Canali’s 85th anniversary – a family’s commitment to the land and its people

Stefano Canali recalls the history of the family, the factory of his childhood, and the priority he was taught to always give to the human handmade

Erina Iencenella works on the assembly of the jacket. «Attaching the sleeves is not assembling two parts but creating two parts. Each sleeve is a relationship between me, the jacket, and the machine. The peculiarity lies in the speed, or rather in the slowness, of giving the jacket wearability and harmony at the lap. Each must find their own method of sewing. The rules are not enough, because you are confronted with something that varies, because it is made by people. These jackets become creatures; they are not objects. After twenty-four years, I still cannot say I know how to sew the sleeves. Every day, we must question ourselves».

Agnes takes care of the tucking of the garments. She is the first person to work on the jacket and says that it is also a matter of listening. «I have to hear the machine: there is a particular sound it makes when it sews well. If it does not make that sound, it means that something is wrong». There are over two hundred phases of work for a jacket, and if one of these is badly managed, it can cause defects. Each operation and seam determine a fit, a characteristic. «The time we want to devote to training a good seamstress or skilled ironer can go up to over a year» — says Dino, the manager who runs the company’s three production units in the Marche region. He was hired in 1993 to manage the automatic cuts section. «Creating a suit or a jacket is like making pieces of anatomy».

For canali the continuous process of mechanical evolution always merged with sartorial knowledge and methodology. Canali

«Some might think that making jackets by hand means not using sewing machines». Stefano Canali belongs to the third generation at the helm of the company. The founder, Giovanni Canali, was his grandfather. «The artisan skill is in knowing how to use a sewing machine. The mastery lies in sewing fabrics asymmetrically; each piece must be approached to another in a different way and each material must be managed at different speeds. Our tailors know how to handle the variety of materials, from Vatican canvas to those woven with silk, wool, and linen and everything else in between. 90% of the fabrics we have in our collection have been developed by suppliers from Biella. Our creative people meet with theirs, and together they define which fabrics to create». Stefano Canali joined the company in 1998, although «it is difficult for me to establish a date because the company has been omnipresent at home. It was not just the means of sustenance, but the being of the family. My father Eugenio and my uncles also worked on Saturdays, and on Sundays, they worked from home». A brand that was called Cafra at the time — Canali Fratelli — was a sixth ‘sister’ with whom he did not always get along: «The company was the priority. I considered the commitment as time taken away from me. I only realized afterward that those sacrifices were necessary. Despite being the second generation at the helm of the company, it was as if my father and his brothers were the first, considering the conversion that had taken place in the late sixties. The logic remained unstructured and family-run».

«I was still wearing shorts», Stefano recalls. «I accepted the ‘sister’ Cafra without jealousies. Every Saturday, I went with mom to visit dad at the office. It was a kind of ritual. I remember this long corridor overlooked by the typical seventies office aesthetic: glass walls, darkened lower parts, doors facing each other. My father’s office was down the hall on the left. There was a sacred silence and even the floor made no noise. When we arrived, we could see my father at work, but he could not see us. We knocked. Dad would give me a token to go get a drink from the vending machine. It had glass Coca-Cola bottles and metal planks that opened by inserting the token. For me, it was like magic».The company was where the factory store is today in Triuggio: «My grandparents, like good people from Triuggio, did not want to go beyond the Lambro». The current headquarters are in a neighboring town, Sovico, on the opposite side of the Lambro. «The fabrics arrive here. We have the model office where we design the product and is the beginning of the supply chain».

Bocconi University, Milan. «The choice was aimed at creating useful skills for the administrative, marketing, and commercial aspects of the business. Some university friends looked at me perplexed when I told them the path I was taking, interpreting it as an imposition from my family. In fact, I have always seen the family business as an opportunity. We exported goods and the issue of hedging the exchange rate risk was key. When I graduated, I moved to New York for an internship in finance. I spent two years in the U.S., first at an independent company focused on exchange rate risk management for European companies, then at the exchange desk at Banca San Paolo. I noticed how colleagues dressed on Casual Friday. Mario was a guy of my age. He had the desk next to me, asking me what I thought of his ties. When I left, the director — while thanking me — looked at him and said: ‘you spent a year with him, but nothing has changed’. In those years, there was already an annoyance from more casual clothing that was difficult to manage, especially in formal environments where pre-established colors prevailed, such as in a bank’. Today, Casual Fridays have disappeared: ‘At our company, everyone dresses as they want. You can see a little bit of everything — especially amongst the creative people». With Casual Fridays, the distinctions between formal and informal in the creation of outerwear lines have also disappeared: «We are managing the new collections with this in mind, considering the merger of categories and favoring segmentation at the story and reference level».

The spinning mill of Agliate was built in 1890 on the remains of an eighteenth-century mill. The locals say that many Friulian girls worked there. In Realdino, in 1843, there was the Eraldo Krumm spinning wheel: a factory that produced cotton yarns, which is now divided into crafts, warehouses, and unused premises. The Staurenghi Mills were transformed into homes. The spinning of the Fola in 1875 employed 400 people. On June 16, 1990, national newspaper Corriere della Sera retraced the Lambro on the trails of the textile heritage of the district: the title of the article was Quando Berta filava a Carate [When Berta spun in Carat]. These districts are now part of the Valle del Lambro regional park, several cycle paths cross the river. Today, active textile companies are proudly cited by those who live here. «Once there were many who dealt with yarns, fabrics, dyes, clothing. Now we feel the responsibility to continue to bring to life and represent the identity of these communities, the stubbornness of men and women who still, looking at the river, ringing in their ears songs sung in a dialect; songs that were sung in the spinning mill and the smell of the dry cleaners».

Greetings from Triuggio in 1934. the first factory expanded in via Vittorio Emanuele and Villa Turri

In 1934 in Triuggio, halfway between Milan and Lake Como, the Galeazzo Viganò textile company closed. Giovanni Canali, the warehouse manager, found himself out of work. The crisis of 1929 had given a blow to the world economy and six years later the country would have entered the war alongside Germany. The coordinates of history would have discouraged anyone from venturing into entrepreneurship — but in Brianza, being idle is considered more heresy than defection. With his brother Giacomo, a tailor, Giovanni Canali opened a small workshop dedicated to menswear production. World War II had not yet begun, but the Canali brothers had founded the prototype on the Italian rebirth. On the other bank of the Lambro river was an ante litteram district of Italian textiles. The Caprotti Manufacturers were active. Following World War II, the Caprotti family, thanks to profits generated from textiles, participated in the foundation of the Italian supermarket — Esselunga — the first example of large-scale distribution in the country. After the conflict, the production of overcoats once again began. Cafra (Canali Fratelli) and Conca (Confezioni Canali), the acronyms that the company took on over time, revealed the character of the family and of the entire territory. In the 1960s Canali started a collaboration with Snia Viscosa, experimenting with new textile fibers in the clothing industry. In the meantime, the second generation had entered the company: Eugenio, Giovanni’s son, and his brothers. At the end of the sixties, overcoats and raincoats suffered a hit from a radical change in costume. Eugenio Canali and his brothers invested all the company reserves. They moved towards men’s outerwear with the intention of focusing on a product built according to the rules and philosophy of the tailor, but with larger volumes by virtue of the industrialization of the process.

They went from a product in which the company had been a leader for fifteen years to one that had been made in the past, but for which there were no longer experienced staff. Keeping the machines active and adapting to progress so as not to be crushed by it, it was not just a matter of business in a small area where everyone knows each other. In 1961, there were 5,500 inhabitants in Triuggio. Going forward and not letting anyone go was a matter of responsibility and integrity. Eugenio Canali had also been mayor of Triuggio in the 1960s. «A commitment that totally absorbed him, he did not run again. My mother struggled to see him so busy. For the growth of the company, there was the community dimension, the bond with the people of the area, who met at the bar in the evening».

In the eighties, Canali entered the United States, which until then favored the thermo-glued production of clothing. «At that time there was a tendency to adapt the shape and silhouette of the clothes to the taste and build of the customers in the area of the world to which it was addressed. Lines were created for the American market, with wider shoulders and trouser legs, more wedge-shaped jacket structure, trousers with double or triple pence — the style of Richard Gere in American Gigolo designed by Armani. Today, coats destined for the United States and China continue to be differentiated, but over the years the differences have narrowed. All the markets have turned to a more deconstructed, soft, lighter jacket and suit, but no less valuable — and if anything, even more complicated to make». For twenty-five years, the United States had been the primary market for the company, and Canada the fourth. Commercial expansion led to the takeover of a packaging company in the Marche region. There are now three companies in the region: two produce jackets and one produces trousers. Then there is another center designated for jackets in Gissi, in Abruzzo. Canali employs around 1,500 people around the world, of which 1,100 are in Italy.

CANALI 1970 1
Canali in 1974 was the first factory with an automatic cut system. Linked to an electronic calculator the machine permitted to cut a various range of pieces simultaneously. Courtesy Canali

Behind the hands and knowledge gained in eighty-five years of business is innovation. The first indication of that innovation arrived in the 1970s, years ahead of competitors, with the automated cutting of fabric pieces. The company was the first in Italy to purchase and install an automatic system that simultaneously cut multiple layers of fabric. At the time it was a thirty-meter long table on which the roll was stretched to position the fabric under a cutting window — a rectangle along whose vertical and horizontal axes moved a blade that precisely cut one or more layers of fabric, following the computer matrix. «The height of the matrix is a non-changeable variable, while the width, i.e. the consumption of fabric, must be limited as we must avoid wasting material. All this keeping in mind the quality points, the fact that the pieces cannot be positioned randomly but must respect the straight grain and the intersections of lines and squares in the different points of the jacket», explains Stefano Canali.

The first internal organizational change was in 2008: family management to a modern company. «We moved to a more complex structure with the entry of external managers to fill roles that did not exist before». The corporate reorganization coincided with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in America and the beginning of the crisis. It was not the first difficulty that the company went through, but it was the first that Stefano faced in a position of responsibility. Canali took advantage of the crisis to transform an old- fashioned company, with only one man in charge — his father — into a place where everyone, from the worker to the manager, was aware of what was being achieved. ‘Dad, make room for me to reorganize the company’, a local newspaper headlined in those days. «In the first days of January 1998, after two years spent in the United States and when I officially entered the company, my father told me ‘never feel like you have arrived’. My father continues to be the living representation of the entire history of the company».

Family life and business. «We have a gentle but Austro-Hungarian approach». Three kilometers away from the factory you enter the Monza Park, 688 hectares, the fourth largest fenced park in Europe and the largest surrounded by walls. It was the park that was commissioned by Beauharnais and was then returned to Italy under the aegis of the Habsburgs. Saying Austro-Hungarian here means recognizing oneself in rigor, reliability, and precision, combined with the distinctive Lombard features: economy and work. Love and modesty. The missing piece, also characterizing the territories in which the company was born, is a form of reserve that from the outside could be mistaken for reticence. Stefano Canali does not feel the need to justify it and makes it a style feature: «We have an unassuming way of showing passion for what we do. Elegance does not want to be ostentatious».

Technological innovations introduced between 2012 and 2016. Today, the cutting table is half as long as the previous one, and the computerized system manages to program different matrices in a continuous flow by reading the characteristics of the fabric, adapting to its specific measures, and carrying out an automatic nesting of the pieces that make up the dress. «If before you had a lower fabric, you had to reprogram all the matrices. If you had a higher one, part of it was wasted. This automation helps to cope with the pulverization of demand and the requests for made to measure. If once ‘fabric mattresses’ were cut, i.e. multiple layers of overlapping fabrics, today single fabrics are cut». The other advantage of the new technology is linked to the management of defects. «Previously, the fabric was checked visually on backlit courts by the operators who inserted plastic elements of different colors into the ‘selvedge’ to indicate the type of defect — punctual, linear, or area. Defects had to be handled manually, excluding them from the cutting positions. Now, the operators, after having identified them, classify them with different colored stamps. The scanner reads them, discards them as an unusable area, and automatically places the cut piece so that it can go around it. It is a cutting system that manages complexities in a continuous flow and returns pieces of fabric of unchanged quality to our tailoring departments».

The construction of a jacket. The fabric is checked meter by meter, cut into regular shapes based on the model, and divided into the various parts to be worked. Each portion of fabric reaches the dedicated section: the front, the sleeves, and collars, the sides and the back, the placket with the internal pockets, the lining. A puzzle made up of many different pieces. It starts at the front. A reinforcement is created to give substance and shape to the skeleton that will support the head. Pockets enter the picture: the shape is defined, one or more layers are added to give them support, the lining is applied. The pockets are sewn and modeled by ironing, then stitched to give harmony and embellish the seams, and finally applied to the jacket. The tacking of the front part includes a placket or several layers with the role of supporting the front and keeping the garment in shape. It is made by assembling and sewing the parts together: replacing the seams with stickers would not have the same effect. The rever, or the collar, is the last insertion on the front. Its shape is built through a set of seams that define the line, determine the turn and movement, and allow it to adhere to the canvas. Having completed the front, we move on to the hips and the back. For the attachment of the sleeves, a three-dimensional body starting from a two-dimensional fabric. It plays on ‘slowness’, which has the task of providing mobility. The final ironing — unlike the previous phases in which ironing was used to give precise shape and structure — now has the goal of restoring harmony to the fibers of the fabric. In testing: each garment, lengths, sizes, and measurements are checked. The geometries of the textures are examined.

An anthology for Canali, the best tailoring steps: the raincoat appeared in 1958 when advertising played with the film industry. The company made it out of unusual materials for the time, such as Lilion and Rilsan, alongside silk, wool and cotton. The formal dress became the flagship product from the seventies, built using over six models. The KEI jacket appeared in 2007. The Canali 1934 line reinterprets the sartorial heritage, while the Exclusiveline gives expression to Italian elegance. In 2019, these two segments were joined by the Black Edition for the most dynamic cuts. Canali has just expanded its direct store network with ten outlets in China. In the last quarter of 2020, the company plans to renovate its New Bond Street address in London where it has been present for twenty years. For the brand’s 85th anniversary, the Canali Anthology introduces the visitor to the philosophy of the company with a multimedia project to narrate through video interviews, testimonies, and archival imagery to this story that began in Triuggio back in 1934.


The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.