Handmade ties from southern Italy with a British twist
Film star Marcello Mastroianni, John F. Kennedy, even Prince Charles -- all have donned handmade ties from one shop in Naples so famed for its artisanal finery some devotees boast thousands.
The painstaking needlework cannot be rushed, despite demand for E. Marinella ties usually far outstripping production.
In Naples, the tiny shop near the sea remains much as it was when it opened in 1914, with its wood-framed windows, chandelier, and counter where the red, blue, polka dot or diamond-patterned ties are displayed.
Maurizio Marinella, 64, who is the third generation to head up the company, says his family's success in the southern Italian city, which struggles with poverty and unemployment, was "a kind of miracle".
"It all started in 20 square metres in Naples, where everything is a little more difficult than elsewhere," he told AFP.
Maurizio's grandfather Eugenio wanted to create "a little corner of England in Naples" in this city with its view of Mount Vesuvius, offering men's shirts and accessories with fabrics shipped directly across the Channel.
Little by little, however, the tie became Marinella's signature piece.
The silk is still hand-printed in Macclesfield, England, and the ties themselves are sewn by hand in a workshop close to the boutique, which employs 20 seamstresses.
Loyal customer Rudy Girardi has been frequenting the shop since his late teens and now boasts "thousands of Marinella ties", costing from between 130 to 215 euros.
"The tie is fundamental," he says, as a sign of "respect", and he loves Marinella for its "maniacal care for every detail".
He changes his ties several times a day, selecting a colourful one in the morning, something a little more institutional in the afternoon, and an elegant option for upmarket dinners.
Each Marinella tie takes about 45 minutes to make, with ten steps in all, from cutting the silk to doing the stitching, and adding the loop and label.
"It's precision work, comparable to that of a goldsmith. We work on half-millimetres," says Maria Rosaria Guarino, 60, who has worked for the company for 38 years.
Customers can personalise the length, width or thickness of the ties.
Every day, about 150 ties are produced. But the demand pre-coronavirus crisis was much higher -- as much as double or even triple. And in the three months leading up to Christmas, it could be "as high as 900 ties a day", Marinella said.
The company had ruled out making more, however, saying it would compromise quality. "Each tie is a unique work of art", he says, admitting that "quality is almost an obsession" for him.
Personalities from all over the world have donned the ties, including Chancellor Helmut Kohl -- a "giant for whom we made ties 65 centimetres longer than normal".
Almost every day, Sunday included, from 6.30am, Marinella is at the shop to "welcome, pamper the customers, offer them coffee", in the pure Neapolitan tradition.
While the brand had a turnover of 18 million euros in 2019, it is expected to suffer a "significant" drop this year because of the coronavirus epidemic, which forced the shop to close, stopped tourism and saw many formal events cancelled.
The sector has suffered in general, even before the pandemic.
Exports of ties, bow ties and neckties fell by 10 percent between 2015 and 2019, with Chinese products making up 46.5 percent of the market, compared to 13.6 percent for Italy, according to the International Trade Centre (ITC). Fads are to blame: youngsters have gone off ties, and some big firms and banks have made wearing one optional.
"Fortunately, fashions are cyclical. Lately we've seen a bit of a shift away from street wear to classic fashion, where the tie is the cardinal point," notes 25-year-old Alessandro Marinella, who represents the company's fourth generation.
He wants to shift the house's focus "towards a 'total look', including women's wear", a move begun a few years ago, so that the humble tie now represents less than half the company's turnover -- though all of its reputation.