The story behind Ermenegildo Zegna’s success; why it’s time to give yourself a midyear career review.
You may have wondered, as we have, how the chairman of one of the world’s most renowned luxury menswear brands dresses on the weekend. Are there any sartorial lapses? Does comfort wrestle back dominance from style? The answers are as upsetting as they are predictable. On this chilly Saturday morning at a domestic airport terminal in Melbourne, surrounded by a sea of grey melange sweatpants and graphic tees, 61-year-old Paolo Zegna appears as a walking lookbook in his pressed cream trousers and a complementary woollen knit, hidden under an impeccable, waxed leather jacket. The Italian’s accessories are quiet, at a glance, but upon further inspection, infallible: tortoiseshell specs and sturdy RM Williams boots (a healthy personal obsession). Zegna is lanky and, age considered, quite rakish. He puts himself together in a way that feels complete – a man whose style has reached its zenith. Through the weekend, his every change of ensemble feels just right. He’s unfussy luxury – sprezzatura without the attention-seeking Pitti attitude. After our experience in the domestic terminal, there’s an urge to defend the way Australians dress. We’re better than this, honest. After all, former Prime Minister Paul Keating has a famed collection of Zegna suits. But there’s no need to argue. Paolo is very familiar with Oz, having been a regular visitor since the age of 23. “The thing that surprised me the most, the thing I’ll never forget, was the light,” says Zegna. “The light in Australia is the best that I have ever seen. It’s clear, it’s pure, the colours more vivid.” The country with the pure light would become an unlikely partner in Zegna’s role as the chairman of Ermenegildo Zegna, Italy’s century-old, billion-dollar luxury textile and menswear brand. It would also introduce him to his long-term romantic partner, the daughter of a Tasmanian sheep farmer who previously supplied the company with wool. In 2014, decades after Zegna’s first Australian jaunt, his team were in Sydney, wining and dining sixth-generation sheep farmer Charlie Coventry. Soon after, hands were shaken, ink was put to paper and Zegna bought a 60 per cent stake in Coventry’s Achill Farm, a 2500ha property outside Armidale NSW. The deal was as innovative as it was unlikely: a luxury Italian fashion powerhouse joining forces with a classleading, if small-scale, Australian agricultural business. Though to be clear, Achill is a bastion of top-shelf, Australian-grown, sartorially-ideal merino wool. And few could understand this quite as well as Zegna. Since 1963, the menswear brand has presented the Ermenegildo Zegna Wool Awards, an annual ceremony honouring Australia’s best wool suppliers. It is a natural alignment for Zegna as it has been among the largest buyers of Aussie wool for most of the 20th century. Project Achill is part R&D exercise, part public relations coup, and only represents around five per cent of Zegna’s total wool supply – some 20,000kg. But the business partnership hints at a much bigger plan for the brand, and luxury fashion houses more broadly. Brand Zegna has always been achingly modern in matters of vertical integration. The brand has produced textiles since 1910, feeding directly into its ready-to-wear business which launched in the late ’60s. The nature of Zegna’s textiles is so covetable that many other brands look to the company for sourcing – its client list includes Tom Ford, Gucci and YSL, among others. Zenga’s quest to have total control of the production process – something the company dubs “sheep-to-shop” – is a curious wrinkle in the luxury industry. Think of it as a luxe/rugged petri dish that could reveal the future of fashion retail. “We wanted to close the circle,” explains Zegna. “At this point, I believe we’re the only international company to be fully integrated.” A few hours later, we’re in another airport – a tiny one in Armidale, some 500km north of Sydney. The weather’s gone to hell. It’s bucketing down. Today, it’s hard to see what
Zegna first saw in Australia’s light. Frankly, it’s just plain hard to see. After a short drive, we’re introduced to a rainy, muddy, would-be miserable Saturday morning on the Achill Farm. We say ‘would-be’, because the scenes here – the mood here – is somewhat rapturous. On this farm, the rain is cathartic. More precisely, it’s very, very good for business. It’s the heaviest day of rainfall the farm’s seen in four years. Our brogues are soaked through but there are grins on the faces of Zegna and Coventry. “When growers meet, they don’t ask, ‘How’s your wife?’ They ask, ‘How’s the rain?’” says Zegna. The fashion house learnt its lesson quickly after acquiring a majority stake of the Achill farm, when the New England region fell into its worst drought in 150 years. The drought saw the number of sheep on the farm drop by almost 25 per cent. Those numbers are only trending upwards now, and gently at that, currently resting at about 10,000. Coventry is as instantly affable as an Aussie woolgrower ought to be (he prefers to be called Charlie – never Charles). “I count myself as the luckiest superfine woolgrower in Australia to have Paolo as a business partner,” says Coventry. “He brings an impeccable business acumen. It helps us to think very differently about what we do.” Zegna adds, “It’s a difficult business. It’s a passionate business. The people who stay in the countryside are the people who love the country. They give their time, their passion, their lives to it.” Zegna looks to Coventry as he continues. “They care about every animal. They treat them more like daughters than livestock.” We wander through a patch of the rain-soaked grounds, Zegna and Coventry leading the way. Ed, a wide-eyed, clean-shaven 23-year-old, is commanding a working dog, hundreds of metres away. He’s herding nearly 1100 sheep with only a wave and a whistle – one inexplicably audible to the dog through howling wind and downpour. It’s quite remarkable to think that at Achill, guided only by the whistle of the youngest bloke on the farm, is the beginning of thousands of luxury superfine woollen suits, eventually to be spruiked by a monolithic Italian fashion house. It’s a sartorial story most unlikely. Zegna is utterly drenched as he takes in the scene. His RMS are there, among the mud and dung, a loyal spectator on the factory line. “The feeling of adventure is even better with the rain,” he grins. He’s seen Ed do his thing dozens of times, but he still looks mesmerised. This kind of authentic moment – the billion-dollar brand chairman taking such interest in a sustainable production process in a tiny rural area of Australia – is a moment that luxury brands have, understandably, started to chase. Like every other big player in the sector, this fashion powerhouse had to contend with the global downturn. Equally as difficult, though, was contending with #menswear. A few years back, when the pendulum swung away from luxury toward trenddriven pieces, a reflection process began. “The consumer today wants to go well beyond the window,” explains Zegna. “He wants to know much more. He’s developed a certain degree of curiosity. If you’re offering him something, he wants to know – how is it made? Where does it come from? What is the philosophy of the makers?” Naturally, plenty of brands started to flex muscles that read “authenticity” and “history”; even though these were muscles they didn’t really earn in the gym. “Everybody says the same thing,” says Zegna. “Everybody thinks they can say, ‘I was the first to buy wool’, or ‘We’re 100 years old.’ I don’t know what archives they’ve been looking through?” It’s not to suggest a billion-dollar brand like Zegna didn’t hit a crisis of identity and resist the temptation to be something else. “It was what we thought the customers may have expected us to be,” explains Zegna. “To be younger, more fashionable, a little bit extreme. We tried. We can say it wasn’t particularly successful. It was possibly a mistake, but you have to make mistakes. Then, you simply correct them.” In 2017, the mistakes appear to be corrected. The mid-life crisis is over. Character, as ever, has risen to the fore. Zegna’s latest global campaign is helmed by a face that’s ubiquitous, but unfamiliar on billboards and Youtube pre-rolls: Robert De Niro. Trace the actor’s career and you’ll see that advertisements and endorsements are wildly, uncompromisingly rare. “He is a god,” shrugs Zegna. “He’s also a customer of ours. He has courage in who he is. His messages – of understanding what you want, and doing it – are so important.” The answer to the Zegna challenge, as it is with most things, was a subtle shift in direction – a recalibration of the compass. “We didn’t have to ‘create’ anything to feel authentic,” says Zegna. “We simply had to start communicating better these things that are real, and part of our history.” The next morning, the clouds part as our plane begins its take-off from Armidale. The rain, which hasn’t stopped for 48 hours, switches off. The pilots explain that this departure will be gentler than yesterday’s. Up in the air, looking down, a glimmer of light bounces off the Wollomombi River, the body of water that hugs the east side of Achill Farm. The direct sun is hitting the river, creating a brilliant yawn of light. From up here, it’s not hard to see what Zegna saw, all those years ago. Learn Coventry’s top tips for business partnerships at gq.com.au; zegna.com.au
Zegna’s quest to have total production control, from sheep to shop, is a curious wrinkle in the luxury industry.