Bonfanti Tessuti: Weaver of Wearable Emotions
“I like considering myself an artisan who produces emotions to wear.” – Giancarlo Bonfanti
Lake Como, a retreat for affluent Italians since Roman time. To shirting enthusiasts it means a bit more: it is the home to two of the most highly regarded luxury shirting mills in Italy: Carlo Riva and its family split-off of Bonfanti Tessuti.
When a man transcends through his personal journey in menswear, inevitably there will be a stage, before the steadfast and arguably mundane settling point of British elegance is reached, that he becomes amused by the daring innovators in Japan and South Korea; affectionately infected by Neapolitan boldness of colour and design; and astonished by the nouvelle cuisine twists by the French. But there is a caveat: this well-travelled man has ignored, perhaps willfully, the Northern Italy, which offers every detail of elegance advocated by both sides of the Channel, each with an ostensible flair of luxury. And indeed, many gentlemen, when forced to choose between practicality and luxury, secretly wish that they could choose the latter without being condemned and expelled.
Historical Brothers and The Widening Gap
In 1871, influenced by the Industrial Revolution, Fermo Fossati began to produce yarn-dyed silk for furnishings and clothing in Como to compete with the British producers. With an Italian eye for design, they managed to maintain an exclusive collection of patterned and embossed silk, which was set to flourish when the necktie gained popularity at the turn of the century.
In the 1960s, recognizing the demand for fine shirtings, Fermo Fossati started to produce cotton shirt fabric by modifying her silk shuttle looms. Through the decades, Carlo Riva, or more precisely, division Tessitura Serica Carlo Riva of the company, gained domestic and international recognition as the producer of “the best shirting in the world”.
When the post-war industry could finally focus on the production of “finer things in life”, e.g. shirt poplin for the office and not heavy twill for military uniform, the production began as 90-cm (36”) width on electrical shuttle looms. As the ready-to-wear sector boomed, the industrial production of shirt fabric shifted to 150-cm (58”-60”) to allow for better economy in factory cutting and handling – for historical and generalist interest, the remnant of this history can also be seen in the weaving of linen fabric for suits in Ireland, where a small production of “half-width” (75-cm width) linen woven on old looms is exclusively maintained by the cloth merchant Scabal – the end result is not surprising: the modern production of shirtings has essentially migrated to 150-cm width, with the market giants of Albini Group (incorporating David and John Anderson, Thomas Mason and Ashton Shirtings) and Gruppo Tessile Monti (Tessitura Monti and Tessitura Monti India) leading the bandwagon. To date, 90-cm width shirting production is only maintained by a few producers, namely Acorn Fabrics UK (who has already set her schedule to migrate to full 150-cm width production) and the Carlo Riva / Bonfanti Tessuti duo.
“Same looms, same yarns, same mentality… only the best”
1995. A year that would have shocked the world of shirt enthusiasts and high-end shirt tailors in Italy. Fortunately, the shock ended in a manner that delighted both.
In 1995, the owner of Carlo Riva passed away. His nephew Giancarlo Bonfanti inherited half of the production facility, including the looms. As a young man who just finished business school in Bergamo, Giancarlo did not settle with the destiny of continuing his uncle’s established success. He was determined in starting his own production and moved his looms to Lecco.
Given his working experience in Carlo Riva, an ancestral influence to Giancarlo’s production in almost unavoidable. In the early years, Bonfanti Tessuti competed with Carlo Riva by offering fabric made using the same production method and quality material (mainly, extra-long staple Egyptian Giza cotton and linen), but with a more customer-oriented service and exclusive patterns or designs. With time, however, it was clear that those improvements were not adequate in endowing Bonfanti Tessuti with a true identity.
In the 2000s, Giancarlo began to improve on the production. Starting from the choice of raw material, he painstakingly matched each variety of cotton to an optimal weave and finishing process that could best show the quality of the fibre. For his entry-level shirtings (i.e. Ne120 yarn count, 2-ply x 2-ply), he chose Giza 87 for its overall robustness; for his luxury class of fine shirtings (i.e. Ne170 yarn count, 2-ply x 2-ply), he determinedly changed from Egyptian Giza cotton to high grade American Pima cotton after extensive testing to improve on the much-questioned longevity aspect of high counts: with a micron-width of 4.00 (Giza 45 = 2.95, Giza 87 = 3.10) and per unit fibre strength of 45.5 (Giza 45 = 44.30, Giza 87 = 44.60), Bonfanti’s Ne170 shirtings managed to out-compete her peers in terms of wear and pilling resistance despite maintaining an exquisite fineness. In 2014/15, at the popular request of the high-end shirting community, Giancarlo boldly adopted WISICA-certified Sea Island cotton yarns from Spoerry, Switzerland in his pure Sea Island and Sea Island cotton / linen mix lines – in an Italian shirting community which has unrelenting love for domestic production and tradition, such are no small steps.
Currently, the major offerings of Bonfanti Tessuti include the basic Ne120/2 collection (Capri line – poplin; Flamingo line – twill), the luxury Ne170/2 collection (Belfast line – twill “su base voile”; Dallas line – poplin; New York line – poplin “su base voile”; Florida line – open, “Florida-weave”) and the seasonal and limited editions (Positano – WISICA Sea Island cotton and linen in Oxford weave; Diamante – Ne200/2 twill; Ischia – 100% WISICA Sea Island cotton twill “su base voile”). All of Bonfanti’s fabric undergo mercerization to improve dimensional stability, strength – and perhaps most essentially, add an unmistakable yet subtle sheen that embellishes the fabric with flair of luxury.