When Alessandro Sartori returned to Ermenegildo Zegna as artistic director in June 2016, it represented a homecoming for the Biella-born designer. Sartori had grown up riding his bicycle past the company’s headquarters as a young boy and joined the brand after graduating from design school. He spent more than a decade there, serving as creative director of the Z Zegna collection for eight years, before decamping for Berluti for a five-year stint. But returning to Zegna, he said, was a true “story of love” for the brand, the family and the Biella region.
Sartori spoke with WWD style director Alex Badia about his career, model casting and his advice for young designers.
WWD: Tell us how you became the artistic director of Zegna.
Alessandro Sartori: I grew up in the same area, Biella in northern Italy, which is where most of the wool and textile farms are located. My mom had an atelier for women and had seven tailors working for her. I saw everything she was doing and little by little, it became something very important for me. After that, I went to textile school — which we have a few of in Italy. It’s a kind of high school but with information about how you build the fabric and the true evolution from fiber to the final garment. Then I went to the Marangoni design school in Milan. After that, I worked for a fabric company as a fabric designer, then at Zegna and then 5 ½ years at Berluti in Paris and now back at Zegna 1 ½ years ago to pursue my dream.
WWD: You grew up in the town where Zegna is headquartered, right?
A.S.: Yes, I did. I would actually ride my bicycle in front of the company when I was a child. So I know the company pretty well.
WWD: What is the first step in your design process?
A.S.: Today it’s very different than it was years ago because the process is very integrated. We start storytelling in the design brief, not at the end of the collection. The designer, visual people, creative people all work together to produce what is the seasonal mood. We produce designs, sketches, documents, then we travel, go back and debrief and we start.
WWD: You oversee Ermenegildo Zegna Couture, which is more sartorial, Z Zegna, which is the younger line and the accessories. Do they all have the same integrated message?
A.S.: Absolutely. My boss Gildo Zegna’s vision was to have one brand with three lines, not three brands. So where Couture is fashion meeting craft, which I am particularly attached to, Ermenegildo Zegna goes from tailoring to luxury leisurewear, and Z Zegna goes from sportswear to activewear blended with tailoring such as washable suits in pure wool. The accessories are coordinated, but the full process is integrated. The designers, the visual people, the digital people are all working together from Day One.
WWD: You talk about three lines within one brand, but are they all targeted to the same man?
A.S.: First of all, it’s a man who likes Italian lifestyle, quality, beautiful colors and authentic materials. But he doesn’t have a specific age. He can be the same man at different moments or three different men. You can easily wear a Z Zegna trainer with a Couture jogger and a made-to-measure sartorial jacket. A big part of the business today is dedicated to personalization. In made-to-measure, we don’t do only suits but sportswear, sweatshirts, sweaters, shoes and leather jackets, too. We also offer bespoke. A jacket, which is made in prêt-à-porter, is 15 to 18 hours of work. Made-to-measure is the same garment, the same process, but we personalize it for you with your fabric and it’s 20 to 25 hours. Then there’s bespoke, which is entirely made by hand with four fittings and that’s 72 hours for a jacket. [In our Milan store] sportswear and accessories were growing very much in 2017 and tailoring was suffering, but the made-to-measure and bespoke business is booming. It’s as if the people who were buying before from the rack want the same type of quality but in a one-on-one experience.
WWD: Zegna has a reputation as a brand targeted to a more mature man. Are you trying to infuse more youthful energy into the brand?
A.S.: Yes. It’s a full Millennial mind-set or modern-man lifestyle. Everything is different today: the way they work, live, buy. So instead of selling, the sales associates need to style. Instead of showing the product, they need to tell the story. Instead of thinking that the jacket is the center or the suit and the accessory, like a shoe, is just part of the look, why can’t the shoe be just the beginning of the look? Styling, storytelling and accessories are the focus of the new strategy. We do a lot of trunk shows to engage customers and tell them what we are doing. I personally do a lot of those and my design team does too.
WWD: Are trunk shows popular?
A.S.: We use them to reach the final customer in different ways. When we go to the store, we don’t bring anything from Milan because we want to use what the store bought. After a couple of hours of styling, we create 15 to 20 silhouettes, we have models and they usually last one hour. Then we do private appointments. It’s like a very small fashion show with 40 to 50 people invited. We do one hour with six, seven or eight of the most interested customers and we have amazing comments.
WWD: What have you learned from these?
A.S.: That people know a lot, but they want to know more. They want to know how they can look better, how they can style at home. It’s not just copying a photo on Instagram, but evolving their personal style. We get a lot of information from these experiences. I think that if I was not a designer, I would probably be a tailor. I like the idea of working with people on their style and helping them.
WWD: Do you think the role of the creative director has changed?
A.S.: Very much. It’s a fully integrated job and since it’s more challenging, it’s even more interesting. This is a period in our business where there are big winners and big losers — you get on the train or you miss the train. And you don’t go on a slow train. But it’s good because if it’s a beautiful product, delivered well and you tell the story well, you know immediately if it’s working.
WWD: The company has gone into several retail partnerships that seem new for Zegna.
A.S.: Omnichannel is a big reality. We have a lot of customers from China, Australia, the U.K., USA, Canada, that order online and pick it up in the store. Or they go to the store if they need alterations. We have tailors in every store and can do alterations anywhere. If you purchase a garment in America, you can change something in Europe. On top of that, we have a lot of partners: Bergdorf’s, Neiman’s, Mr Porter as well as new channels, like WeChat in China. Zegna is very well-known in China because we started there more than 20 years ago. On WeChat, we experiment with pieces that I design specifically for them. We’ll put 500 or 1,000 shoes on the channel and in three days they’re gone, so it shows there’s potential that we haven’t started to explore or we’re just starting to explore.
WWD: You went to Berluti for five years and then came back to Zegna. What did you learn there?
A.S.: As much as I admire the Zegna family, I also admire the Arnault family, they put all of themselves into the company. Of course I learned a lot about leather, shoes, craftsmanship, but it’s a different way of working from Italy to France. At the end, the objective is the same, but Italians work a lot on product and in France, you work a lot on the marketing of product. If you integrate the two, I think you can have a great story and that’s what I was doing there and what I’m doing here. But I got an offer from my love from when I was child, so I decided to come back to Italy.
WWD: Do you like French food?
A.S.: I love it, but I prefer Italian.
WWD: Let’s talk about your casting. It’s so different and individualistic. What’s your method?
A.S.: First of all, it’s not about choosing just beautiful men any more, it’s choosing the right character. So instead of going for blonde or dark hair, South American or Italian, we decided we wanted to think about the modern man. It’s more real, democratic, down to earth and it’s more about picking someone with the right energy and the right spirit. We do street casting in at least five places, from the beginning of the season until the show. We work to find the right fit for the right boy. We have 45 looks and 45 men because we want to build the look on the guy, not the opposite. I don’t like to build looks and then find someone appropriate for that look. So we have 20 to 25 guys who are not models but have a good walk, a good energy, a good spirit and a nice attitude. Sometimes we change the fit a lot before the show because the person we have found has a completely different attitude.
WWD: In one of your shows, you dyed the floor orange and the following season, you covered the floor with fake snow. In your showroom, you created a forest and at Pitti you replicated a ski mountain. Why?
A.S.: Today to get success, it’s a question of emotional connection with the final person. If you don’t have that, you miss the train. So it’s really important to tell one [message] in a very clear way for the customers, journalists, stylists. We build a stage, but after the show, the presentation starts. I like to explain outfit by outfit and to show the craft and modernity. I believe that it would be nice to have on the tag, not the price, but the number of hours spent to create that garment. I like that after the show, there’s a presentation that goes into the showroom for press day and then the store windows and also on Instagram.
WWD: You’ve talked about including performance attributes in your garments. How do you bridge that with your heritage?
A.S.: It’s a constant innovation. We titled my first collection “Crafting Modernity.” The idea is to keep the wool and the beautiful fibers but blend them if needed with technical components or to treat them differently to have more performance [attributes]. We have a lot of very strong projects in the company like the Achill farm in Australia where we feed the sheep organic food and the raw wool becomes like a vintage-looking fabric. We have Oasi Cashmere, which is dyed with leaves and herbs and flowers without any chemicals. We have Techmerino machine-washable suits that you don’t need to iron.
WWD: You said the sales force at the stores shouldn’t be selling, they should be styling. How do you communicate your message of the season and train people all over the world?
A.S.: We have the Zegna School and a manager in charge of store experiences. So with these two entities, we communicate about the new collection, what to do, how to approach people. It’s a very different approach than before. We are changing and reinventing ourselves every day so we need to have a very strong, fast company and to move very quickly.
WWD: You’ve been at Zegna for 18 years, what does it mean to you emotionally?
A.S.: It’s a story of love with a family that I admire.
WWD: Does Zegna do any collaborations?
A.S.: We do more for the product than the marketing. For example, we have a very strong collaboration with Maserati where we dressed Giovanni Soldini and the sailing team for their world record from Hong Kong to London last month. We have that capsule in store and we’re also working with Maserati on the more gentleman sport racing [collection of] leather jackets and performance-driven garments.
WWD: How are you embracing technology in your regular collection?
A.S.: In this generation of modern garments, technology is a great asset. We like the composition of multilayer fabrics — one of the most popular garments we have is a triple layer fabric. Actually that jacket has a lot of properties. We can change the inside content like a sandwich season to season according to need. We have garments with a special machine where you attach a battery and the jacket gets warm for 12 hours.
WWD: Do you have any advice for new designers just starting out?
A.S.: First of all, you need to prove what you can do in a short time. Always work “as if.” Prepare your best CV possible, your best garments — don’t stop working. When you look at what you designed three years ago and then today, it’s very different — and that’s normal, because creative guys evolve. Street style is not something to keep separate, it’s part of our lives. To blend your personal creativity with what’s happening is very important. So keep working, keep evolving and be ready always with your portfolio, make garments, work with your machines or your hands, however you like to work. And when you have the chance to speak to someone, you have to kill him in a second. Quite often we work under stress and when we have a chance, if we’re not ready, it’s a pity because we did a lot for nothing. And remember you have to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to succeed.