Before he won NCAA titles, Villanova’s basketball coach long ago picked up the nickname GQ Jay. Best-dressed coach in the sport? Jay Wright retired the honor.
“It was all him,” Wright said Wednesday afternoon. “It wasn’t me.”
The man who stitched it all together, Gabriele “Gabe” D’Annunzio, died Sunday from COVID-19, age 76. Born in Abruzzo, Italy. Grew up in West Philadelphia. Held many distinctions, but this was a big one: Gabe D’Annunzio was Jay Wright’s tailor.
“A good man, a really good man,” Wright said over the phone. “This thing is brutal. He went in the hospital last Monday or Tuesday. I texted him. He said, ‘I’m fighting.” I got another text, “I’m going in the ICU.’ I got a call Sunday …”
If you think about it, Wright’s players change, and his assistants eventually move on. But this man working out of his own tailor shop in Newtown Square had been part of the landscape, an integral fixture, for about as long as Wright has been coaching Villanova.
“I’d pick something simple. He’d say, ‘Oh, no … we need something that’s going to pop,’ " Wright said.
» READ MORE: A man of style, and also substance
What were Gabe touches?
“Pleats down the back of your shirt,” Wright said. “I would see it. ‘Gabe, what?’ … ‘It’s a nice touch, it’s a nice touch.’ Or stitching in like two pockets on the side of your jacket, with detailed stitching. Sometimes, the silk on the inside of the suit, he’d make like basketballs.”
Wright: “This is too much.”
D’Annunzio: “We need this. We have a reputation.”
When D’Annunzio would show up at Villanova, he’d be impeccably dressed himself. Would they ever talk hoops?
“He was a boxer in West Philly,” Wright said. “He’s a little guy, but in boxing, in his weight class … He would tell me stories about being a boxer. You could tell he was a really competitive guy. We would talk about players. His perspective was all about competitiveness and toughness. He had a real good feel for that, who was tough.”
D’Annunzio’s career didn’t start with Wright.
“He’s got pictures of him working with Frank Sinatra, the guys who would come to the Latin Casino back in the day,” Wright said. “Then he moved out here. He and his wife didn’t have kids. His clients, his customers, they would be his family. He loved people. Every time you would go in, he’d be with somebody -- he would tell me that person’s whole life story. He was so into everybody.”
Of course, D’Annunzio loved Wright’s clothing status. When GQ Jay was featured in the actual GQ, D’Annunzio hung the magazine up in his shop.
“It wasn’t the celebrity,” Wright said. “He took so much pride in what he would do. He would have guys come from Italy, he’d buy his cloth from them.”
It was probably the celebrity, too.
“He loved when you guys would call him,” Wright said of the media.
D’Annunzio would go to Wright’s house, inspect his closet.
“He’d go through my suits, look at stuff,” Wright said. “He would remember everything. It was pretty impressive. He was meticulous. He kept a file. If I picked something, he’d say, ‘No, we did that one three years ago.’ "
“I like it.”
“No, we can’t.”
“Double-breasted,” Wright said. “He loved double-breasted.”
Times Wright would just say no?
“Oh yeah, a lot of times,” Wright said. “As I’ve gotten older, with Gabe, I’d say, ‘That’s too much.’ He’d pick like a bold checkered, purple and black. Something that was just too much.”
Or D’Annunzio would slip some extras in. Wright would see silk on the inside of a jacket -- “we never discussed that.”
Wright introduced him to Villanova’s president, which got the tailor making some religious garb for the top man.
“I don’t tell anybody I’m Jay Wright’s tailor,” D’Annunzio would joke. “I’m Father Peter’s tailor.”
Not just for Father Peter Donohue and his basketball coach. Villanova assistant coaches have become consistent customers.
“He gave them a way better deal than he gave me,” Wright said.
There was one Gabe-designed item Wright couldn’t bring himself to wear. “Leather handmade golf shoes, made in Italy, with white and blue on the shoe … like wingtips,” Wright said. “They were way too nice to wear on a golf course.”
D’Annunzio also had stitched the words NATIONAL CHAMPIONS on the side, so that would have been a little much for Villanova’s coach to wear with golf partners happy for such gift-wrapped material to give Wright a hard time.
Now, Wright said, he would find the right time to wear the shoes.
“He had a true passion for clothes,” Wright said of GQ Gabe. “Like we do for sports.”