How Zegna Is Helping Preserve the History, Heritage, and Landscape of Italy
Best known for their venerable fashion brand, the close-knit Zegnas are also carrying on a tradition of Italian stewardship.
Trekking up a steep hill in the Cinque Terre National Park along Italy’s Ligurian coast one warm summer day, I am desperately trying to stay cool and keep up with my guide, Anna Zegna. The oppressive heat doesn’t seem to faze the charismatic president of Fondazione Zegna, a humanitarian organization she and her fashion-business family established in 2000. She seems perfectly comfortable in a stylish chambray shirt and trousers. Heat or no heat, she will hike in style.
Her fashion sense comes as no surprise: She is the granddaughter of Ermenegildo Zegna, who more than a century ago founded the eponymous sartorial empire that now thrives on a global scale but retains a small-town mind-set. The Milan-based company earned more than $1.3 billion worldwide in 2015 but has remained devoted to its birthplace in Trivero, a hamlet in the hills northeast of Turin. Ermenegildo, the son of a watchmaker and the youngest of 10 children, established his wool mill there in 1910, manufacturing textiles in a factory that is still in use today. He was ambitious, embracing technology and old-world craft, innovation, and elegance.
Ermenegildo understood that superior fabric depends on natural resources—good wool and good water—and he had an environmental streak. He had 500,000 pines and rhododendrons planted on the slopes down the valley from the factory, and they now define the landscape. In the 1960s he expanded his operation and started to make the tailored clothing the brand is known for today. His environmental and broader philanthropic mission also continues with a new generation of the family, which still owns the company.
Anna now has set her sights, and those of Fondazione Zegna, on restoring Punta Mesco, a farm with three historic buildings—one dating to the 17th century—located about 150 miles south of Milan. It’s easy to get caught up in this setting: a dramatic hillside perch with wide views along the coast and out to the vivid blue sea.
“At Zegna, we’ve always had a connection to the environment,” she says. Picturesque Italy is not only where the company has had its factory for more than a century, but also where Anna and her brother Ermenegildo (known as Gildo), now the CEO, and cousin Paolo, the chairman, grew up. The mill in Trivero was their playground. She recalls “jumping in the wool, running down the halls, and playing in the mountains” around the factory.
As the driven matriarch of the family business, Anna is spearheading an initiative—a partnership between Fondazione Zegna and Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI), a private nonprofit that works to restore Italy’s cultural treasures—to revitalize Punta Mesco. Thus far the project has required considerable patience. “It took two and a half years just to sign the papers,” she says.
But owing to her powers of persuasion and FAI’s relationships with Italy’s accomplished artisans, Punta Mesco is coming back to life. It is once again a working farm after having been neglected and untouched since the 1980s. Homegrown expertise has been essential in restoring the historic elements of the property, which is a protected area as part of the Cinque Terre National Park and as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “I don’t think this would have been possible somewhere else,” says Anna.