Zegna’s radical reinvention

Gildo Zegna’s decision to draw Alessandro Sartori back into the fold has seen annual net profits rise by 64 per cent. So what is he doing right, asks Nick Scott. Portrait by Richard Grassie

Gildo Zegna (far left), CEO of Ermenegildo Zegna, and artistic director Alessandro Sartori at the brand’s HQ on the outskirts of Milan
Gildo Zegna (far left), CEO of Ermenegildo Zegna, and artistic director Alessandro Sartori at the brand’s HQ on the outskirts of Milan | Image: Richard Grassie

You need a little luck sometimes – there was no plan B,” laughs Gildo Zegna, CEO of the company founded by his grandfather in 1910, as he reclines in a swivel chair behind his desk at the brand’s HQ, a few kilometres southwest of central Milan. “Unless you can say umbrellas are a plan B.”

“We had to decide three days before whether to risk it,” adds the man sitting on the other side of the desk, Alessandro Sartori, Zegna’s artistic director, who returned to the family-run luxury menswear company in early 2016, following a spell at Berluti. “I must confess, I was very nervous backstage because we worked out the timing in rehearsals, and sunset was going to be at 9.13pm. So the finale needed to happen in a window between 9.12pm and 9.16pm. That meant the window for starting the show was between 8.59pm and 9.03pm…”

Ermenegildo Zegna Couture wool/cotton-corduroy suit, £3,360, and jacquard jumper, £1,300
Ermenegildo Zegna Couture wool/cotton-corduroy suit, £3,360, and jacquard jumper, £1,300

It’s two days since the Ermenegildo Zegna spring/summer 2019 menswear show – which took place at twilight on a mirrored slither of catwalk between two manmade lakes outside Oscar Niemeyer’s Mondadori Palace – and the two men are on ebullient form, laughing heartily at their serendipity. And with good reason. They may have got lucky with the elements on that balmy Milan evening, but it would be harsh to attribute Zegna’s 64 per cent rise in net profits in 2017 (to €32.8m) to luck.

“Three years ago I checked the company’s blood pressure,” says Zegna, slapping the underside of his forearm for emphasis, “because I had felt that something was going wrong. It was a feeling inside that made me uncomfortable. Something had to be reestablished. The market was showing signs of a storm to come. So the first thing I said was: ‘We have to start with the right creative mind’.” He gestures towards Sartori. “If we don’t have that, the brand gets stuck.”

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For Sartori – who grew up in Biella, close to Zegna’s Trivero mill, bought his first suit (by Giorgio Armani) aged 17 and originally joined the company straight out of design school in 1989 – there was much to draw him back to Zegna: not least the creative freedoms offered by the company’s unique vertical integration model. “I don’t think there’s a better kitchen than Zegna in which to create menswear,” he says. “You have the source of raw ingredients – the wools from Australia, the vicuña from South America – you have the whole weaving process, the R&D department creating new fabrics, the machinery to do all the craft. So you have everything you need to cook a meal that suits that moment and today’s customer.”

Another major factor behind Sartori’s return was his bond with Gildo. “I have a total connection with Gildo – I adore the way he works and the passion he has for what he does,” he says. “It’s more important today than ever before to have the right connection with the CEO. If you’re not into the strategy, if you don’t share the vision, and are instead working in isolation, you can only ever really do part of your job.” 

Ermenegildo Zegna Couture wool/cashmere coat, £3,650, cashmere jumper, £1,720, and wool-gabardine trousers, £860
Ermenegildo Zegna Couture wool/cashmere coat, £3,650, cashmere jumper, £1,720, and wool-gabardine trousers, £860

Zegna, who runs the company with his sister Anna and cousin Paolo, nods in agreement. “We’re both emotional people – it’s part of being Italian. We kept in regular contact when he was [with Berluti] in Paris, and there was always a feeling that he could come back home, to where he started his career.”

Perhaps the fiercest rip in the tide that bore Sartori back “home” to Zegna, though, was the very profound change that both men felt was in the air, and the challenge that presented. “I asked Alessandro to write down where he saw the brand going,” explains Zegna, “and what he wrote was exactly where I wanted to take it. A plus B made C, and we started working together with a new approach in 2016. I gave him carte blanche. And what you’ve seen so far is just the beginning.”

From left: Ermenegildo Zegna Couture leather bomber jacket, £8,190, cashmere jumper, £1,920, and wool/mohair trousers, £1,160; wool/mohair suit, £3,660, and cotton shirt, £550
From left: Ermenegildo Zegna Couture leather bomber jacket, £8,190, cashmere jumper, £1,920, and wool/mohair trousers, £1,160; wool/mohair suit, £3,660, and cotton shirt, £550

Just the beginning, maybe, but what we’ve seen so far certainly lives up to the phrase “radical change”, especially for a company associated for so long with traditional suiting. That atmospherically blessed spring/summer 2019 show two nights previously saw a wealth of playful juxtapositions: bombers and anoraks paired with tailored double-pleat trousers; activewear with office looks; unlined cashmere jackets followed by meshes and perforations aplenty, as well as leathers given a waffle effect (“Weightlessness” was the overarching theme).

The show was a logical continuation of the autumn/winter 18 collection, which sees such appealing items as chic one‑and-a-half-breasted herringbone-wool/mohair suits (£3,660) and sweeping long coats (£3,650) in clays, olives, charcoals, chestnuts and chocolate browns paired with chunky leather boots (£885) with extra-light soles; trousers (£3,760), blousons (£10,500) and bombers (£8,190) in softest leather; statement quilted jumpsuits (£8,140) in charcoals and bark green; splashes of colour – yellow, knitted zip tops and jumpers (£860), burnt-orange bombers (£8,190) and cornflower-blue wool/cotton-corduroy suiting (£3,360); D-neck knitwear (£860) with bark-green contrast cuffs; and witty touches inspired by nature – crisscross patterns emulating bird footprints (such as those on a half-zip top, £2,840) and embroideries drawing on the mountain treescapes found in Zegna’s home territory.

XXX calfskin bag, £1,480
XXX calfskin bag, £1,480

Key to Zegna’s new “casual couture” aesthetic is a dismantling of the rules when it comes to what exactly constitutes a shirt, a pair of trousers, a suit jacket or any other traditional garment. Hybrid clothing, experimental collars and playful double sleeves now all contribute towards a new lexicon for men’s apparel. “We’ve always thought that the suit was a classic jacket with a classic trouser, but why not a classic jacket with a technical trouser in the same fabric?” says Sartori. “Or the opposite – a classic trouser with a technical top, maybe a blouson, but in the same fabric. So you take the best mohair, the best cashmere and wool, and make it into a suit with a blouson and a pant. It’s a suit, but it’s a new type of suit. This is the idea – to reinvent what tailoring means, to offer new shapes in suiting, to offer new combinations, new ideas – towards which, with Gildo, I am working, and hoping to take our customers to a new reality.”

Exemplary of this approach are the aforementioned one-and-a-half-breasted jacket cuts, which offer the imposing aspect of a double-breasted coat when closed, but retain a suave silhouette when left open. “Double-breasted is the quintessential expression of elegant menswear – from the ’40s or the ’70s or other decades. But if you wear one today it needs to be closed – if you keep it open, there’s too much fabric. Having something between a single and a double means you retain an elegant shape when it is unbuttoned.”

XXX silk/polyester bomber jacket, £555, cotton T-shirt, £240, knitted sweat pants, £760
XXX silk/polyester bomber jacket, £555, cotton T-shirt, £240, knitted sweat pants, £760

Another high point of the autumn/winter collection is one that showcases Zegna’s innovative approach to fabric technology. Among all the cashmere jacquard, compact mohair and brushed alpaca, the keen-eyed at that show picked out jackets in a cotton/wool-hybrid corduroy, a blend Sartori seized upon to satisfy his preference for matte finishes over shininess. “The blend of the two was almost like water and oil, but it actually became something fantastic – the cord is matte and yet soft, with good body and good reactions.”

Sartori points out that the brand – whose Z Zegna line launched its low-maintenance Techmerino Wash & Go suiting range, made from a pure, biodegradable, natural merino fibre, earlier this year – always has 10-plus designers working in the fabric R&D department, and finding better ways to colour the resulting textiles has been a major priority since 2007. “In that year we launched the Oasi Cashmere project, which involves developing natural dyeing processes using herbs, leaves and flowers,” says Sartori. “When the project was launched it was doable only for very light and medium colours, but now the R&D department has found a technique to make it possible for dark, deep colours, including black, without any chemicals.”

Ermenegildo Zegna Couture calfskin shoes, £590
Ermenegildo Zegna Couture calfskin shoes, £590

It’s tempting to suggest that Zegna is aiming this ethos at millennials, as more and more men from that generation enter a life stage where they have the spending power to be luxury consumers – but in an era when the Silicon Valley hoodie-and-sneakers look for the office is being embraced across the age groups, there’s no room for generational demographic cohorts in Zegna and Sartori’s new vision. “Being a millennial is a mindset, not an age,” asserts the former (who the day I interview him is wearing a complementing fawn linen suit with a pair of brilliant-white Zegna trainers).

“If you focus purely on age groups, you cut out 70 per cent of your potential customers. There are pieces that can be worn by a 70-year‑old guy and a 25-year-old, depending on the moment. The young guy may be wearing it seven days a week, the older guy once a week – so what? We’re in a very different world now.”

Z Zegna nylon gilet, £585, wool jumper, £545, and  wool/mohair trousers, £385
Z Zegna nylon gilet, £585, wool jumper, £545, and wool/mohair trousers, £385

Don’t be tempted, both Zegna and Sartori say, to assume that Zegna Couture, the sportier line Z Zegna and the XXX line exist to ensnare different demographic groups into the fold: they’re all aimed at the same man. “We used to have three different creative briefings for our three lines,” says Sartori. “We now have just one creative brief for each season.” Indeed, looking at Z Zegna’s red puffa jacket (£1,090), or a yellow and green reversible gilet (£585) paired with tweed trousers (£385) and hiking-inspired boots (£475) – or at the blazer-friendly T-shirts (£240) found in the XXX range, his words ring true. These collections may feel sportier, more performance focused or more relaxed than the main line, but they share an aesthetic that will appeal to the same man.

Zegna prides itself on being ahead of the game – it expanded into China as early as 1991 – and, as well as an increasing number of trunk shows and in-store experiences to connect with customers on an emotional and experiential level, it’s keen to stay ahead of the online retail juggernaut too: hence adding Farfetch to its roster of web fashion outlets (including Mr Porter and Matchesfashion.com). But for all the brand’s newfound capacity for reinvention – for tireless proactivity with the zeitgeist – Sartori points out that it’s foolish to look too far ahead. “We’re always thinking about the needs of tomorrow – things are evolving and we need to keep changing, but we’re always thinking just a minute ahead, because if you think too much in advance you can mistime things. We have to be ‘there’ at the right time – which is just one second before the consumer need arises.”

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For Gildo, meanwhile – whose son Edoardo recently became the first of a new generation of Zegnas to join the fold – one particular characteristic above all others is the most favourable wind in the sails that propel his brand’s journey. “At the end of the day it’s about curiosity,” he says. “If you ask me what’s more important – ambition or curiosity – it’s always curiosity. Because if you devote yourself to ambition, you run the risk of putting your ego first. Curiosity means never being satisfied with the excellence you’ve created and always thinking ahead. I hope that this trait is a peculiarity of my family: my grandfather, my father and the future generations. Because the comfort zone, in any business today, is a dangerous place.”

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