When Hackett opened its first store in Milan earlier this year, the most surprising thing about it might have been that it has taken the British menswear brand 30 years to do so. After all, as its founder Jeremy Hackett puts it: "Italians are the best-dressed Englishmen there are."
The quintessentially English look that Hackett has built a £64 million (Dh360m) company around - grey flannel double-breasted suits, spread-collar shirts, polished Oxfords and polo shirts - is more enthusiastically snapped up in Italy than in native lands.
Certainly Hackett concedes that the brand has "probably romanced that English look a bit".
"Because a plain grey suit is just a plain grey suit. Yet if that English look doesn't really exist as it's imagined, then people certainly like it and extraordinarily so. Distance lends enchantment. I mean, we all love Armani and Prada here in Britain," he says.
Indeed, a curious cultural exchange has long been underway. While a visit to Via Napoleone or Via Veneto reveals a procession of English sartorial fare - loud socks, tweed jackets, country cords, Tattersall checked shirts and Barbours - while on London's Bond Street and Sloane Avenue, one can find the dress benchmarks of the chic Italian: cashmere sweaters draped over bold, high-collared shirts, ankle-skimming trousers and soft loafers. Whereas English menswear has form and propriety, the Italians have pizzazz and panache; one appreciates style etiquette, the other easy living. Might a more considered synthesis of the two - a Britalian look, so to speak - be some form of ideal?
According to Clive Darby, the founder of the menswear brand Rake, that is exactly where smart menswear is heading. Rake's clothing suggests as much, hailing from and reflecting a proper tailoring tradition - after all, Darby owned the Savile Row stalwart store Kilgour - but based around the more Italian idea of separates with half-linings and in lighter-weight fabrics, chosen specifically to work well in warmer climates. And the cross fertilisation works: "No question, the father of the unconstructed style was Armani, but while that ease of wear still appeals, to work now it needs an English touch," he argues. "Too much either of Englishness or Italian style just looks contrived. Somewhere in the middle is just right."
The reasons for this style blending are many: increased travel, often between extremes of climates, benefits from a lighter, softer Italianesque tailoring but, while business dress has loosened its collar, many industries still require a clear element of English conservatism; that dress-down culture means that while men often don't have to wear a suit to work, they are wearing them more for pleasure, outside of work - but then want their tailoring to say as much about fashion as formality and, with men's fashion increasingly international and men more style-aware, a hybrid style - la bella figura meets le style Anglais - more naturally avoids national clichés.
"Anything is better than seeing those stereotypes around, especially when more men are finding their own style, taking ideas from both English and Italian dressing as best suits them," suggests the Italian designer and tailor Luca Rubinacci, whose father - ahead of the curve perhaps - established the menswear business he now runs under the original name of London House. That magpie approach might well have given rise to one of the biggest menswear trends for next season, the so-called "jardigan" - a tailored jacket deconstructed all the way to cardigan-type comfort.
Certainly Rake and Rubinacci are not alone in being a British brand upping the ante on Italian influence, or an Italian one doing the same with a more English touch. Thom Sweeney may be part of a new wave of bespoke tailors in the Savile Row tradition, but its jackets are shorter and trouser legs narrower in the Britalian style. Similarly, the new British designer Adrien Sauvage's approach is one of essentially English classicism given a more exotic Italian edge through the use of, for example, bold prints on suiting with broad lapels, or slim, brightly coloured trousers. "The roped shoulder [of the jacket] is English, the rolled lapel is Naples," as Sauvage puts it.
Zegna, which has a Dubai Mall flagship store and opened another one earlier this year in Riyadh, has created limited-edition windowpane checked suits based on the company's take on English tailoring. And even Angelo Galasso, the designer king of Italian flamboyance with plans to open a store in Dubai, has given his latest collection (for next summer) something of an Anglo overhaul: alongside the unquestionably Italian bomber jackets in luxurious skins and colourful sportswear is more English-inspired 1940s tailoring, longer in the jacket, or including a double-breasted boating blazer.
"It's true that Italian men like English style because they consider it to be very elegant and refined - they tend to think English fabrics, for example, are the best in the world. Then you come to London and find that Englishmen think Italian fabrics are the best," Galasso jokes. "What unites the two nations is an appreciation for the history of dress and a mutual conservatism - in Italy, a concern with being judged by outward appearances; in England, a regard for traditions. So, inevitably dipping into each other's national look works just fine."
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