To describe the design philosophy behind his collections at Italian menswear brand Brioni, Norbert Stumpfel invokes the work of Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati. In particular, Villa Alem in rural Portugal, a monolithic modern house inspired by the 14th-century Court of the Myrtle in Granada’s historic Alhambra. Slanted walls around the exterior give the appearance of the house opening up “like a shoebox,” as Stumpfl describes, while the rectangular reflecting pool at Court of the Myrtles has been replaced with an elongated pool built into a stark concrete courtyard. Olgiatti said he wanted a place where he and his wife could feel “abandoned.”
“It’s very discounted, it’s very powerful,” Stumpfel says from his sparse, white-walled office in Brioni’s headquarters in Piazza San Bernardo, a small square on Rome’s historic Quirinal Hill. “It’s something I always go for: this kind of understating, the desire to make something simpler, while leaving a strong image. In the fittings of the collection, we put a lot of detail into trying things out. Then we take things off until we get to the place where (the garment) speaks for itself.” .
It’s an approach derived in part from Stumpfl’s reverence for Brioni’s legendary fabric archive, which currently numbers around 800 pieces and has been at the heart of the Roman house since its founding by master tailor Nazarino Fonticoli and his business partner Gaetano Savini in 1945. Stumpfl says the starting point for his collections “is always the fabrics (which are largely manufactured in Italy, with a handful made in British and Japanese mills), which he hopes will have an appearance of simplicity, as its ease of wear belies the hours of work these materials take to produce.
That’s why he chose a metaphor close to home: Italian cuisine. Having lived in the country since 2019 – immediately following his appointment in September 2018 – the Austrian-born Stumpfel is well-versed in the country’s philosophy of not messing with good ingredients. “Brioni is like an Italian dish,” he smiles. “You have the most amazing ingredients, you do very little with them, and then you get something amazing.”
When Stumpfel began his tenure, Brioni was in a state of flux, going through three creative directors in a short five-year period. Among them was Justin O’Shea, the former fashion director of German e-retailer Mytheresa, who – despite having no formal design experience – undertook a radical makeover for the house in 2016, redesigning the house’s logo in a gothic font and hiring Metallica as brand ambassadors. He will only last six months in this role. His successor, Nina Maria Nietzsche, who had been an employee of the company, also exited the business after less than a year.
However, Stumpfl, who was known to only a few industry insiders, took on the position with more than a decade of design team experience from a range of Parisian fashion houses. He began his career with a Masters in Fashion at Central Saint Martins in London under Louise Wilson – where he met his wife Daphne Karas, who collaborates with Stumpfl on Brioni’s recent womenswear collections – and went on to work in Lanvin’s menswear department under him. Lukas Ossendriver for more than eight years, before taking on roles at Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, and Berluti.
Stumpfl’s tenure at Brioni has seen the designer strike a clever balance between the house’s roots in tailoring – “We have to be very careful with the existing lines because some customers have been customers for 15 or 20 years, so they’re very loyal to the brand” – and a sense of modernity defined by Precise, streamlined designs, physical lightness and ease (most of his tailoring is unstructured and without shoulder pads). For a heritage house, there’s a bit of suffocation. “It’s a little more open and a little more modern.” We know the rules, but we can break them.
Most of the inspiration behind his collections comes from observing the way men dress in Milan and in his travels (“I’m always a bit of a spectator,” he says), as well as his interactions with clients, “listening to what they’re looking for and what’s missing from the collection.” Brioni’s high-profile list of ambassadors includes Jude Law, his son Rafe Law and Brad Pitt. “I have a lot of conversations with them because I want them to feel comfortable. Brad Pitt gave me this advice about dressing in one color – if you don’t know what to wear, wear one color. It’s an easy trick and something I’ve never had in Briony before: a matching blue suit, blue shirt and blue knitwear. She looks fresh again.
Stumpfel says eveningwear has become more “quirky” during his tenure, and is the place for him to express vivid expressions of menswear inspired by the house’s roots in the Italian jet set of the 1950s and 1960s. “In the 1950s, Brioni was a really avant-garde brand,” he says. “When men could only wear evening wear in black, navy or ivory, Briony would go out in fuchsia or canary yellow, or use fine womenswear fabrics, or make a tuxedo out of lace.” That’s how Briony was born, there was always that feeling “With strangeness.” In 2021, Stumpfl designed a gilded tuxedo and matching shirt for Leslie Odom Jr to wear to the Academy Awards, made of woven fabric of golden silk and 24-karat gold thread (a version is now available via the Brioni bespoke service).
“Just ten years ago, people used to say a suit could only be worn with a shirt or tie,” he says. “There is still a client who has to dress very traditionally, but in general there is a change in men’s clothing: the tie is gone, the shirt has been replaced by a beautiful polo shirt in cashmere silk. On a summer day, I wear a jacket over a shirt or a tank top and it looks Very fresh. In the collections, we sometimes put a suit with white socks. It’s all these little changes that make things look more interesting, and push the tailoring process forward as well.
Stumpfl, who has a modest and down-to-earth demeanor, is determined that his collections do not overwhelm the wearers, but rather instill in them a quiet confidence. “It’s a bit of a break from the past, where Briony can feel a little bit untouchable. “I want people to wear clothes and feel completely themselves,” he says. “Clothes that make you feel a little better than you ever expected.”
Brioni Fall/Winter 2023 collection is available from Harrods.
A version of this story appeared in December 2023 Wallpaper Entertainment Issue*available in print starting November 9, on the Wallpaper app* on Apple iOS, and to Apple News+ subscribers. Subscribe to wallpaper* today!