Commendatore Vitale Barberis Canonico was born in 1901. While all his brothers were “nineteenth century” men, he was a child of the twentieth century: his birth and the turn of the new century coincide. He came into the world just as the family business was opening up to the world. The old woollen mill in Pratrivero (the current factory had not yet been built) was run by two brothers: Giuseppe (1860-1938), Vitale’s father, and Valerio.
When Vitale was taking his first steps, Barberis Canonico yarns and fabrics were already travelling great distances along routes that trade had opened up towards Italy, and finding their way to Italians who had left their home country behind, but not their Italian sense of style.
At the dawning of the new century, the firm had customers in Piedmont, such as Donato Levi in Turin (the first, or one of first, companies in Italy to produce off the peg suits, and the forerunner and co-founder of the famous Gruppo Finanziario Tessile (GFT), subsequently owned by the Rivetti brothers), and throughout Italy, from Ancona to Lecce, Florence to Catania, and Milan to Palermo, not to mention a host of Neapolitan tailors. It also had clients abroad, such as Antonio Gerli in Buenos Aires.
Antonio Gerli (1867-1942) deserves a chapter of his own. Or indeed an entire genre novel: that of the brave Italian setting off for a distant land and founding an empire off his own bat. In Argentina – south of Buenos Aires – there is a city that bears his name, which gives a good idea of the importance in Argentina’s history of the Milanese entrepreneur who emigrated there in 1890. Through a Genoese wholesaler, Vitale Pavia, the yarns produced in Pratrivero also made their way there. By 1903, the firm was exporting several thousand kilos of yarn, mostly white cotton spun with a new metric yarn count of 6,000.
These commercial relations with South America, and those much closer to home with Anselmo Giletti in Ponzone and Giuseppe Botto in Valle Mosso, show that Barberis Canonico was an agile, flexible business with a talent for multitasking. Doing its own spinning and weaving in house, and with a well-structured sales network, the company also produced semi-finished and finished products for third-parties. It processed both wool and cotton, often combining the two, something which proved to be a winning strategy.
Indeed wool-cotton blends, like the best-selling Truppa fabric, had a very profitable domestic market. Truppa (which Barberis Canonico offered in half, normal or double widths) was a solid colour fabric, light or dark: good quality, durable and above all competitively priced. There was no lack of demand for it, both from tailors with customers looking to buy hard-wearing clothing, and from local administrations and public bodies (municipalities, the railways, the post office, etc.) which wished to provide their employees with clothing (mostly uniforms) that did not need to be replaced every year. Today the benefits of this idea are highlighted as if a recent “discovery”, but the archives show that there is nothing new about it. Indeed, even now the past is often the best resource for future creativity.
The carbon copy of a letter
All of this information comes from a single letterbook (kept in the Vitale Barberis Canonico Archives) that dates from the bustling era which heralded the century of speed, the twentieth century. Nineteenth-century progress paved the way for Futurist rapidity, Cubist segmentation and Surrealist whimsy. Firms could choose to ride the wave, or try to steer a straight course through an increasingly global, increasingly challenging market. Opting for substance without sacrificing style proved a winning formula.
Circas or Circass was one of the highly successful fabrics produced by Barberis Canonico, crafted from pure woollen-spun wool (with a yarn count of between 8,000 and 10,000). The name probably comes from the croisé or “Circassian” weave used (a reversible four shaft twill, usually finished without nap), which is full, solid and resilient. Salomone Dello Strologo from Livorno would buy kilometres of this fabric, almost always in the same classic, refined shades (coffee brown and black above all).
The tissue-fine pages of the letterbook reveal secrets from worlds and epochs that are far removed from our own, but sometimes not really that different. Like true beauty, good quality never gets old. There will always be a right time to rediscover the know-how of the past and rework it for the present. Like old coats that are kept in a wardrobe for decades before their time comes round again, and they are ready to be thoughtfully recreated, in the timeless style of beautiful things that are made to last…