The Man Behind the $100,000 Sport Coat

Illustration by Michael Houtz; Photograph by Noah Johnson

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The first time Geoffrey B. Small really got my attention, it was with an email sent in January 2020. I had just arrived in Paris for Men’s Fashion Week, and an invite to his show hit my inbox. In a big bold font at the top of the email it read “Just another Boston guy.” Funny name for a show, I thought. I couldn’t think of any designers from Boston. Then, under that header it read: “The single most expensive clothing piece being presented in all of Paris men’s fashion week.” The cognitive dissonance between those two things made me curious enough to attend.

I had known a little about Small before this. I knew that he was a god to some artisanal fashion obsessives. For connoisseurs of handmade clothing, Small’s work is a pinnacle of its kind, like a dinner at Noma, or a Patek Phillip Tourbillon watch. That is to say, it’s complicated and very expensive.

The “clothing piece” in question that he was showing that week was an “extreme handmade” sport coat that Small had fashioned from pure Vicuna and outfitted with diamond buttons. A “supercoat,” Small called it, the garment was hand-dyed—risky when you’re dealing with a fabric that can cost over $3,200 per yard—in a pattern reminiscent of tie-dye in deep shades of red. The price tag was nearly $110,000.

“We do bosswear,” Small told me recently. “We’re making clothes for the guys that run things.” His clients, he says, are Fortune 500 chiefs and other titans of industry that prefer his clothing to the Loro Piana and Brunello Cucinelli fare you’d typically find on the world’s business elite. There are some celebrities who wear the Geoffrey B. Small label, too. Usually the hyper-discerning and image-conscious sorts, like Jeremy Strong and Brad Pitt. But the beating heart of the GBS universe is actually the fashion-obsessed purists, those who also worship at the foot of other obscure visionaries like Martin Margiela or Paul Harnden. “The clients that we’re targeting,” Small says, “they’re not just rich people, they’re smart. I design clothes for smart people. That’s why the clothes are so intricate and there’s so much that goes into them because smart people like that. That’s what they like in their music, that’s what they like in their home, that’s what they like in their life.”

I met Small backstage after that Paris show in 2020. I had to fight my way through the mob of fans to reach him. He is indeed a guy from Boston. He’s 64, with long stringy brown hair parted down the middle and one misaligned eye that gives him the slightly unsettling appearance of a cartoon madman. Later, I would have the opportunity to visit him at his studio outside of Venice, Italy, and confirm that he is, in fact, a madman. He is as fiercely driven and staunchly principled a designer as you’ll find working in fashion today. As he should be, because the clothes he makes and the kind of business he is attempting to build require nothing less.

“We do bosswear. We’re making clothes for the guys that run things.”

Small’s ambition matches his bravado. When we first met, he told me, matter-of-factly, that he is “just creating the most exceptional designer clothing that can be done by human beings today.” That confidence is helping Small position his label within a category of his own creation: a kind of hyper-luxury space that he’s inventing as he goes. To be sure, Geoffrey B. Small poses no great threat to the status quo of the luxury fashion market—he’s not really trying to. Small is up to something different. And this is why I think he’s worth paying attention to.

The world doesn’t need more self-regarding designers with big mouths and lofty ambitions. The world needs innovators and restless creatives, full of original ideas and hard-earned skills and the steadfast determination to use them. Innovation on the fringe leads is what moves things forward. For decades, Small has been proposing a different way of making clothes. And he’s been helping to support a network of the world’s greatest artisans and craftspeople along the way. He’s not just making clothes for a small community of extremely wealthy fashion freaks, he’s creating the opportunity for the fashion system to compete with him.

The first thing Geoffrey B. Small points out to me as we enter the factory of his Italian headquarters is the lighting on the ceiling, thin rows of LEDs made by an Austrian manufacturer called Zumtobel. It’s the same lighting rig, he tells me, that Ferrari uses in its Italian factories. The moment is a reminder that Small is not modeling his business on what other fashion labels are doing. When he looks out on the designer and luxury fashion landscape, he doesn’t see any peers.

“We’re the only ones that do this,” he tells me, proudly and without even a flicker of doubt. “And we know it, because we know how difficult it is to have a production system that’s capable of doing this level of complexity.”

Geoffrey B. Small does almost everything at a very high level of complexity. He doesn’t just make clothes, he makes “extreme handmade design superclothes.” And the facility he owns and operates in Cavarzere, a town 20 miles southwest of Venice, isn’t just a studio or a factory; he calls it the GBS Superworkroom. The retailers that sell his designs are referred to as GBS Superdealers. Small is a prolific and eloquent advocate for his work. He’s quick to find analogies for the level of precision and complexity he’s mastered. As he guides me through the Superworkroom, he not only references Ferrari, but Patek Phillipe and the world’s best restaurants—“The equivalent is a Michelin three star restaurant,” Small says. “This is a kitchen and we make some of the best plates in the world.”

<cite class="credit">Courtesy of Geoffrey B. Small</cite>
Courtesy of Geoffrey B. Small
<cite class="credit">Courtesy of Geoffrey B. Small</cite>
Courtesy of Geoffrey B. Small

Another comparison he likes to make is to Christian Koenigsegg, the founder of the ultra-high-end Swedish carmaker Koenigsegg Automotive. “He makes the fastest homologated automobiles in the world,” Small says. “They build 10, 20 cars. They sell them for $2 or 3 million apiece. We have a similar approach. They focused on a certain part of the market, which is demanding more and more excellence, more and more technology, more and more research, more and more quality.”

This fixation with quality and with controlling pretty much every aspect of his business was central to Small’s mission when he moved with his wife and twin children to Italy in 2001. He had worked for the previous twenty years as a tailor and designer in Boston, and had shown his work in Paris for years. Eventually, he did what many of his contemporaries did, and he entered a licensing deal with an Italian firm that would produce, finance, and distribute his collection. That deal fell apart in 2001, and Small realized that to continue designing and producing clothes independently at the level he wanted, he’d have to be in Italy himself. He started in an apartment in Cavarzere, where he began making artisanal clothing in very small quantities, producing no more than 500 pieces per season.

“The equivalent is a Michelin three star restaurant. This is a kitchen and we make some of the best plates in the world.”

“It’s small numbers for a normal production brand,” Small says. “But you have to think that the average value of each piece is much, much higher, the average amount of time and investment. And we know there’s a customer out there that digs this.”

Slowly, Small expanded his artisanal fashion empire. He rented two additional apartments in the same building to use as workrooms, which contained his business until 2013, when he moved into a larger residence that had more than 1,000-square-feet of work space.

In 2021, Small moved his expanding operation again, this time into the 3,000-square-foot industrial building where we’re now talking. The Superworkroom is a remarkable project of its own, the result of decades spent in the business of producing clothes. The new space offered room for a production facility that could meet his exacting standards, house his extensive archive of samples and fabrics (which he keeps in an enormous vault behind a very thick, bank-style metal door), and establish a permanent showroom. Today, the Superworkroom has 25 employees, but still makes only 1,800 pieces per year.

I point out that he might consider increasing production just slightly, bringing a few more guys into the GBS world. “No, we can’t do that,” Small is quick to say. “That’s the trust. These guys, this client, they don’t give a shit what the price is. So the pact, the agreement is to stay true to the mission, to keep giving them more, to raise the price if we need to, but make the piece even better than the last one. And the minute we waiver from that, we’re dead. We can’t lower the standard. We have to raise them. And that’s not easy.”

Small’s whole idea is to use the best possible materials and the most intensive processes. His gamble is that the extremely high levels of difficulty required to produce his pieces—and their correspondingly exorbitant costs—are exactly what makes his business viable.

“What we’ve done is we’ve gotten very, very into the engineering of clothing,” Small says. “Instead of being a look or an image or a fashion or a trend—which turns a lot of really powerful and wealthy people off—show me something that’s really, really built incredibly. Show me a Patek Philippe. And I can understand that. Okay, that’s our guy. That’s our client.”

I asked Eugene Rabkin, founder of the fashion magazine StyleZeitgeist, which has profiled and supported the work of Geoffrey B. Small for years, who he thinks the GBS customer is. “A lot of artists and musicians and people in those industries who wouldn’t be caught dead in a traditional suit, but they love quality and they want to look interesting,” he says. “The thing about artists is they’re rich, but they don’t want to look rich.”

<cite class="credit">Courtesy of Darklands Berlin</cite>
Courtesy of Darklands Berlin

I reached out to one of GBS’s largest accounts, Darklands in Berlin, to ask who they see gravitating toward Small’s particular vision for clothing. Campbell McDougall, the shop’s owner, tells me, “We dress rock stars to investment bankers in GBS. At a risk of generalizing, they are free-thinking, art loving individualists that rebuff the large, over-marketed fashion houses for something smaller, more exclusive, more quality-oriented and with more integrity. In the end, people want to buy something that they feel represents them and that they feel good about getting behind.”

Producing clothes that elicit such feelings requires manufacturing in a unique way. To the laymen, the GBS Superworkroom looks relatively similar to any high-end clothing factory, but closer inspection reveals a few innovations that you won’t see anywhere else. The main room is a large, open floor plan that’s divided into distinct work stations. Each station is for one specific task, but Small does not operate an assembly line. “Each one of these is a special station we’ve designed over the years to make single pieces, one person at a time,” he says. This process is similar to how Hermés makes a handbag. “We’re not doing line production. Each tailor makes a complete piece. That’s important for overall quality, but it’s also really important for the personal satisfaction of the people making it.”

At one station a woman is hand-stitching the buttonholes on a shirt. “We spend 10, 15 minutes for one button hole,” Small says. “A coat might have 10 buttonholes. 150 minutes. It’s two and a half hours of work.” Using a machine, it wouldn’t take more than a couple minutes to sew all the button holes. “Yeah,” Small says. “We’re not in Moldavia.”

In the back of the studio there is a woman working by herself in a small room that appears to be some kind of kitchen, full of stainless steel appliances that I do not recognize—one of them is a 150-liter Berto boiling pan. It can boil 150 liters of water in just a few minutes. “This is the most unique hand-dyeing and fabric-treatment operation in the business,” Small says. It seems hyperbolic—how could he know?—but I’m sitting here looking at some exquisite silk fabric hanging to dry after being tinted a glorious shade of yellow in a vat of turmeric water, realizing that it doesn’t really matter. What’s undeniable is that Small is pushing the boundaries of artisanally crafted clothing. He’s attempting to do things that no one else can do, things that will improve the quality and impact of clothes production. He believes this is important to his clients. I believe it is important to the future of fashion.

One of Small’s enduring obsessions is exclusivity. It’s why this hand-dying business is so important—no two pieces will be the same. This emphasis on uniqueness has been an important part of his practice since the beginning. Small’s early success came making bespoke suits as a high-end tailor on Newbury Street in Boston, designing for such illustrious clients as the then Governor of Massachusetts, Bonnie Raitt, and New Kids on the Block. But he had a developing interest in avant garde fashion—Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto had created a global sensation—and he pivoted to creating his own line of experimental clothes with a novel new concept. The entire collection was made using recycled garments, and he started showing the collection on runways in Paris in 1992. (Small is quick to point out that he wasn’t the first to do this. “Martin Margiela was the first,” he says, “but we took it to another level.”)

Small does claim to be the first designer in Paris to introduce pieces that “specifically address global warming and climate change,” but his recycled collections came long before anyone was throwing around the term sustainability, and they served an entirely different purpose: “Even back then we had to offer exclusivity,” he says. “The stores wanted unique pieces the competitors wouldn’t have.”

It’s the same impulse that drives his hyper-small production today. For some styles in the GBS collection, only two pieces will ever be made. Orders are produced one at a time—so if two stores want to carry the same shirt, those shirts will be made separately, and finished with different details.

The crown jewel of the Geoffrey B. Small operation is a chest full of buttons that sits in near the center of the studio, close to Small’s desk. “Buttons for us is a real art,” Small says. “So in this, we’ve got €50,000 of button inventory. This is critical. People have no idea. Most designers have no idea how important the buttons are.”

Most of Small’s buttons are made by Fontana, a small, family-run Italian button-maker. “They’re fucking geniuses,” he says. His reverence for the makers he works with is intense. These materials are as important to him as his designs, if not more. He shows me a piece of cashmere laying on a table. “This is made by Piacenza,” he says. “Founded in 1733. They’re in their eighth generation of family management. This is Breath—it’s pure Alashan. It’s the lightest cashmere suiting made in the world, 170 grams.”

Small’s business hinges on these suppliers, and he treats them like legends: Como silks from the Brena family. Viscose linings from Ezio Ghiringhelli in Baresi. Hand-woven fabrics by the Colombo family. “Carlos, the son,” Small says. “The father of Pino, passed away a few years ago.” Each supplier has a story and Small knows them all. “These guys are down in the Provincia Treviso about an hour from here on. It’s a three-generation family in this place.”

The last area of the Superworkroom Small shows me is the special orders department. This one-person studio-in-studio is committed entirely to building wardrobes for a handful of high-profile clients. This is where the suit that Jeremy Strong wore to the Emmy Awards in 2020 was made. During my visit, finishing touches were being put on a tux to be sent overnight to an actor attending an awards show.

Small quickly moves us past this area so I don’t take too long staring at the wall with pictures of famous men pinned all over it. “We never talk about or divulge our clientele in special order,” he says. “We have to keep it discreet because we’re not sponsoring. They’re buying and they’re paying a lot of money, and it’s up to them if they want to say who made the piece, but it’s not up to us to promote it.”

<cite class="credit">Courtesy of Geoffrey B. Small</cite>
Courtesy of Geoffrey B. Small

It’s easy to read in Small’s bravado a kind of vitriol toward the fashion industry—to detect a resentment over being overlooked, despite purposefully working outside of the system. “Is he mad at the fashion system? Sure,” Rabkin tells me. “But he set out to prove you can build an independent house and you don’t need the fashion system. He realized that the only way he could compete is to make better clothing.”

For all his strong opinions about the fashion world, Small doesn’t strike me as particularly spiteful. It just seems that he wants to set the record straight. He wants to be sure that his contributions to the fashion canon are not forgotten or overlooked. He’s put his entire working life into his company, into his exacting vision of menswear excellence—and he’s done so precisely at a moment in history when the large fashion houses and well-funded corporate behemoths were paying enormous new attention to the market. It would be understandable for him to worry about his efforts being overshadowed. But Small’s contributions are very real. He’s applying old-world techniques to extremely modern ideas about fashion. He’s sourcing materials from mom-and-pop makers that would be in perilous positions without Small’s business. And he’s experimenting with the very substance of luxury—I don’t think anyone else on the planet is hand-dying Vicuña the way Small is. Small’s contributions are important to fashion the way that the contributions of all avant-garde and experimental designers are important. Not because they reach huge masses of people, but because their ideas and innovations change the course of fashion even if you can’t find them on the biggest runways, or in the biggest department stores.

“I think we can say it now, we’ve got something that it’s the next level beyond. They can’t do it on the haute couture, they can’t do it in Savile Row. We’re talking about the most advanced hand-made clothing designer factory in the world.”

Above all, Small just wants to offer a different kind of argument about how menswear gets made. He wants to show that there’s room for a madman like him; he wants to exemplify artistry and fierce independence and exacting standards and he wants to do it all on his terms.

“I think we can say it now, we’ve got something that it’s the next level beyond,” he says. “They can’t do it on the haute couture, they can’t do it in Savile Row. We’re talking about the most advanced hand-made clothing designer factory in the world.”

<cite class="credit">Courtesy of Geoffrey B. Small</cite>
Courtesy of Geoffrey B. Small
<cite class="credit">Courtesy of Geoffrey B. Small</cite>
Courtesy of Geoffrey B. Small

It may not be for everyone—it can’t be. It’s too expensive, and there isn’t enough of it. But as lofty as he can be, as impossibly lavish and excessive as the clothes may seem, Small loves to return to the simple things that clothes should be—long lasting, great value. This is why he adds extra fabric to the waistbands of his trousers, so they can be let out. He uses the best natural materials he can find, not just because they are luxurious, but because they are good for your body. “When you have plastic in garments,” he says, “your body feels it.” Small pushes the limits, but the essence of his business makes a lot of sense. He will make a Vicuña overcoat with diamond buttons that costs $110,000, but then he will say something that is just diabolically pragmatic. At one point he shows me an all-silk puffer parka from a recent collection, explaining that the process he used to create the silk batting was first developed in ancient China during the Ming Dynasty. As for what occasion could possible befit such a grand jacket, he has some very simple advice: “On airplanes these are fantastic.”

Noah Johnson is GQ’s Global Style Director.

Originally Appeared on GQ