in their hot rod cars with their women and their wads of cash. All the men in the area dressed from GQ. Back then, their editorials were not just arty photos showing off the photographer. It was about the clothes. Stores would put GQ spreads in their window, and customers would come in and buy that exact look. 

What made you switch career trajectories?
I had an art teacher who I was in love with. She suggested I do something more serious with my art, like fashion. I was a street kid, playing dice and pitching quarters. What's fashion? No one used that word. Calvin Klein wasn't on TV. There was only Sears. She told me about FIT and hand-walked me over to New York. I was accepted and graduated with an associate's degree in menswearfirst in my class. My street know-how came in handy. I used to steal keys and make duplicates for the other students so we could sneak in and sew all night. 

Who did you work for after graduation?
There was only one designer I wanted to work with—Bill Kaiserman/Rafael who was the owner and designer. This was before Armani came onto the scene in the States.This was before Armani came onto the scene in the States. I went on no other interviews. I woke up every morning and called his office for months. He hired me in the dead of summer when I was still 17. I worked there for four years until the end of his company in 1982. Remember Annie Hall's look? That was Bill Kaiserman.

How was working with Kaiserman?
Working with Bill was a dream come true for a young Italian Boy from Hoboken. The experience and knowledge that I attained by having the opportunity to train with the best had tremendous impact on where I'm at today. Bill, who was a multiple Coty Award winner, was the best mentor I could have ever imagined.

What happened after Rafael Company closed?
I went to talk to Donna Karan. She had just gone solo and was starting her menswear line. She told me to go back to school for more training because I was a straight, rough-and-tough street guy. I wasn't a little prissy boy. We were a different breed and not everyone can handle that. After that, I got a call from an associate who set up an interview for me to head a new division of menswear at Jhane Barnes. I worked there for little over a year and then started getting many calls for freelance design work, which in the early eighties was a big thing. I had come from a great background working for Kaiserman and designers for freelance were scarce. Just after Jhane Barnes, I was designing four collections in four different parts of the world--very fast pace and exciting. 

When did you start your brand, House of Savoia?
In 1984. I made proper collections until '91 when the smaller designers and specialty shops went to the wayside because big companies were giving major kickback money to the small shops. They went for the money and stopped buying the hip collections because they got a lot of publicity out of it. That's when I switched to custom. I was the only one who was shipping fully custom, hand-tailored bespoke suits, with buttons and pockets, to stores. I was also designing nightclub interiors and owned Fat Black Pussycat and The Cheetah Club until the mid-nineties. I actually had my own cheetah.

As a house cat?
Tony Montana in Scarface is big for me. He had a Bengal tiger so I had to one-up him and get a cheetah. I bought Raja, that's his name, for $10K. The process took a year. I kept him in my 1940s house in the Catskills. He had one big bedroom upstairs. He was my pal. He went swimming in the pond in the summer. I never had any rodents or rabbits on my property. No bears every came around. Nobody ever visited me. One day, he was in the yard and got loose because of the lawn crew that had been there earlier. We tracked him for eight days, but it was mating season so it was all sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll for that cat. 

Who's made the House of Savoia roster?
I dress everyone from a rock 'n' roller to the CEO of Oppenheimer Bank. I have hot shots in the chemical business who own their own seven passenger jet to clients who fly to Milano and Paris to pick out their own fabrics.

What's your biggest challenge these days?
A lot of designers are putting out looks that have the message that it's okay not to dress anymore. There are very few restaurants in New York with a strict dress code. You don't need a jacket to get into 21 Club anymore. New York is scared to enforce stylish dress nowadays. Grown men with bellies want to fit into these skinny pants. That's not menswear. The fifties and sixties are fineSinatra, Dean Martin, boom, boom, boom. But that's as skinny and as low as a pant should be. I don't like the hipster look. 
A hipster is a kid who goes into a vintage store, buys a blazer two sizes too small, and doesn't even know that it's not a men's blazer.

What's next for the House of Savoia?
I love what H&M is doing, so my next step is to create a secondary line of menswear suiting with department store prices. I'd like to keep those suits under $1,000, shirts at $85, and trousers under $200. Not everyone can afford a $4,000 suit so I’d like to cater to the younger generation to keep style alive. 

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