W Power 2024

The men's suit has changed dramatically: Stefano Canali

Post pandemic, the business power suit has faced a reckoning of sorts, with men ditching the formal shoulder-pad-and-tie construction. The CEO of Italian luxury menswear brand Canali, who was recently in India, talks about how the storied brand has kept up with changing demand—a company reinventing itself, along with the suit

Pankti Mehta Kadakia
Published: Apr 22, 2024 05:17:51 PM IST
Updated: Apr 22, 2024 05:31:59 PM IST

Stefano Canali, CEO, Canali. Image: Bajirao Pawar for Forbes India Stefano Canali, CEO, Canali. Image: Bajirao Pawar for Forbes India

Italian luxury menswear brand Canali recently opened a flagship Mumbai boutique, at the Jio World Plaza in Bandra-Kurla Complex. Canali has been one of the earliest global luxury brands to bet on India, since they first opened a store in the city 15 years ago—so much so that their only country-specific customisation was a specially created bandhgala, called the Nawab, which launched in 2014.

Ten years later, Canali is still bullish on India, with seven stores spread across the country. “It’s a long-standing love affair with India,” says CEO Stefano Canali, the third-generation scion of the brand. “We are working on the eighth boutique—whenever we have the opportunity, we seize it. Because in India, it’s worth it.”

Edited excerpts from an interview with Forbes India:

Q. Even as the third generation of the Canali business family, you didn’t start your career with the brand…
Funnily enough, I started my career in banking. Back then, the company was a big exporter, and we had to manage and hedge our foreign exchange (FX) risks. So when I graduated, I moved to New York and entered the banking system to get some knowledge about the way banks manage FX in a broad sense.

And it turned out to be a very fruitful and interesting experience, because when I got back two years later, I had some knowledge that the company didn't have. So I was able to implement a new treasury system and new FX strategy.

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It also allowed me to have experience outside the company, which is of paramount importance for a family-run company. It’s usually made sure that the upcoming generation starts in the same company right away, which is, to me a mistake. When you enter a company, a namesake company, you have some privileges, but you also have some duties. And the privileges must not overcome the duties. And it is very hard for a person bearing the same name as the company to go through the same experience that they might go through when you work for a company that has nothing to do with your own firm. So it's an experience that I strongly suggest that to every family-run company.

Q. When you came back to the company, it took 10 years before you assumed a leadership position, as general manager. What was that journey like?
I had the opportunity and the need to go through every single function of the company, discovering many hidden details that are of paramount importance. So, it took me 10 years to become a general manager and then roughly nine more years to become CEO of the company. And oddly enough, I was appointed as general manager and CEO in two of the most difficult periods of our history.

I was appointed the general manager in 2008, one month before the Lehman Brothers issue erupted. And nine years later, I was appointed CEO one year before the pandemic struck.

If I look back at Canali’s 90-year history, I’d say [we had] three major events to overcome. The first one was World War II, which basically cancelled all the wealth that had been accrued until then. After World War II, the second generation of Canali—my father and uncles—had to rethink the company and restart a business that had completely disappeared. They managed to become leaders in the overcoat business but in the 1960s, which went completely out of fashion. So they had to reinvent once again, and went back to the company’s roots in formal wear, high quality sartorial offerings.

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The pandemic was the third major problematic period in our company’s life. You’ve experienced it yourself—it was the most dramatic experience we might ever meet. We had already planned an evolution of the company before the pandemic hit, but the execution wasn’t possible then. Thankfully, after the pandemic ended, we were able to implement a strategy that focused on a lifestyle approach to the brand.

Canali has always [been] known to be a one-of-a-kind manufacturer of high-quality sartorial suits, a specialist in formal wear. After the pandemic, we really had to evolve.

Q. What was that evolution like? As fewer men were going into offices, for instance, the culture of wearing suits in general has changed. Where is the suit today, and what is Canali now focusing on?
If you consider that the suit has a shape, that remains the shape that fits a man best. It is the most flattering. But the way you execute that shape, that has changed dramatically.

The construction materials, the materials you use, even some proportions have evolved. So it may not be a power suit with shoulder pads anymore, but a very lightweight jacket, with a very thin canvas inside. If you see the store display right now, you’ll see a linen cotton suit made in light brown, which has nothing to do with the traditional business suit. But it is still a suit, made by Canali and its skilled artisans.

Q. Do you think the power suit will cycle back?
It will never go out of fashion, but a business suit does meet different needs. If you’re a lawyer or a banker, for example, chances are that you will need to dress up that way, whether or not you decide to wear a tie. But at the same time, for meetings during the weekend or while on vacation, they might go for the light brown suit I mentioned earlier. That can easily be matched to sneakers or loafers. It can be worn with chinos, or with a jumper. Building a lifestyle base, the collection allows for an easy mix and match. That’s the goal.

Q. Yours was among the first European luxury brands to enter the Indian market. Canali even constructed a bandhgala, its first country-specific customisation. Where is India in your global strategy plans today?
India is a very important market for us. The nawab proposal was what I called a marriage made in heaven—a beautiful blend of Canali’s artisanal scale and Indian tradition. The Nawab was a ceremonial suit. We have also reinterpreted [the silhouette] in different fabrics like silk, linen, wool blends, even a sleeveless, sporty version of the jacket. It was an instant success, and definitely instrumental in creating awareness about Canali and its craftsmanship in India. We realised along the way that there are so many similarities between Indian and Italian culture, from focus on food to family.

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India, sometimes, is neglected by many other brands. We were lucky enough to discover India 15 years ago, and realised very quickly that it was not to be neglected. Indian consumers are very knowledgeable and discerning, they are well travelled, and they are fully aware of what’s going on in the world.

With seven stores in India, we might be the luxury brand with the largest Indian retail footprint. As we speak, we’re working on the eighth boutique. When we see an opportunity in India, we seize it, because Indian consumers have a different love with the brand.