PARIS — The Ermenegildo Zegna Group is banking on the design prowess of Stefano Pilati to lift its fortunes in men’s wear — and Agnona women’s wear — to a new summit.

This story first appeared in the September 5, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“We are appreciated for our quality, fabrics and style. We wanted to add a twist of fashion and this was the right moment,” said Gildo Zegna, chief executive officer of the Italian firm, which last year surpassed the 1 billion euro revenue threshold. “This will also help us to work with less mature clients, and catch opportunities in emerging markets where there are younger and wealthier customers.”

On Tuesday, Zegna revealed the arrival of Pilati, the former creative director of Yves Saint Laurent, confirming a report in WWD.

He starts Jan. 1 as creative director of Agnona, and head of design at Ermenegildo Zegna, with responsibility for that brand’s fashion show as well as for the Ermenegildo Zegna Couture collection, the latter built on sartorial, hand-stitched suits in precious fabrics.

(Zegna noted that Pilati would not oversee Z Zegna, designed by Paul Surridge, which he defined as a “young and fashion” line.)

The appointment of Pilati signals that Zegna is pumping up its fashion credentials with a well-known and seasoned talent, known for his suave personal style, press appeal and influential silhouettes.

It comes amid heightened competition among Europe’s big luxury groups for men’s wear dominance. Last November, Gucci parent PPR acquired Italian suit maker Brioni with ambitions to boost its global profile via a rollout of company-owned stores, and expansion into sportswear and leather goods.

Over the summer, Brioni named Brendan Mullane as its new creative director, tapping the British designer from Givenchy, where he had been senior head men’s wear designer.

Meanwhile, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton is transforming its Berluti brand, known for its cult dress shoes, into an elite lifestyle brand for men. With Antoine Arnault at the management helm, Berluti poached Z Zegna’s former designer, Alessandro Sartori, as its creative director and recently acquired Arnys, a heritage Left Bank brand, with plans to apply its made-to-measure expertise and plum retail location to Berluti’s expansion.

Zegna acknowledged that those developments spurred his decision to hire a well-known talent. “Surely big groups are a stimulus, they were brave and they raised the bar and brought us to make brave choices. Good competition is a stimulus to improve,” he said.

Pilati is a known quantity at Zegna, since the firm produced some men’s wear for YSL, where Pilati had worked since 2000, initially as women’s design director.

Before that, Milan-born Pilati worked in senior design and fabric development positions for a number of Italian design houses, including Miu Miu, Prada and Giorgio Armani.

Pilati will introduce his designs for the Ermenegildo Zegna collection in June next year in Milan. His first collection for Agnona will be for spring 2014. “We are still evaluating how and when to present Agnona, but it will definitely be in Milan,” said Zegna.

The executive said the Ermenegildo Zegna line and the more niche, formal Couture collection offer “strong growth opportunities.”

Pilati will add “more fetching, more fashion and glamour designs,” and the runway show will continue to present “a mix of the tailored and the couture” pieces, Zegna added.

As for Agnona, founded in 1953 and controlled by Zegna since 1999, Zegna has plans to double the business in three years and to expand it in terms of product and distribution around the world. Zegna characterized Agnona, with sales of 30 million euros, or $37.3 million at current exchange, as still “a niche” brand.

“The time came to decide what was next, and an important designer was a must, especially for a women’s brand. I knew and appreciated Pilati for his professional qualities, but also for his knowledge and appreciation of fabrics,” Zegna said.

There are 10 Agnona boutiques today, of which five are in China, and the collection is wholesaled to retailers such as Harrods, Neiman Marcus and Isetan.

Appointing Bruno Laguardia as Agnona’s ceo in September was the first step in fortifying the brand, a move that had to be followed by the choice of a top designer.

Zegna praised Pilati’s designs. “He respects women’s femininity and sensibility,” he said, adding that he is one of the few designers skilled at both women’s and men’s categories. “He is very talented and versatile and will work for us exclusively, giving us his full attention,” said Zegna.

Pilati will be able to build the brand from “a clean, pure luxury” base, with a “fresh approach,” expanding it with accessories, which Zegna acknowledged were among some of the designer’s forte in previous posts.

For his part, Pilati lauded Zegna’s “significant industrial muscle and a time-honored devotion to the finest in quality and craftsmanship.

“Ours is a collaboration I find particularly compelling in the current landscape of luxury and high fashion — one in which I will have opportunity to apply my technical expertise across brands, divisions and categories, with my own creative impulse and aesthetic vision,” he told WWD.

The designer, who often sports a small flower bud in the lapel of his blazer, described his role at Zegna is to “update” the men’s wear for a “contemporary, elite audience.”

As for Agnona, he characterized it as a “meeting ground between fashion and innovation in design.”

“My creative mission will be as much about pure creation and an holistic approach to women’s wear: connecting the high end and the high tech, as a challenge to elevate the tactile, sensorial dimension of fashion.”

At YSL, Pilati had a fruitful, if turbulent eight-year run at the creative helm. Hedi Slimane, a men’s wear maverick best known for an electrifying stint at Dior Homme, succeeded Pilati at YSL and is to show his first runway collection here in October.

Although he was inconsistent with YSL ready-to-wear, Pilati designed an array of winning handbags and shoes that helped the firm log continual business improvement, finally emerging from the red in 2010. YSL sales, fueled by Pilati’s designs, catapulted 46.4 percent in the first half of this year to 223.5 million euros, or $290 million at average exchange rates.

Pilati arrives at Zegna at a time of strong growth and development, particularly in Asia. Net profits in 2011 rose 91.5 percent to 115.1 million euros, or $149.6 million, on the back of record sales of 1.13 billion euros, or $1.47 billion. Sales, fueled mainly by foreign markets, increased 17 percent on the previous year.

At the end of 2011, Zegna had 557 stores worldwide, of which 311 are fully owned.

Zegna reiterated that the private, family-run company “is not interested” in an initial public offering.