A New Kid in the Old School
A veteran of Paul Stuart, Phineas Cole, and Ralph Lauren comes into his own
Article by Andrew Yamato
Manolo Costa is better-looking than you are.
Serious dressers can be a vain lot, so this might be hard to accept, but upon arriving for your appointment at Mr. Manolo’s elegant bespoke atelier on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, accept it you will. This might actually be something of a handicap for the 36 year old Peruvian transplant. The polish of his presentation — trim, tanned, toothy, and exceedingly well turned out – might arouse initial reservation among potential clients who prefer their sartorial consiglieri a bit older, a bit homelier, perhaps slightly hunched or paunched – the better to improve upon their own imperfect physiques.
By his own admission, Manolo is not an artisan. He is, I think, what used to be known as an aesthete. It’s perhaps an even more pompous label, but one I myself much prefer to either the timid “well-dressed man,” or the dreaded “dandy” because it transcends simple affinity for clothing, or at least elevates it beyond the ego of the wearer. Costa may give the initial impression of simply being a suave salesman (he did, after all, did get his start 12 years ago behind the tie counter at Paul Stuart before moving on to become the brand ambassador for their Phineas Cole line), but upon speaking with him you realize that he isn’t selling menswear so much as an educated, integrated, and precisely articulated vision of What Men Should Wear.
A classicist and a minimalist at heart, Manolo believes in a timeless international style, intentional but not at all ostentatious. The clothing he makes is distinguished less by any particular design elements than the purity of sartorial principles that Manolo believes were perfected not in any specific decade, but across them. The chest of Costa’s standard house cut is comfortable but very clean (he is not a fan of drape). Shoulders are soft and natural, with very slightly roped sleeveheads. The sleeves themselves are trim but not tight, as are the side-tabbed flat front trousers, which sit slightly below the natural waist because that’s how Manolo thinks they make a man look elegant but feel sexy. How his clothes feel is very important to Manolo, as it is to any man who’s ever worn bespoke. To this end, construction is kept as light as possible while still retaining all the traditional elements of internal structure (with the exception of some unstructured but very shapely summer jackets). Because he offers only bespoke clothing, clients select their own cloth, lining, and shirting from Costa’s extensive collection of classic books, but there are limits to his indulgence of individual fancy. He once declined to make a red tuxedo for a client, and he refuses to do contrasting buttonholes or garish linings, which he feels would distract from the quality of his garments and the integrity of his brand. “Being subtle is incredibly underrated” he observes, adding that truly well-dressed men – even in a style mecca like New York – are thin on the ground because too many deliberate dressers “tend to overdo it.” This is where his moderating guidance benefits even his more seasoned and enthusiastic clients.
Classic men’s clothing has always been a didactic subject, and in the age of #menswear an increasingly pedantic one. Manolo is something of a throwback to a time when a man of means could just show up and trust that his avuncular salesman or grumpy tailor had already done all the homework (recall that Apparel Arts was a trade publication) so he didn’t have to. Where’s the fun in that, you ask? Costa estimates that 85 per cent of his clients might well respond “Who’s got time for anything else?” The current menswear revival may have been catalyzed by dedicated dorks burning the midnight oil on Styleforum or showcasing their latest look on Instagram, but the bread and butter of the trade itself has always been lawyers, businessmen, and other professionals: men who want to look their best, and make sufficient dosh to buy the best, but who don’t necessarily have the time or interest to make a hobby of it.
For these men, Manolo teaches by example. He describes “confidence” as the most essential element of style – the ability to be comfortable in your clothes, to know what works for you and what doesn’t. He’s very good at helping you figure this out, and it’s hard not to trust him because he’s done such an impressive job on himself. With his precise yet relaxed manner and flawless non-fussy elegance, he kind of IS the aspiration. Become one of Manolo’s clients and he’s less your wizened guru than your ladykiller wingman. Try to imagine a young Ralph Lauren giving you a personal style consultation and have you some idea of the kind of experience Manolo strives to offer. (Having formerly managed the Purple Label and Black Label floors at the Rhinelander Mansion, he’s learned from the best).
Costa takes a client’s measurements himself, which he then sends along with the selected cloth to what he initially described as “his workshop in Brooklyn.” I couldn’t help but suspect that this was a discreetly veiled reference to the Martin Greenfield factory. There wouldn’t have been any shame in this, of course, as Greenfield supplies the vast majority of the menswear offered by NYC ateliers heralding local production, but for precisely that reason it’s not particularly exclusive.
In fact, Costa is the sole non-artisanal partner of a new collective of tailors (most formerly employed by Greenfield’s erstwhile Queens competitor Rocco Ciccarelli) who have recently opened their own workshop in Williamsburg. Having never heard of this new operation, I eagerly accepted Manolo’s invitation to visit, and found it filled with sunshine, walls of individual brown paper patterns, and plenty of wisecracking old Italians. I’m pretty sure a good deal of my personal wardrobe was made years ago by these men, and I can attest to their craftsmanship. The late tailor and designer Michele Savoia once explained to me that the quality of clothing produced by a factory (he himself worked out of Ciccarelli) can vary considerably depending on how closely the work is guided and monitored: some designers and labels go to great lengths to do this (Savoia cited Thom Browne as an example), and others don’t. Costa is of the former camp, which has clearly endeared him to his grizzled partners, even if they do bust his chops for not always bearing a bottle of wine when he visits.
Given both its fully-bespoke local production and the value Manolo himself brings to his clients in terms of counsel and appointment only-service, Costa’s clothing is quite reasonably priced. Suits start at $2,600, sportcoats at $2,400, trousers at $700, and fully bespoke shirts at $255, with a two-garment minimum. He also carries a tightly edited collection of ties he has made in Italy (“three of each style – I think three is a good number for ties”) and a small assortment of Italian knits in “iconic styles” (“like Cary Grant’s striped sweater in To Catch a Thief”). Costa also currently offers a small line of what he considers the “four essential shoes” (tassel loafer, suede captoe, double monk, and wingtip, all $1,125) by Barcelona maker Norman Vilalta, and has partnered with Gaziano & Girling for a new line this coming season.
Manolo holds seasonal trunk shows in Los Angeles (where he spends as much time as possible working on that tan), and he hopes to one day open a location in London (where he believes men’s style could use a little freshening up), but for now you can only get the full Manolo Costa experience by appointment in New York.
Enquiries: Manolo Costa New York,130 ¼ East 65th Street,New York, NY 10065 / www.manolocosta.com