GIORGIO SERMONETA RESPONSIBLE FOR THE WORLD’S MOST DIVINE GLOVES, IN EVERY CONCEIVABLE HUE. Caroline Davies TRAVELS TO ROME FOR AN AUDIENCE WITH THE WORLD’S SUPREME GANTIER
When I arrive in Giorgio Sermoneta’s flagship store in Rome, things get off to a slightly unnerving start. Squeezing into the multi-coloured glove store – floor to ceiling of outstretched elegant hands, greens, yellows, browns and blacks, studs and bows, cut-outs and ruffles – I muscle my way over to what Google images had promised me must be Sermoneta. Bright blue eyes, square figure, neatly cut white hair and a serious mouth. I tap him on the shoulder.
He looks blank.
“Me? I don’t work here. You’ll have to ask someone over there. I’m just browsing.”
There is an awkward pause as I hurriedly scan the room. The serious mouth twitches then beams and the blue eyes crinkle. “I got you then!”
Before I have time to force a relieved laugh, he says we are heading off for lunch. I follow, past the browsing crowds into the glaring sunshine. Sermoneta’s first glove shop could hardly be in a more perfect location. In the shadow of the Spanish steps, its rainbow colours and glowing reputation attracts passers by and those in the know. While the
tourists marvel at the sheer number of ways you can decorate a hand, connoisseurs march to the front desk for the owner’s advice. Wise decision. Were it not for a helping (well-dressed) hand, you could easily spend hours hypnotically running through the options. Some wide-eyed, open-mouthed wanderers in the corner look like they might have done just that. Carefully crafted, beautifully dyed and exquisitely designed, Sermoneta gloves have graced some of the most influential hands in business, fashion, music, film and politics. Without knowing it, you have watched them seduce and enrapture, part a crowd and denounce dictators. With that sort of power, you had better pick the right pair.
And if you were looking for a guide to gloves, you would be hard pressed to find one more knowledgeable or experienced than Giorgio Sermoneta. He first established his glove business in 1964 after he left the army at the age of 21. Keen to make his own mark away from the family business, he adopted the idea of glove making from his 17-year-old girlfriend’s family, now his wife. With little experience in business or gloves, Sermoneta relied on his wits and wide-eyed creativity to pull him through.
“When I started, I knew nothing about gloves. I was surrounded by monsters in the business,” he says. “Big names. It was like a comedian between mummies. They were old, dedicating their gloves to blue blood; they had only black and brown leather. We wanted to bring something new.”
It isn’t particularly difficult to imagine Sermoneta as the only one refusing to take glovemaking quite so seriously. We take our seats on a busy side street tucked moments from the Piazza di Spagna, but no sooner have we sat down then Sermoneta is up, greeting friends who pass by in streaming Italian, always ending with a husky laugh and a teasing joke as he waves them on. Unfortunately, to start with, Italy didn’t seem to like his sense of humour.
“At the beginning it was very, very, very, very difficult,” he says, fixing me with a serious stare, emphasising each “very” with a soft bang on the table. “Then I started to find a new way to do business.”
Before I can venture a guess, Semoneta continues.“Tourists!” he says, triumphantly. “They want to buy gifts for their family, maybe five, 10 people to make happy, but they do not have much space in their suitcase. Gloves are very easy, very easy to carry. People started saying to people ‘Go to Sermoneta.”’And this is how I started.”
Trade picked up rapidly.
“I remember the time we didn’t even go to lunch. Starting from 9 o’clock in the morning to 8 o’clock in the evening,” he says of the early days. “No lunch.”
The waiter approaches our table with a hefty maroon coloured menu. Sermoneta waves it away and orders several plates of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil and a mysterious local dish of spaghetti and pancetta, mixed in front of your eyes in a hollowed out bowl of hard parmesan.“
Do you like cheese?” He asks. I nod. He gives me an approving smile.
In his time, Sermoneta has seen many stores come and go. What is the secret to his success?
“Nobody is perfect,” he says. “Something could happen to a Mercedes, a 777 plane, anything, so we give a guarantee. Even from Rome, Japan, Australia and we still do it. We always put our customer first.”
It probably helps that Sermoneta is an outstanding salesman. Watching him at work is a marvel. As smooth as his leather, he glances at each hand, perhaps gives one a small squeeze then burrows into the rolls of gloves tucked in the shelves behind him, barking ‘what length?’ over his shoulder. Finger gloves to elbow length, embellished or classic; with a no nonsense, experienced tone, he will cut down your options, flicking through the layers of leather hands as though they were pages of a notebook.
“The first pair of gloves you have should be black, because you can do so many things. You can go to a party, an opera, they go with everything, even if you don’t like black,” He says. “Then you can progress.”
And goodness, is there room for progress. The sheer variety is impressive. I ask Sermoneta where his ideas come from.
“Sometimes I wake up in the night, make a little sketch and go back to sleep,” he says. “I came up with the idea of the iPhone touch glove which everyone is copying. This year, I’m doing denim.”
You can see how a love for gloves can become an easy habit to slip into. Some visitors return so regularly that they become friends. When she was U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright once diverted her cavalcade simply so she could pop by to say hello.
“I was in my store in New York,” he says. “There was one lady trying on gloves while her friend smoked a cigar outside the window. I came out and started talking to her. ‘Do you like gloves?’ I asked. ‘I have a pair of gloves my father left me 30 years ago. They are so worn. No one in the world can make these gloves.’ I asked to see them and she pulled out a pair of beautiful chicory yellow gloves, so used and damaged they looked like they should be in a museum. ‘It is easy. I will make them for you, but I don’t want to be paid. Give me your name and address and I will deliver them’ ‘Annie Leibovitz.’ I didn’t realise who she was. She was so happy though.”
Despite the variety of celebrated hands that now boast Sermoneta’s gloves, he realises that gloves are not for everyone.
“If they don’t match your personality or your dress, it is better not to wear them at all,” he says. “It is like having chocolate on a pizza. Disgusting. When you see certain people who have matched their gloves correctly you can say ‘There is a gentleman with a capital G.’”
We stroll out onto the afternoon sunset streets of Rome, Sermoneta chatting to tourists – even once bursting into Japanese – waving at shop keepers, punching the arm of a passing leather goods man.
“Now you have had a long day, I think you must have an ice-cream.” He does not, however, have gloves designed specifically for ice-cream consumption. Yet.