Suiting up with Italian menswear icon Ermenegildo Zegna
For all of Italy’s postcard charms, those Italian gentlemen buttoned tightly into slim suits on unseasonably warm days are the most alluring. Bello fresco, beautifully fresh. Elegant to the point of distraction. How do they look so pristine in that unabashed Mediterranean sun?
Ermenegildo Zegna, the CEO of Ermenegildo Zegna Group, holds the key. In the country where a killer suit has the power to open doors, he’s the locksmith.
A paragon of Italian luxury menswear, Ermenegildo Zegna’s lauded for its textile savoir-faire and bulletproof craftsmanship, backed by its 103-year-old textile manufacturing legacy. The multigenerational dynasty, currently helmed by its fourth generation, was founded in 1910 when Zegna’s grandfather, Ermenegildo Zegna, opened a wool mill in the Biella epicenter of the Northern Italian textile industry.
If understated elegance is the cornerstone of Italian menswear, Ermenegildo Zegna is a tone poem of austerity. Tucked into luscious fabrics and exquisite tailoring, brand ambassadors such as Robert De Niro and George Clooney blaze Hollywood red carpets under Ermenegildo Zegna’s auspices.
The group’s ascetic verticalization strategy emulates its ‘less is more’ sartorial philosophy. In a slow-burn, tactical shift from product to market since the late 1980s, production and distribution integration has been anchored by prudent brand extensions, licensing, diversifications and retail expansion. Recently, in an uncharacteristic coup de théâtre, the group tapped a new head of design – creative virtuoso Stefano Pilati – to groom its Italian menswear battlement for the global luxury spotlight.
The audacious shakeup comes at a precarious moment for the Italian luxury sector, stemming from a 2008 financial crisis that has plunged the country into deep recession. According to Italian luxury goods association, Fondazione Altagamma, domestic luxury and apparel spending has been reallocated to autos, home improvement and appliances as disposable income dwindles. Despite predictions that the global luxury goods sector will net 217 billion euros in 2013 revenues at a 2 percent gain from last year, Italian fashion industry 2013 revenues are forecast to drop 2.5 percent from last year to 58.85 billion euros.
“The luxury industry is going through a lot of change and I think we’re headed for another not-so-easy moment of transition, because the markets aren’t showing clear signs of where we’re going as they did over the past two or three year periods. But I try to remain positive on luxury,” said Zegna. “Maybe we won’t grow double digits or come close to that as we’ve seen in the past, but there are new possibilities, provided that we remain modern, innovative and rich in resources, cash and talents. I think that product and service is a key to this development. “
Zegna notes that luxury brand consolidation has catalyzed competition and encourages “people who have energy, vision and the resources to invest.” Although he’s told the press repeatedly that he has no intention to go public, competition has peaked as the domestic fashion industry witnesses a tide of foreign acquisitions. There’s heightened rivalry between French luxury conglomerates Kering and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton as they snatch up Ermenegildo Zegna-lateral luxury houses such as Brioni, Loro Piana and Brunello Cucinelli, often armed with expansive, ambitious rebranding strategies to turn niche brands into lifestyle monoliths.
Despite a capsized domestic economy and downticks reported this fall by the Camera della Moda’s Fashion Economic Trends report – Italian fashion industry revenues are anticipated to drop 2.5 percent to 58.85 billion euros from last year and imports are expected to drop 1 percent in 2013 to 26.09 billion euros – Ermenegildo Zegna Group rides on upswings.
In 2012, net profits climbed 13 percent to the tune of 130 million euros, compared with 115.1 million euros the previous year. Before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, earnings reached 250.2 million euros, up 7.5 percent from 233 million euros from the previous year, accounting for 19.8 percent of sales. Sales increased 11.9 percent to 1.26 billion compared with 1.13 billion euros in 2011, with over 90 percent coming from exports, and 46 percent of total revenues from emerging markets. Retail accounts for about one-third of business with wholesale making up the remaining two-thirds.
Zegna partly credits the brand’s success to tight control and integration along the production process. “We are more direct than franchised, we don’t discount at the retail and wholesale levels and we come to your home for intimate customer service. All these ingredients are very important to us, and it’s what made the brand grow and remain genuine to its roots,” he said.
At the end of 2012, the group had 543 stores in more than 100 countries, of which 303 were directly operated.
In October, Ermenegildo Zegna inaugurated a two-floor flagship boutique on Geneva’s tony Rue du Rhône, designed by Zegna’s in-house architects, based on the creative concept developed by Peter Marino. Additional Swiss doors include St. Moritz, Lugano and Zürich, with a retail space in Flughafen Zürich and corners in the Brunschwig & Cie SA-owned Bon Génie/Grieder department store. “Switzerland has surely been one of the first markets that we went in with stores,” Zegna said. “We’ve worked for over two generations with the Brunschwig family.
They’ve always been very loyal and have always been doing made-to-measure very well. They understand quality and service. Our presence in their store complements our new flagship shop. I find Switzerland very international, sophisticated and service-and-quality oriented.”
Zegna’s strength has been prescient investments in emerging markets. In 1991, Ermenegildo Zegna blazed into Beijing as the first luxury menswear label to open a fully-owned, monobrand store in China. The next chapter in retail expansion is Africa – a flagship in Lagos and doors in Giza and Casablanca – with plans for six new doors in the next three years, citing Nigeria, Angola, South Africa and Mozambique as possible marks.
On the racks, slim brand diversification plays to the strengths of exquisite, well-sourced textiles – wool, mohair, cashmere, alpaca, vicuña and silk – spun from the group’s 103-year-old Trivero mill, Lanificio Ermenegildo Zegna & Figli SpA.
“Having this know-how from the raw materials down to global customer service is a key to moving forward the brand DNA, and I think it’s what the customer appreciates most,” said Zegna. “Plus it gives us the possibility to continue innovating ahead of time – right now we’re working for fabrics for next year. It’s normal to look ahead six months, so we can precipitate trends or shift the bar according to where we see the market going. And it gives us exclusivity in fibers, which is a key.”
As tastemaker, the group’s innovative fiber research drives market trends, such as it lustrous ZegnaSilk that sparked a revolution of menswear ready-to-wear silk-spun fabrics, formerly designated for women’s wear and menswear accessories. From the mill to the racetrack, ZegnaSilk is the star of a three-year partnership signed in April with Modena-based luxury car manufacturer Maserati for a limited edition Maserati Quattroporte by Ermenegildo Zegna, with customizable seats, door panels and roof linings in assorted materials, colors and finishes.
As pioneers of design-driven textile technology, the group has developed natural fiber and fabric finishing processes, such as one that adds rainproof, windproof and stain-proof attributes without compromising warmth, weight or breathability. These innovations are integral to the Zegna Sport diffusion line of urban sportswear, its protagonist an extra-fine, high-performance merino wool Techmerino.
Licensing follows the same discreet philosophy through meticulously-curated partners such as De Rigo Vision for eyewear. In 2011, the group’s fragrance arm was taken over from a nine-year YSL Beauté reign by new licensee, the Aramis and Designer Fragrances division of Estée Lauder Companies, Inc. The latest men’s eau de toilette, Ermenegildo Zegna Uomo, launched this spring. In 2010, the group’s inaugural timepiece collection was inked with high-end Swiss watch manufacturer Girard-Perregaux that Zegna described as “small but prestigious, with the ability to do a limited edition.” The initial launch of Centennial limited edition classic calendar watches has evolved into the Monterubello Collection, a permanent capsule collection of pink and gold timepieces available in 80 global stores.
As fashion industry diversification trends lure many of Ermenegildo Zegna’s luxury peers into far-flung sectors such as Milan hospitality – Dolce & Gabbana and DSquared2 launched restaurants while Giorgio Armani, Bulgari and Moschino unveiled hotels – the brand accelerates its menswear DNA and plays to the strengths of its Made in Italy ingenuity. With a shot (or two) of espresso.
In January, Ermenegildo Zegna poached young Italian designer Stefano Pilati as Head of Style for Ermenegildo Zegna Couture and Ermenegildo Zegna collections, in addition to creative director of Agnona, a luxury women’s wear brand under the group’s umbrella.
Young, marketable and stylish, the scruffy-bearded, tattooed designer’s personal style swings towards haute bohème. But with scissors in hand, he’s got an affinity for masculine tailoring and boyish garçon. Under his well-publicized creative directorship at Yves Saint Laurent from 2004 to 2012, Pilati polished the Parisian maison from dormant to lustrous through coveted ‘It’ accessories that skyrocketed revenues. Through a seasoned run at a global fashion house, Pilati knows how to charm the press as well as his fabrics.
“With Stefano, we’ve added a fashion style, which I could say wasn’t the case before – we were modern and progressive, but we never had a pure designer. It was quite a bold move and I think that this can help us to make progress towards a fashion area that wasn’t 100 percent Zegna. We are boldly moving ahead. As other luxury brands move into the menswear field, you have to react and keep progressing,” Zegna said.
Pilati’s the apotheosis of the idiosyncratic, super-affluent demographic that the luxury fashion market is keen to entice, prototypes of the effortlessly-cool, aspirational style of Lapo Elkann, grandson of Fiat ace Gianni Agnelli.
When his inaugural Ermenegildo Zegna Couture collection debuted during the Milan Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2014 menswear collections that ran from June 22 to 25, great expectations were met. Pilati’s precise silhouettes with witty affectations were universally lauded (think: shoes without laces or jacket sleeves without buttons). Launched a decade ago without fanfare, A few months later – during the Milan Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2014 women’s collections that ran from Sept. 18 to 23 – Pilati netted accolades for his ready-to-wear Agnona collection of shift-dresses and cashmere jackets that premiered in the brand’s new Milanboutique.
Heretofore relatively unknown, the Ermenegildo Zegna Group bought Italian women’s wearlabel in 1999. “With Agnona, we decided to go quicker, to accelerate – more feminine, more fashion,” Zegna said on his plans to double retail business over three years.
True to the group’s craftsmanship-over-showmanship DNA, philanthropy is an unpretentious addendum that started in the 1930s when Ermenegildo Zegna redeveloped the rural area around his Trivero wool mill in the foothold of the Biellese Alps. From aggressive forestation came many thousand trees, deigned the natural, family-controlled reserve Oasi Zegna in 1993.
Revolving Zegna generations have endowed a handful of institutions, including the Fondazione Zegna established in 2000. Presidents Anna and Renata Zegna have assisted various cultural, environmental, social welfare and educational endeavors, funded annually with over 2 percent of the Ermenegildo Zegna Group’s net revenue.
Based on an ecological blueprint in the spirit of its founder, conservation and reforestation projects (in collaboration with its environmental partner, FAI, Fondo per L’Ambiente Italiano, or, the Italian National Trust) have resurrected abandoned farmlands and landmarks across Cinque Terre, Assisi, Turin and Varese.
ZegnArt Public Project was rolled out two years ago to bridge dialogues between the fashion industry and contemporary artists/cultural organizations in emerging countries such as India and Brazil, with an emphasis on artist residencies. “The aim is to create a closer connectivity with the area, and a way of saying, ‘we’re present and we appreciate your territory’,” remarked Zegna.
Looking ahead, Zegna hints at a corporate social responsibility initiative that will bow early 2014. “I’m working on something very special and very new, which makes me really proud. It’s going to be a premiere for a luxury brand, but I can’t give details because it’s not launched yet so…it’s a work in progress.”
If it’s anything like his intrepid cue with Pilati, expect big things.
Article by Courtney Smith