When Rome’s Cinecitta Studios were known as Hollywood on the Tiber during the 1950s and ’60s, Alvaro Grassi, whose family had been tailors for countless generations, created the body armor for “Cleopatra” and “Ben-Hur.”
These days his sons Augusto and Giampaolo are busy on the Cinecitta lot with HBO’s “Rome,” for which Augusto is costume supervisor, overseeing a 4,000-piece wardrobe made entirely with fabrics and designs true to ancient times, while Giampaolo is the skein’s leathermaster, crafting breastplates and battle bodices that bolster the hubris of the current Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) and his legionaries.
Though a dying breed, the Grassis belong to a group of highly honed artisans and craftsmen, whose traditional skills are etched in family DNA, making the Eternal City unique when it comes to superior wardrobe design, ranging from war helmets and chain-mail tunics to feather hats and silk corsets.
“You can get other craftsmen around the world, but not with the skill that these guys have,” says HBO costume designer April Ferry.
Indeed, while Cinecitta no longer lures as many Hollywood pics as in its heyday, the craftsmen connected to the studios still rep a magnet for Yank tentpoles, especially for period-pieces like Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” which was shot entirely on its sprawling lot.
Augusto is especially proud that for “Rome” just about everything has been tailor-made to Ferry’s specifications. “We haven’t rented one pair of shoes,” he boasts. His team designed the models for the 1,250 pairs of shoes and sandals, which were made in Bulgaria, where labor is cheaper. They selected the raw cotton, linen, wool and silk fabrics that are being hand-dyed, then cut and tailored, on set.
Just about the only items “Rome” did rent were some elaborate hats worn by members of the ancient Pythian sect, manufactured by local hatmaker Bruno Pieroni, a Roman craftsman who also harks from age-old tradition and sells his wares to costume designers all over the world.
While the Grassis picked up their skills as children playing in their father’s workshop as he collaborated extensively with Federico Fellini and Franco Zeffirelli, among other locals — besides working with Hollywood helmers — the brothers bemoan that today too few are willing to further their tradition.
“We are desperately looking for others to follow in our footsteps. Our craft is becoming extinct because nobody wants to put in the time, patience and elbow grease,” Augusto laments. Both have worked outside Italy on high-profile pics including “Troy.”
It took Giampaolo Grassi about a week to complete each of Caesar’s breastplates, fashioned from custom-made Italian leather dyed on set using traditional techniques, with no modern plastics or glues.
But the younger of the Grassis, who is among the world’s few true leathermasters, is also happy to tackle new sartorial challenges such as fashioning a glam wolf-and-rabbit furcoat for Atia of the Julii (Polly Walker).
“I’ve been doing this for 18 years and I’m still having fun,” he says.
Luca Giampaoli, who began his career with “Gladiator,” takes a similar pride in his metal-working skills. Descending from generations of silversmiths, jewelers and mint engravers who made medals for the Vatican, he has been alternating “fake” and “real” metalwork for about two decades.
On “Rome” Giampaoli forged helmets, buckles, belts and military insignia. He also made the jewels worn by Attia, Niobe (Indira Varma), Octavia (Kerry Condon) and other patrician dames.
But Giampaoli’s on-set accomplishments aren’t everything. He sometimes takes on gigs outside the moviemaking realm, such as designing the medal for the 2002 America’s Cup sailing race.
Due to the difficulty these days in finding apprentices with his same dedication to the craft, Luca has but one assistant. “If they don’t want to learn, I certainly don’t want to teach them,” he says.
The problem, per Augusto Grassi, is that “there are lots of youngsters out there who claim to be costume designers, but don’t even know what a clothes hanger is.”