MILAN — Who knew the Ermenegildo Zegna Group produced Emilio Pucci’s first men’s wear collection in 1968? And who knew Anna Zegna, president of Fondazione Zegna, worked with Gianni Versace on the designer’s first men’s collection in 1978?
These are only two of the surprising discoveries made during a preview tour of the exhibition “Uomini all’Italiana [Men Italian Style] 1968” staged at Casa Zegna, near the brand’s storied wool mill in Trivero, a one and a half hour drive from Milan. The exhibit, organized by Fondazione Zegna, celebrates the 50th anniversary of Ermenegildo Zegna’s entry into ready-to-wear and runs May 6 to Oct. 28. “These years were the beginning of the Italian fashion system and lifestyle,” said Anna Zegna. “Women’s wear was more established, while men’s wear was starting at that time.”
The exhibit also pays tribute to the namesake founder of the company, and to his sons, Angelo and Aldo. Ermenegildo Zegna first traveled to New York in 1938 to set up a branch, the Ermenegildo Zegna Corp., to meet Italian tailors, to work on direct distribution and “to fight the supremacy of English fabrics,” as claimed by a number of photos, ads and correspondence on display. An ad from the Thirties focused on quality, the manufacturing plant and the surrounding territory, the Oasi Zegna — “almost a CSR approach ahead of its times,” said Anna Zegna with a laugh. Angelo and Aldo, following their father’s death in 1966, realized the times were changing and that they had to expand the family’s textile business into rtw.
After eight months of research through the company’s archives, the resulting exhibit is an entertaining walk through history. Displays of Top — Zegna’s fashion and lifestyle magazine and catalogue that in the Seventies enlisted photographers from Alfa Castaldi and Oliviero Toscani to Gian Paolo Barbieri and fashion editors including Anna Piaggi, Anna Riva and Cristina Brigidini — illustrate the times, since it ran from 1967 to 1979. The Zegnas were ahead of the curve, asking writers such as Umberto Eco and philosopher and art critic Gillo Dorfles to write a book about the esthetic and sociological changes in society to better understand consumers, “the need of men to express their personality and to move away from a uniform to many different garments,” Zegna said.
The different lines that were previously tested by the group — Gritti, launched in 1968, and Cantara, unveiled in 1972, for example — were all merged into the Ermenegildo Zegna moniker in 1978. “They needed to experiment with ready-to-wear without damaging the Ermenegildo Zegna name and not scare the world of tailors,” she explained.
Angelo and Aldo Zegna industrialized the sartorial craft, innovating it and bridging tailoring and larger scale production at a time when consumers were demanding more diversified goods. Case in point: moving away from the traditional suit, Zegna launched pants, under the Cantara label, that could be worn with a knit top or a shirt. “They were called anti-jeans, a product that could live on its own,” said Anna Zegna.
The Zegna brothers focused on fit at a time when rtw meant standardized sizing, defining three specific body types and proportions: the more fashionable and younger GR 22; the more popular GR 33 for men in their 30s, and GR 44, for men in their 40s and bigger sizes in the German and American markets, for example. “Following different markets and adapting from the samples was innovative at the time,” she said.
Photos of Japanese tailors in Trivero for the first seminar of Italian design in 1973 flank those of the Gritti Corners, the furniture project with modular elements conceived for presenting and selling Zegna’s rtw products in multibrand stores.
The third generation — siblings Anna and ceo Gildo Zegna (Angelo’s children) and their cousin Paolo (Aldo’s son and president of the group) — developed the company’s retail network, from the first store in Paris in 1980 to the current 504 units in more than 100 countries globally. In 1991, Zegna was the first fashion brand to enter the Chinese market, opening a store in Beijing.