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Alessandro Sartori is literally back home.

This story first appeared in the January 11, 2017 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The new artistic director of Ermenegildo Zegna, who will show his first collection for the brand on Jan. 13, was born and raised in Biella, a town in the northeastern corner of Italy famed for its wool production. His hometown isn’t far from Zegna’s headquarters in Trivero in the Piedmont region, so it was only natural that after graduating from design school in Milan he would join the famed Italian men’s wear company. A decade later, in 2003, he was tapped, to take the creative helm of Z Zegna, departing after eight years to head to Paris and join Berluti. After Stefano Pilato exited Zegna, the brand lured Sartori back — giving him an even wider scope.

Now Sartori is again roaming streets and a factory floor that he knows intimately as he faces pressure on multiple fronts. First, the Italian men’s wear powerhouse’s performance has lagged over the last year or so as its key markets of China and Russia slowed. Then there is the fundamental question all designers are facing: What exactly do men want to buy today and what is the right balance between classic and casual?

Sartori’s initial answer is to double down on what Zegna does best — and make it even more personal. His design aesthetic has never been one to shout, but instead to whisper with details and touches only the wearer knows about. “It’s not there, but it’s there for you, it’s more private,” Sartori explains.

At his runway show he will present a su misura, or customized, grouping for which customers can place orders the next day. Fifteen out of 45 looks that will be shown on the catwalk will be su misura and available in nine of the company’s brand stores globally.

The customized pieces will be ready in six weeks and will cost around 20 to 30 percent more than the brand’s ready-to-wear.

In an exclusive interview at Zegna’s state-of-the-art mill and manufacturing plant in Trivero, the soft-spoken and affable designer said: “The personalization of a fashion show is truly innovative. The idea is to reach consumers with a real product — if it’s only an aesthetic exercise, it won’t work.”

He dismissed the “commercial strategies and deliveries” of the see-now-buy-now format, which has never appealed to him. Instead, he prefers to build individual relationships with customers, he emphasized. It’s that drive for the up-close-and-personal that will see the group invest in a series of trunk shows in 2017. It has already planned events in Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Paris, New York, Los Angeles and Moscow.

The Couture show will not be live-streamed this season, but it will be available online right after the show, which will be held at Milan’s contemporary art space, Pirelli HangarBicocca, at 8 p.m., and introduced by a number of narrative videos.

The tall, thin Sartori said he was driven to return to Zegna by his love of the brand and the people in the company, notably chief executive officer Gildo Zegna. He credits the ceo with evolving and modernizing the venerable company. In June, Zegna told WWD that he had created new strategic roles within the group and set in motion a new model to better service the international customer and support Sartori’s vision.

“What he told me he wanted to do determined my choice. In men’s wear there is nobody else that can do this,” said Sartori, who chooses his words carefully. “The company relies on a very solid history, but it is not weighed down by it. There could be some rigidity with this background but, on the contrary, it’s quite the opposite. In terms of the team and the working methods, you can feel Gildo’s work.”

In Trivero, Milan and around the world, Sartori continued, “there is this strong feeling of expertise and great craft combined with an interesting freshness.” Although he spent many years at the company during his first go-round, he said that today “half of the people, I did not know.” He pointed to new designers who hail from Japan, South Korea, the U.S., Scotland and Ireland, who contribute to writing the brand’s “new chapter” along with the company’s well-oiled and fast machine, which spans from “sheep to shop,” as Zegna puts it. Sartori said he did not bring his own team along when he joined but hired new designers “because the aesthetic vision required new professional figures.”

This blend of tradition and modernity has long been Sartori’s design signature and one he plans to continue to develop at Zegna. It is based on a mix of craftsmanship and innovative techniques that create his “personalization of style” and which he has always supported with in-depth research into materials. The treatment of “super noble” materials in “a very modern and technological way,” the “combination of pieces” to create “a new silhouette,” and “the union of contrasts, open a door to new territory,” the designer said.

In his collection for fall, examples include intarsia on cashmere, with Zegna’s own abstract and figurative designs made by hand with an argyle technique; cashmere treated to look like Casentino-felted wool, and “the thinnest leather” tanned with vegetable fibers “with a super soft touch” and treated to become waterproof in a peacoat.

Describing the collection, Sartori said shapes are deliberately amplified, with long K-ways or cocoon coats in superlight materials such as double cashmere, for example. Handmade knits are also feather-light and soft pants are inspired by the world of sports, worn with handmade sneakers and a classic jacket canvassed and stitched by hand. Whenever a shape is fitted and slim, it is deconstructed, as in a handmade evening jacket in silk jacquard with no lining but a shape defined by a roppen, a slim tubular detail on the shoulders. Sartori described the micro-nubuck hide he used as a “veil,” only 0.4 mm thick, “impalpable” yet waterproof and resistant. “We call it a second skin,” he said.

“Combining the artisanal spirit with a modern one [offers] a new aesthetic without any trace of nostalgia or vintage references for the man of today, who is multiethnic, of no defined age, but with a precise and defined personal style,” Sartori said.

In his view, today’s male consumer is looking for lightness and a defined silhouette but wants something that he can make his own. “This cross-pollination of contrasts produces a very sophisticated, interesting, yet light and new silhouette with some very precise elements,” Sartori said. The feeling of the collection, he continued, is outdoorsy, “definitely innovative, fresh, young, with a series of details in the proportions that are particularly interesting.”

Cases in point: Formal coats that close with a drawstring, or handmade K-ways with a rubber zip that incorporate a mix of couture and performance.

Sartori also pointed to a preference for three-dimensional structures and textured effects, with the combination of three or four colors to add depth. “I prefer to enhance one element in the silhouette. For example, if the knit has an imaginative intarsia, the neckline should be simple.”

The designer advanced traditional men’s wear fabrics to create some distance from “a recognizable retro world.” To wit, checks in pied-de-poule or Prince of Wales patterns are revisited, designed by hand and made irregular, in different sizes or geometry.

The color palette ranges from vicuna; “African earth,” including a series of browns and reds; woolly white; light gray; military green, and “all the colors of paper.”

Sartori also created a new generation of sneakers and handmade mountain boots with Goodyear construction, as well as travel bags and cases in Zegna’s innovative woven leather fabric. “It’s what a man needs today to live, work and feel good,” said the designer of the accessories, highlighting the looks’ style as well as functionality. In particular, he cited a new model of cases inspired by Zegna’s archival books of fabrics.

“The men’s wear scenario is constantly changing, there are moments of big changes followed by stabilization. At the moment I think it’s constantly new and not necessarily followed by stability,” Sartori said.

Given that constant change, Sartori’s vision for Zegna stretches beyond just the clothes into everything from the ad campaigns to the brand’s stores. The designer and Zegna are working with Peter Marino on a new generation of stores, modeled after the unit unveiled in London in November on New Bond Street. “It’s more open, luminous, fresh, inter-functional and more of an installation, a gallery,” Sartori said.

The designer highlighted a new way of working with all of Zegna’s creative teams and he will meet with merchandisers, store planners and other support staff following the fashion show so they can ensure the merchandise is presented properly in stores.

Turning to the show location, Sartori said “nothing was better than an artistic and industrial venue, with an accent on the clothes in contrast with the big, voluminous space.” In a nod to the brand’s customers, Sartori has opted for multiethnic and multigenerational casting, with models that have “style and personality.”

As reported, sources say the company has tapped Robert De Niro to front its new ads — which would also mirror Sartori’s new take on the Zegna customer. The designer said he could still not confirm this rumor and that he was currently working on the company’s new communications strategy.

And proving that he truly has come full circle in his new role, Sartori also will be in charge of the Z Zegna line, which is on display at Pitti Uomo in Florence. It now incorporates Zegna Sport as well. But all of them display the designer’s singular vision.

“Before we had three brands — now it’s one with three lines,” Sartori said.

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