Uniformly stylish

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 December, 2007, 12:00am

Anything associated with Italian label Costume National can be described as cool and understated. First, there's the company's headquarters, situated around the corner from the Naviglia, the remainder of Milan's defunct canal system, now home to fashion design and photography studios, chic cafes and underground boutiques. The industrial building doesn't look like much from the outside. However, once inside, it's a completely different vibe with large open spaces, clean white walls and minimalist black furniture.

Then there's its clothes; the beauty of which is in the details.

'I love details. People can watch the show and think it's nice but when they actually look at the garment they discover the real beauty of it,' says the brand's founder and designer, Ennio Capasa, who is in Hong Kong tomorrow before heading to Beijing to launch 21, a book celebrating the brand's 21st anniversary, at Lane Crawford.

'There's enormous work in the fabric, details and construction, so it's something [special] for the person wearing it,' Capasa says.

Capasa's name is relatively unknown to those outside the fashion industry, even though his clothes are worn by celebrities including Madonna, Lenny Kravitz and Kate Moss.

However, there is no question that Capasa is influential, with his style being echoed on the catwalks of Milan and Paris and, more importantly, on the streets, which he has long cited as his main inspiration.

The designer, who was born and raised in Lecce, in southern Italy, has fashion in his blood: his parents ran three avant-garde fashion boutiques which he says 'carried all the important fashion labels at that time'.

'Fashion was something natural for me. When I dressed up, all my friends wanted to look like me,' he says. 'The first day of school I refused to wear a uniform and a week later my family brought me to a psychologist, who wrote a letter saying that wearing a uniform would cause me psychological distress. So I was the only boy out of 1,000 who was allowed to wear what I wanted.'

At the age of 18, Capasa moved to Milan to join his older brother Carlo, who was working with FTM, Italy's first fashion agency. He enrolled in the Brera Fine Arts Academy to study sculpture and art and travelled to Tokyo after graduation, where he landed a job with designer Yohji Yamamoto.

'I learned lots of technical things from Yohji. It was nice because it was an atelier, so it was more old-school and you learned everything. It was very interesting as no one spoke English, so it was fun.'

A few years later, he returned to Milan at the behest of his brother, who wanted them to set up their own fashion house. Soon after, Costume National (the name was taken from a book of military uniforms) was born.

'When I was working with Yohji we designed for a woman who was Asian and I wanted [my collection] to be something that was more me,' he recalls.

'What I liked then were real clothes that were linked to the people. I wanted to bring the European tailoring aesthetic into the streets and create something a woman could wear 95 or 99 per cent of the time. I thought fashion was like Prozac, it had to be something that made you happy.'

For his first womenswear collection, Capasa stripped down typical 1980s silhouettes, freeing women from shoulder pads and bringing the cut closer to the body.

Over the next decade, he developed his style, fusing ethnic sensibilities, rock styling and sharp tailoring. By the time his menswear was launched in 1993 (he says it's much easier than womenswear and calls it a 'no-brainer') The New York Times was calling him 'as influential as Armani in the 1980s'.

Today, the Costume National empire has grown to include accessories such as sunglasses, shoes and CNC, the 'younger' streetwear diffusion line.

'In Costume I do everything, and I control CNC, although I do have a big team to help. It's easy because they are so defined from each other. It's important for me to be clear in what I want,' he says.

Capasa has also worked on various other projects including a series of art exhibitions and designing models for Ducati and Alfa Romeo.

'I've done a few things with the art world, and other things. I like to add marmalade to the cake. I read a lot, I like movies: I need to be fed from an aesthetic point of view. I get bored when I do nothing, I can't stay at the beach for more than a few days,' he says, laughing.

Costume National has stores in Los Angeles, Tokyo, New York and Paris and is available at high-end department stores, including Lane Crawford. Capasa also has plans to expand in China.

'Hong Kong has always been one of the most fashionable cities in the world. The future of fashion is very much in Asia and it's doing so well. We are very excited and ready.'

For his spring/summer 2008 womenswear collection, Capasa looked to India for inspiration, designing two-tone tunic dresses with asymmetrical shoulders, black straps and bursts of coral and fuchsia. There are also calf-length pyjama pants in organza, parkas and capes.

'It was a very still collection that just built up,' he says.

'The idea was to have a kind of girl that travels in India to Goa and Mumbai, but then goes back to Paris or Milan and asks a tailor to make ethnic clothes for her. So there's this spirit of colour with little ethnic touches that bring back memories.'

The menswear is all about independent rocker style, with longer and shorter tuxedo jackets, softly cut bomber jackets in silk or leather and traditional shirts spruced up with details such as laser cuts, tonal cut-out flowers and flecks of lurex.

Both collections continue to build on the brand's identity while being chic and wearable.

'I think as a designer it's important to be in the real world. If you are not, then you're silly. There are so many talented designers that go in a direction, which although it may be beautiful, has no relation to reality,' he says.

'For me, talent is someone who has done 10 years of work and established a strong point of view. Many people do a good collection but to invent a style is a whole other thing. I think you have to be cohesive with your style and be yourself.'