Beyond Trends: Isaia Napoli Shirts Review

Neapolitan tailoring firm Isaia had been quietly producing elegant menswear for over half a century when a few years ago the brand suddenly found itself the height of fashion.

While many other Italian fashion designers had enjoyed decades of international celebrity, Isaia had been steadily simmering away for three generations without previously capturing the spotlight. Around 2010, all eyes were on the label. One can only imagine the feeling of vindication that Isaia’s owners must have felt in seeing their slow-burning brand finally reach boiling point on the international stage.

But fashion being what it is, change comes, and sometimes rapidly. It seems that Isaia today has returned to its status as an exceptional tailoring house, not the season’s must-have brand. So as the sartorially insecure move on to the next shiny designer label, the secondhand market receives a healthy injection of lightly used Isaia clothes which can now be picked up at relatively affordable prices.

Classic Italian elegance never really goes out of style. And if Isaia was so great just a few years ago, is there any reason to believe it isn’t now? In this review, we’ll take a look at a fairly typical Isaia dress shirt, purchased last year – considering cut, cloth and construction –  to see how things measure up.

First though, let’s put to rest any confusion around the brandname itself.

Is it Isaia or ISAIA?

Admittedly, on the grand arc of things, this is not something worth losing sleep over. Still, I personally find it a little confusing that the brand’s moniker frequently crops up written as ISAIA.

True, the company’s logo is styled ISAIA. But the Louis Vuitton logo is also written all caps, and yet it would universally be considered ill-mannered if we were to go around screaming LOUIS VUITTON in the middle of sentences without good reason (in fact predictive text tries to correct this).

Isaia is not an acronym, but simply the name of the founding family behind the label. True, to English speakers, ISAIA doesn’t much look like a pronounceable word, so the assumption that its a series of initials is pretty logical. And yet most of us would have no problem recognizing ISAIAH as a name rather than just a bunch of initial letters. And Isaia and Isaiah are effectively the same word.

Really though, all theorizing is pointless when we can simply refer to the company’s own usage for guidance. And beyond the context of the logo, the brand itself consistently opts for lower case: Isaia.

Consequently I will too.

Isaia Pronunciation

That’s all very well, but how the hell do you say Isaia?

Simple: something between Iz-eye-ah or Iz-eye-yah, depending on your accent.

Good. Now what about the actual clothing?

Isaia Napoli Dress Shirt Review

The shirt is a size 15/38 (more on this shortly) and features a spread collar that is fairly typical of Italian dress shirts more generally, and perhaps even more so of Isaia’s garments in particular. The collar of course looks great with a tie, but where it really distinguishes itself is when worn under a suit jacket. Now what was once a slightly over the top design suddenly makes perfect sense, sliding elegantly as it does under the jacket’s lapels. And staying there.

Of course, the downside to the Italian collar is that it lends itself less well to being worn more informally, with neither jacket nor tie. Seen alone, the wide reach of the collar just looks showy and not a little anachronistic. This is a dress shirt, and only a dress shirt. It would not – in my opinion – look good worn unbuttoned with jeans.

While I’m not totally enamored of Isaia’s red coral logo, the addition of red coral stitching (actually more like a crow’s foot) on the last button down is a nice touch. Of course, this makes precisely zero practical difference to the garment, but it at least reassures me that Isaia is paying attention to the details.

Other than this, there are no peculiarities to the design to speak of. Indeed, the item we’re looking at here is a basic dress shirt with no exceptional features. And it’s precisely for this reason that I think it makes a good example for our case study: stripped of any outlandish characteristics or gimmicky details, the measure of the product becomes about little more than cut, materials, and construction.

Cloth

Interestingly, there’s no care label anywhere on this shirt (is that even legal?). However, from memory (and touch), I think it’s a 50/50 linen-cotton blend. A relatively heavy one at that. Indeed, precisely the heftier kind of cloth that Neapolitans are said to favor in the summer for its sweat-absorbing qualities.

Personally I’m not convinced by the Neapolitan technique – give me a delicate featherweight fabric any (Summer’s) day. But the slightly coarse and heavyweight material is perfect for  early fall and feels satisfyingly “real” against the skin. Meanwhile, the bold mauve, mustard and white plaid weave combines really nicely with a wide range of colors, from beige and brown to navy and plum. Perhaps more than anything though, I’m yearning for a dark green suit to wear over it.

Having been relegated to the closet since late May while temperatures here soar to Neapolitan levels, the shirt only really saw a good amount of wear in the first few months of its life. This makes it hard to comment on the durability of the cloth. So far though, the material inspires total confidence.

Cut

Trawl #menswear boards such as Style Forum, and in between posts by fanatics claiming to own over 200 shirts by Isaia alone, you’ll find many perplexed posters asking questions such as “are Isaia shirts slim fit” or “did Isaia change its sizing”? and other pressing queries.

So, how do Isaia shirts fit?

Well, that would depend on who you ask.

Yes, you’d think it was a pretty straightforward question, but if the answer seems more like the kind of non-committal deflection you’d except from a professional politician, there’s actually a good reason for this: with Isaia sizing is far from simple.

Firstly, as there’s no universally agreed upon meaning of “slim fit”, there’s always going to be a degree of subjectivity to any judgment in this area, no matter the brand. But laying aside the problem of relative body type, Isaia appears to have muddied the waters further by employing several parallel sizing systems – theoretically for different markets, but in practice sometimes available side by side in the same country.

For example, shirts made by Isaia specifically for export to the US tend to be quite generously cut; those for the European and Japanese markets will be a little tighter; and ones destined for the domestic Italian market even slimmer still. In theory, beyond the regular label indicating the size of the shirt, there will also be one identifying the cut. So for example an “E” would indicate a European cut, and an “I” an Italian one.

Confusingly though, while purportedly destined for entirely different markets, for some reason both the “E” and “I” products have been available in the US for some time. Not only that, but a few years ago, stores such as Neiman Marcus and Barneys transitioned from the roomier “E” fit to the slimmer “I”. So anyone who’d purchased from them before, and thought they could just buy again without bothering to try the shirt on, may well have had a nasty surprise when they got their much tighter shirt home.

It gets worse though. Let’s take a look at our sample Isaia shirt. I’m skinny, and from my point of view this is very definitely not a slim fit shirt. In fact, when compared with other shirts I own from Italian brands, the Isaia is perhaps the loosest fitting out of all of them them. Certainly if I were looking for a slimmer, more European cut, I would go with something from Boglioli, Finamore, or perhaps even Etro.

So what letter appears under the the 15/38 size tag on my shirt?

None. There’s no letter at all.

What this means, I have no idea. Although, as I purchased the shirt in Italy, you might assume that it would be Italian sizing. But really, who knows. Browsing used Isaia shirts online, it seems the 20” underarm-to-underarm measurement of my shirt is typical.

Construction

Gianluca Isaia seems to spend most of his time in the US these days. And even Isaia-offshoot Eidos Napoli has its HQ, not in fact in Napoli, but in NYC. These facts could easily leave one wondering whether there’s actually all that much left about the famous Italian tailoring company that’s still genuinely Italian.

Thankfully though, even if many of the creative minds behind the brand may spend much of their lives on EST, all Isaia products are still manufactured at the company’s premises in the Casalnuovo suburb of Naples. And while “Made In Italy” may not represent quite the guarantee of quality it once did, “made entirely in house by a legendary Neapolitan tailoring company” is another matter entirely.

So far so good. But the proof, as the saying goes, is in the fashionable men’s upper body garment. So let’s take a look.

Examining the shirt, the first thing I notice is an elegant single-needle side seam: delicate and narrow in appearance but actually very sturdy-feeling when pulled. However, the stitching itself is not outstanding; being neither especially dense nor precise. What’s more, there appears to be some slight wavering to the stitchwork where the collar attaches to the yoke. It should be stressed, however, that the workmanship is by no means sub-par, just not in any way exceptional.

Ah, but what’s this? The arm and body seams don’t line up!

This isn’t meant as a criticism though. On the contrary, it’s good news, as it indicates that the shirt was constructed in the manner of a jacket, with the body fabricated first, and then the arms fastened on later. The sleeves have evidently first been attached by machine, and then given a second round of hand stitching to finish things off. Although you’ll find the same technique employed by fellow Neapolitan shirtmaker, Salvatore Piccolo, it is more typical of bespoke garments than RTW and undoubtedly a sign of quality.

While the button holes have very clearly been machine stitched, the buttons themselves seem to have been sewn on by hand. And very neatly so too, especially the manner in which they have been tied off at the back. Although the buttons appear to be of good quality, I’m not sufficiently expert to be able to say what they are made of with any certainty. Instinctively I’d say that they were plastic, but an Italian tailor once told me that he prefers to use buttons that are a mix of resin and mother-of-pearl dust for durability – rather than the more fragile pure mother-of-pearl ones – thus undermining what little confidence I once had in this department.

Conclusion

While much of the hype around Isaia may have dissipated in the last few years, this is more a reflection of the capricious nature of the fashion system than it is indicative of a drop in standards on Isaia’s part. To be sure, an off the peg garment such as the one we look at here will never be able to compete with the quality and fit of bespoke, or even made to measure for that matter (although Isaia offers this option too). Nonetheless, it’s a well-made shirt, exhibiting some clear attention to detail. And although it is not an entirely hand-made item, some elements have been sewn by hand. This fact alone elevates the shirt way beyond 99.99% of other RTW garments, even many products at a much higher price point.

Fashion? You can keep it.

Stylish, well-made clothes? Now we’re talking.

Isaia has been doing its thing for decades. And doing it well. I see no change in this. The brand may have been ditched by those for whom a sense of self worth is derived from being permanently bang on-trend, but for anyone not inclined to wear cockeyed and mismatched sportswear covered in crass logos purely because GQ and Hypebeast said we should, Isaia’s still got it.