This isn’t an article about Il Campionissimo, but about Il Grande Fausto. There is a difference.
Yes, the beautiful wool jersey pictured, all baby blue and white, button-down chest pockets, wing collar and a heavy mix (by modern standards) of 50 per cent wool and 50 per cent acrylic, is the jersey with which Fausto Coppi is irrevocably associated, as Merckx is with Molteni.
Our focus here, however, is the jersey, not the man. And not even the man’s jersey, come to that, but a replica - one of 650 wool garments made by Santini for a TV movie produced by RAI in the early 1990s. We return to Il Grande Fausto.
Monica Santini, managing director of the venerable Santini Maglifico Sportivo, and daughter of founder Pietro Santini, laughs when we remind her of the project.
“My father, of course, was more than willing to cooperate, even if our involvement was not as easy as they made us believe at the beginning.
“The movie took more or less 10 months to be shot, and it wasn’t a case of, ‘This is a list of our requirements. Thanks for talking to us. Ciao.’ Over those nine or ten months they decided, ‘Oh, to shoot this particular scene, we need a local team, a regional team and a French team’ - all completely unknown!
“We had to continuously reproduce things for the whole length of the movie. It was a big job for us. In total, we made more than 650 jerseys and bib-shorts and pants - 650 items, most of them different from one another.”
The culture shock for a brand that now manufactures almost exclusively in polyester was not as great as might be expected. In the early 1990s, Santini were still supplying clients with orders for wool jerseys. And with staff on the premises of more than 40 years’ service, many of whom by then might have considered their days of working with wool over, the journey back to the past was easily navigated. The time-served staff members taught the newer recruits.
(A side note: Santini has still not left wool behind completely. Monica reports that the brand makes “hundreds of thousands” of the official jerseys for the various international editions of L’Eroica, for example.)
Il Grande Fausto covered the Campionissimo’s career from the 1940s until his death, and so several different jerseys were made for the ‘Fausto’ character. The jersey pictured, with wing collar, buttoned down at the back and buttoned chest and rear pockets, represents the Bianchi era: a ten-year, post-war rule that spanned from 1945 to 1955.
The jersey’s technical high point is the beautifully embroidered Bianchi lettering on the chest, a technique known variously as “chain embroidery” or “Cornelli embroidery”, achieved, unsurprisingly, with a Cornelli machine.
The design would be sketched onto perforated paper and baby powder shaken through the holes onto the fabric, Monica explains. Machine operators would then trace the powdered outline of the letters. “It was very long work,” she says.
The jersey feels heavy even to hold. It is an 50 per cent wool, 50 per cent acrylic mix, though garments of the period might have had an even greater acrylic component.
“Even at that time, the wool used for sportswear was different from the wool used for normal production, because of the stress,” Monica says. “They used a type of wool which was considered sportwool, and normally the percentages were 80 per cent, or even 50 per cent wool and 50 per cent acrylic.”
Jerseys were only part of the order placed with Santini by the film’s producers. Wool bib-shorts and pants were also required. The shorts required a special machine to produce a very thin yarn to provide the shorts with a certain elasticity, but not so thin that they became see-through.
Dorset-based Prendas Ciclismo has a close working relationship with Santini, and bought many of the jerseys produced for the film.
For Prendas’ Andy Storey, a connoisseur of the cycling jersey, the Grande Fausto jerseys serve as a barometer of changing taste. The first polyester jersey with sublimated print arrived in the peloton in the early 1980s (Storey identifies Castelli’s jersey for Renault in 1984 as the debut one), and by the early 1990s, the punter wanted nothing else.
“It’s fair to say, it was a bit of a disaster,” he recalls of Prendas’ attempts to sell the Grande Fausto jerseys. “People just didn’t want them.”
How times have changed. Sportwools have improved and merino has become almost de rigueur among a discerning segment of the cycling market. Prendas currently stocks a Bianchi-Campangolo jersey, made from an 50/50 mix of wool and acrylic. It remains a high value, low volume item.
The last word must go to Pietro Santini, or via his daughter, at least. Was the old man impressed by the film?
“He likes everything related to cycling,” Monica laughs. “He can spend days and days watching not only movies, but above all, old races. We find him watching old races on TV.”
And would Santini embark on a similar project again?
“We did it on a smaller scale,” she remembers. “A few years later, they did a movie about [Gino] Bartali. It wasn’t as successful as Il Grande Fausto, but we produced all the jerseys for that.”