Volume 18 • Issue 31 | December 16 - 22, 2005

Downtown Express photo by Clayton Peterson

The Mafioso-style cap is making a comeback in stores and at the Clayton Gallery and Outlaw Museum at 161 Essex Street and Stanton. To view the nearly 80 artist-designed caps on view through December 31, call 212-477-1363.

To fight the Mafia, bust a cap

By Sara G. Levin

In defiance of Mafia influence across Sicily, Italian activist Guido Agnello is promoting legitimate business through a staple of gangster attire called the coppola cloth cap. The hat, also known as the Sicilian beret, was primarily associated with Mafioso rank and file during the twentieth century but has now become a symbol of change for Agnello, who intends to use fashion to fight organized crime.

After opening his first retail store in New York last year, Agnello sent an artist-exclusive collection of coppolas to the Clayton Gallery and Outlaw Art Museum on the Lower East Side. Close to eighty artistic editions, including a zig-zag knit by Missoni, a graffitied cap by Suisse-Marocain, and a neon-green zippered sporty cap by Italian designer Krizia, hang along the gallery walls. There is also a hat made completely from film negatives, a Santa Claus copy, and one that might look plain, but flips over to reveal a European Union patch along the inseam.

The colorful batch of caps is meant to create buzz and awareness about Agnello’s cause. To spearhead his community project, Agnello helped form a coppola-making factory, San Giuseppe S.P.A., under the patronage of the United Nations. La Coppola Storta (Sideways Cap), the hat’s brand name, employs local sewers, many of whom were previously out of work or in the black market, according to company representative, Monica Saitta.

“San Giuseppe was considered to be one of the worst places of the Mafia,” says Saitta, “like Corleone” — a place and family name many are familiar with through the Godfather films. The coppola-style hat was first adopted by Sicilian peasants in the 1800s as a way to imitate the aristocracy, previously the only social group that wore hats. It was then appropriated by Mafiosi at the turn of the century. Saitta says that San Giuseppe S.P.A., both publicly and privately funded, has yet to run into major roadblocks since the wave of outcry against the Mafia during the mid-1990s among legislators, politicians and citizens. Their factory opened in 1999 and held its first show in 2000 with the support of local mayor, Maria Maniscalco.

“I really support this whole concept, I think it’s great,” said Outlaw Museum owner, Clayton Patterson, who is also showing work by Baldo Diodato alongside the hats. Diodato, an eclectic artist known in Italy for installations, incorporated coppolas within portraits by a famous Sicilian artist, Antonello da Messina. (Incidentally, the original Messina portrait, “The Smile of the Unknown Sailor” is now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among two others including the “Virgin Annunciate.”)

La Coppola Storta may have found a likely partner in Patterson, who himself became well known for designing baseball caps embroidered with skulls in the 1980s. For the coppola exhibit, he fabricated a white-skull version of the Italian beret.

“This cap became a symbol of the Mafia the same way the motorcycle jacket became a symbol of motorcycle gangs,” Patterson said. “I can see this company getting big enough, where if they get four or five different styles that start to sell, they will become inaccessible down the pike. But right now they’re very accessible.” He added that he is looking for New York artists to add to the collection.

With stores in Taormina, Palermo, Rome and Manhattan, the company is looking to expand to Los Angeles and possibly Chicago, said Saitta. Matty Palmer-DeConcini, manager of the La Coppola Storta store on Mott Street, said he and some other North American artists, like Esther Sanchez, designed hats that were also in the show. Palmer-DeConcini, who grew up writing graffiti, said Sanchez is recognizable by her spindly, poppy figures. One of them, a waifish brunette with bulging eyes, decorates the coppolas that Sanchez painted over in a pink army fatigue pattern.

The trendy shop displays styles from traditional berets to fuzzy pink or leopard-prints for adults, children, even puppies. Prices range from around $40 to $130. Customers can also send fabric to the company for them to make a customized hat.

To demonstrate the style of the hats, Palmer-DeConcini shifted a short green-wool brim to the side of his head like a Bronx teenager with a Yankees cap. The sideways tilt, he said, used to be a symbol of how “gangster” someone was. The more the hat was twisted to the side, the more connected the wearer was to organized crime in Sicily, he said.

Godfather bravado aside, La Coppola Storta hopes that New Yorkers will adopt the coppola like the baseball cap — not as a status of crime, but as a symbol of cool.


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