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Style: Bringing Up the House

William Kissel

When Ermenegildo Zegna’s remodeled Manhattan store reopens this
fall (simultaneously with the brand’s Milan flagship), it will look more like someone’s townhouse than a retail establishment. A grand staircase will lead to the second floor, where you will find a library designed with a stone fireplace and rich wood-paneled walls. Those walls will hold black-and-white photographs of Gianan­drea Noseda of the BBC Philharmonic and other great conductors, all wearing Zegna tuxedos. A downstairs room that mimics a home gym will display, in an uncluttered fashion, the new Zegna Sport collection. Both the Manhat­tan and Milan stores will showcase all five of Zegna’s collections—Couture, Sartoria, Sports­wear, Zegna Sport, and Z Zegna—under the same roof for the first time.

“We’re calling it the House of Zegna, and we want it to feel like a private, modern house of tailoring,” says New York architect Peter Marino, who designed the store. Marino also created the first Zegna shop in the United States, within Barneys New York 25 years ago. More recently, he worked on Louis Vuitton’s arty Paris flagship and Chanel’s Tokyo store.

Marino says he was reluctant initially to take on the Zegna project, primarily because he perceived the 97-year-old brand as a label suited for a “slightly upper-end shop within a Saks Fifth Avenue men’s store—which is a place I would never shop in my life,” he explains. However, after researching Zegna’s history, he was game to create a space that would underscore its rich heritage.

Marino’s enthusiasm is palpable as he describes how he integrated subtle references to Zegna’s origins as a textile maker into the architectural details of the New York and Milan stores. On the facade and interior staircases, he installed steel rods positioned in a crisscross pattern that alludes to the warp and weft of cloth, and he incorporated white threads into the stone floors. He also juxtaposed warm-hued wood-paneled walls with forest green and meridian blue surfaces to simulate the colors found in the Oasi Zegna surrounding Trivero, Italy, where Zegna’s factory and ancestral home are located. “I want the shops to feel like a home a man would want to live in,” says Marino, “so I demanded a high budget for custom carpets, beautiful furniture, and luxurious paneling.”

Although Zegna began as a fabric maker, clothing now constitutes nearly 90 percent of the brand’s business. Only a decade ago, Zegna was producing primarily suits and sport coats, but today the company is equally regarded for its technically innovative sportswear and accessories, the latter of which accounted for 25 percent of 2005 revenues.

This spring’s Portofino deck shoe, produced through a partnership with Ferragamo, exemplifies how Zegna is enhancing performance and comfort with technology. The shoes are made from waterproof leather and have high-traction rubber soles so that your feet stay dry and you do not slip on wet surfaces. “They breathe, so you could wear them for an entire day on a sailboat,” says Zegna fashion director Djordje Stefanovic. He notes that Zegna’s Portofino yachting regatta (see “Green Is Always in Style,” page 204) provided an ideal testing ground for the shoe.

Zegna also displays its innovative bent with the reversible Aqualite jacket, made from a wind-and water-resistant nylon that produces virtually no sound when you move your arms. “It provides a protective layer that isn’t distracting when you’re trying to swing a golf club,” says Stefanovic.

The new iJacket, a $750 windbreaker, is made of Microtene, an exceptionally lightweight waterproof fabric. The coat features a built-in touch panel at the cuff that activates and controls the volume of your iPod, which can be stored in an inside chest pocket. For fall, Zegna will introduce the BT iJacket, a coat that will have Bluetooth wireless technology for operating your mobile phone as well as your iPod.

In recent years, Zegna, which has been making outerwear and footwear since only 2002, also has acquired Agnona, a cashmere mill and women’s clothing maker, and Longhi, the Italian leather goods manufacturer that helped Zegna enter the leather outerwear business. Zegna’s additional newer offerings include small leather goods, fragrances, and eyewear, and the brand might add watch and underwear collections. “People think we are developing all these products to satisfy our own egos, but it’s really out of necessity,” says Anna Zegna, director of worldwide communications. Anna manages the privately held company together with her siblings, Ermenegildo (Gildo) and Benedetta, and their cousins Paolo, Laura, and Renata (whose husband, Roberto Aimone, is the CEO of Agnona). All six are the grandchildren of company founder and namesake Ermenegildo Zegna.

As suit sales continue to fall worldwide, Zegna, like most top brands, is trying to grow its business by adding accessories and shoes. Anna explains that Zegna is rapidly opening stores in emerging markets such as Russia, China, India, the Middle East, and South America. It also is opening scores of airport duty-free shops, where small accessories are easier to sell than apparel. “If you want to be a leader,” she says, “you have to be able to anticipate the trends and invest in opportunities that are not necessarily profitable in the short term but have the potential to become profit centers in the future.”

Zegna has long been a progressive company. In 1979, it introduced made-to-measure tailored clothing, a concept that revolutionized the menswear industry. Made-to-measure was meant to bridge the divide between custom hand-tailoring and mass-production methods. When you purchase a made-to-measure suit, the retailer records your measurements, and you select an existing Zegna suit model, which is adjusted at the factory for a more precise fit. You also can customize your suit by selecting functional buttons and buttonholes for the sleeves, various pocket shapes, and even the number of trouser pleats.

Gildo, who shares the role of group chief executive with Paolo, says that his father, Angelo, came up with the made-to-measure concept when he entered the Japanese market during the 1970s. “He was quite surprised to see the small amount of real estate they had for retail,” explains Gildo. “Our collection was very big, and he wondered how he could show it all. The Japanese had a clever system where they would show all of the fabric swatches, like in a showroom, and let the customer pick the pattern and style. Within a couple of weeks the jacket was made to order. My father said, ‘If the Japanese can make this work, why can’t we?’ ”

Made-to-measure, or su mesura as it is called in Italy, was hardly cost-effective; it required pulling a particular suit off the assembly line to make necessary changes by hand. Nevertheless, by crafting suits from its own fabrics—which no other ready-made clothing maker had done before—and by altering those garments to suit individuals’ tastes, Zegna offered an alternative for men who preferred exclusivity to mass-produced fashions from Gucci, Giorgio Armani, and other major labels. Today, those brands and nearly every other prestige suitmaker proffer their own versions of made-to-measure, which accounts for about 20 percent of all high-end suit sales in the United States.

Made-to-measure has proved pivotal to Zegna’s success: The company projects sales to top the $1 billion mark this year. It also has given the Zegnas greater financial clout and the confidence to take risks and innovate in other areas of the business, including its fabric division. In the past decade, Lanificio Ermenegildo Zegna, the family’s textile mill in the Biella Alps, has produced several cloth breakthroughs, including High Performance, a wrinkle-resistant, high-twist merino wool; 15 Milmil 15, a fabric that is as soft as cashmere because it is made from merino yarns measuring less than .015 of a millimeter in diameter; and, most recently, Micronsphere, a treated wool that is stain- and wrinkle-resistant. Cashco, another new cloth, is a blend of cashmere and cotton. “These two fibers are normally used for different seasons, climates, and lifestyles,” says Gildo. “But we brought them together to create a soft and silky fabric that is both precious and sporty.”

These cloths are the products of extensive experimentation: Zegna tests some 2,000 fabric designs each season and then produces about half that number for its own collections, as well as for Gucci, Dunhill, Versace, and, soon, Tom Ford. In addition to making the cloths for these collections, Zegna also makes the clothes. Such partnerships have made Ermenegildo Zegna Italy’s largest fashion exporter, surpassing even Giorgio Armani, for which Zegna also produces some clothing.

Zegna’s made-to-measure suits are produced at its factory in Padova, near Venice, and its small leather goods are crafted by hand in Parma and Florence, but the company makes its jeans, sport shirts, and other Zegna sportswear at its factories in Swit­zerland, Spain, Mexico, and Turkey. Some peers criticize Zegna for making what one Italian competitor refers to as “lower-quality goods made in third-world countries,” but Zegna dismisses the notion that manufacturing products outside of Italy compromises their quality. Its Made in Zegna motto tweaks the Made in Italy label that Italians revere as a testament to quality.

Its competitors also might take issue with the range of items that Zegna plans to carry in its new stores. “I think the stores need to be a mix of mass luxury and artisan-made products,” says Gildo, noting that the New York and Milan flagships will offer $5,000 made-to-measure alligator shoes and $10,000 custom-made suits cut from the company’s own Vellus Aureum, a wool so rare Zegna can produce only 50 suits with it. Such exclusive items will be showcased along with off-the-rack suits costing as little as $2,000 and ready-made shoes with prices that start at $245.

Echoing his sister, Anna, Gildo says the inclusion of such disparate items in the same stores is more a matter of necessity than choice. “If we just sold handmade clothing,” he says, “we would find ourselves in a disappearing niche.” 

Ermenegildo Zegna, 888.880.3462, www.zegna.com

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