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;

Zegna’s quest to have to­tal pro­duc­tion con­trol, from sheep to shop, is a cu­ri­ous wrin­kle in the lux­ury in­dus­try.

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