The Australian - Wish Magazine
Italian menswear brand Zegna has always favoured sustainable processes, but with new sourcing and production methods it’s aiming to reduce its environmental footprint even more
It seems almost unbelievable to us that 90 years ago, Ermenegildo Zegna, the namesake founder of the luxury fabric and suiting business, made a radical decision to begin planting trees. Today, in a time when the Amazon is burning, largescale landclearing is causing political and community tensions in Australia, and millions of young people around the world are striking in the name of climate change, it’s far more common for fashion brands to make gestural environmental statements. Having an environmental policy to help offset the impact of creating clothing – from the production of raw materials and the chemical treatments of colours and finishes, through to the carbon emissions of the supply chain journey and endoflife disposal – is standard for most of them.
And yet while Zegna’s planting of what amounted to some 500,000 evergreen trees, beginning in 1929, was then, as it is today for most brands, about image, he intended it to benefit the families of his staff. Based in Trivero in Italy’s northwest, due to the water’s high mineral content, which benefits the quality of the wool cloth produced, Zegna employed more than 1200 people from local villages in his mills. It was for them that the public parks, as well as a medical centre, school and children’s nursery his business established, were for. And although Oasi Zegna, as the 100sq km park has since been named, is now known globally as an early example of a Herculean (and nongovernment) reforestation and conservation effort that transformed bald mountains into dense forest, its primary beneficiaries are locals, the park connected to nearby villages by a 26km road, the Panoramica Zegna.
TheZegnabusinessremainsfamilyownedandoperated–thefounder’s grandson, also named Ermenegildo, along with his cousin, Paolo, lead the company – and the ethos of placing emphasis on corporate social and environmental responsibility remains integral to the way it is run.
“The company today is of a very similar mindset,” confirms Alessandro Sartori, the artistic director across Zegna’s various lines. “Of course, times are different, but the things that matter – the environment, people – remain the same. We create for the future.”
Sartori returned to Zegna in 2016, having previously spent eight years as its creative director before leaving to launch Berluti’s debut apparel collection. The homecoming, he says, has been incredibly fulfilling.
“It’s a very special place to be because there is no other place like this,” he says. “The analogy is of having a full kitchen at your disposal, like I imagine Chanel is for womenswear. We make everything from the raw materials through to the end product, and then sell them in our own stores. That’s really special.”
The completely vertical nature of Ermenegildo Zegna means that it has the ability to monitor and reduce its environmental footprint. While sustainability has been used as a marketingtool by certain brands – though customers today are incredibly perceptive about greenwashing by fashion brands – for Zegna it’s ingrained in the business. And with the ownership of its own Australian merino woolgrowing property, Achill, in Armidale, NSW, which supplies a significant portion of the wool clip used in its garments, the brand is even more exposed to the frontline reality of a changing climate and how the prolonged drought impacts production.
For its Spring 2020 Collection, the brand hosted its runway show in a dilapidated Milanese building. Originally built as Area Falck, a monument to modernism, the building had, over the years, turned into a metropolitan wasteland. However it will soon be transformed into a health and science hub, peppered with gardens that contributes to the greening of the Italian city. The idea of turning waste into opportunity inspired Sartori in his design of the collection, titled Use the Existing, in which the brand aimed to minimise its textile waste by turning fabric scraps and offcuts into innovative new materials.
“It is our duty as denizens of this world to live responsibly,” he says. “I want to do it using the creative means at my disposal, which extend from the materiality of fabricmaking to the exquisite technicality of tailoring. We do not need to create from scratch, but we can reuse and reinvent the existing, making progressive fabrics out of discarded ones, translating traditional techniques into innovative tailoring, turning an abandoned place into an area of creation.”
Of particular note in the collection is the “Achill” suit, which is made entirely of wool remnants from the namesake farm, using the fibres discarded during the process of suitmaking that are then remixed and rewoven. The concept of using every fibre in the construction of fabrics and finished garments – the sartorial equivalent of nosetotail cooking – might initially seem an insignificant attempt at reducing an apparel brand’s footprint, but as Sartori explains, the amount that is discarded at each stage of the process is collectively very large.
“I was particularly shocked to learn that in the process of creating fabrics, 10 to 20 per cent is discarded,” he says, noting that short or broken fibres are omitted from the spinning process because they prevent the final fabric from being as fine and smooth as it can be. “It doesn’t sound like a
lot, but when you’re transporting all of these raw materials to our mills in Italy from places such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, only to discard 20 per cent of it, that’s an enormous waste of energy.”
The process of elimination doesn’t end there, though, with a further 25 per cent of material discarded at the cutting stage, with many of the offcuts not large enough to be used for other garments. “So in total we’re talking about nearly 40 per cent, from the raw fibre to the finished product, and that doesn’t take into account things like unsold garments at the end of a season,” adds Sartori.
Through the development of new machinery, and innovation encouraged within the design studio, Zegna has made significant strides in reducing its waste of natural materials, recycling about a quarter of it through the creation of other materials to be used for pieces such as outerwear that don’t require the fine, light sheen of a suit. “There is still a lot to do, but we are getting there and have very strong intentions,” Sartori says.
The adoption of closedloop manufacturing practices and subsequent reduction of virgin fibres, coupled with Zegna’s preference for natural over synthetic, led to it receiving the Award in Recognition of Sustainability at the third annual Green Carpet Fashion Awards in Milan in late 2019. An initiative of the National Chamber of Italian Fashion, the prize has fast become the Oscars of green fashion, with celebrities handing over trophies to those making headway in minimising the industry’s footprint.
Cate Blanchett was on hand to deliver the Eco Stewardship Award to a group of Australian wool growers in 2018. Other winners have included Kering chairman Francois HenriPinault, for leading the luxury conglomerate’s environmental profit and loss methodology, and designer Stella McCartney, for her supply chain transparency.
Zegna says that while the recognition is appreciated, the sustainably minded practices are simply business as usual at the company. “Since the very beginning, our family business has been driven by a commitment towards the environment and the community,” he says. “Zegna’s global mission is deeply rooted in the pioneering vision of [my grandfather] Ermenegildo, who understood the importance of developing the brand [ while] respecting nature.”
The success of sustainably produced fashion is, however, variable, and depends on two key factors. Firstly, consumers must be willing to embrace change, because despite the best intentions of designers such as Sartori, if costly moves towards greater sustainability within the
fashion market don’t make the cash register continue to ring, the higherups of large brands will see to such efforts being undone. But on this point Sartori feels certain the timing is right, especially at a brand such as Zegna, where the customer is already changing as a result of shifting dress standards and the subsequent – though gradual – disappearance of the formal business suit from city streets. “I see two sets of people: there are those who will buy if they like it but aren’t compelled to buy because it is or isn’t sustainable, and then there’s a younger generation for whom the brand ethos is part of [ their purchase decisionmaking] process.”
Sartori points to large online department stores, including Luisa via Roma and Farfetch, that now offer search functions that filter products based on their ethical and sustainability attributes, as evidence of the changing market. “Soon they won’t have sustainable sections because tomorrow the whole website will only be made up of sustainable products,” he says.
Secondly, sustainable production does not excuse poor design. In the nascent years of the industry’s awakening to its environmental impact, brands were often divided into those that were considered green and those considered stylish. That’s largely changed, of course, with designers such as McCartney, Gabriela Hearst and Phillip Lim having proved that the two concepts are not mutually exclusive, and that innovating along the supply chain can offer knockon inspiration for the design of the garments, or vice versa. “What’s important is that we are a company who cares; we think it’s part of the creative process rather than something separate,” says Sartori. “Achill is just one example of that. We are doing well today, but aim to be even better for tomorrow.”
The Spring 2020 Collection, pictured on these pages (and in the following fashion spread) at Achill, is evidence of Sartori and Zegna’s ongoing commitment to quality and creativity, despite the brand’s growing investment in sustainable production processes. Where the previous collection favoured a utilitarian style – quilted bomber jackets, anoraks with ample pockets – in a rich palette of wine and forest tones, the Spring Collection offers a contrasting lightness. Many of the suits have a languid, voluminous shape, crafted from super lightweight fabrics in creamy ceramic colours, while cropped shirts are crafted from buttery leather.
“I like that romantic look,” admits Sartori, who during our meeting wears an oversized suit in a technical sports fabric, paired casually with a crewneck tee. “My concept of designing a suit is not about a classic blazer in a matching fabric. The guy [ who purchases] a traditional suit still exists, and of course we still have that, but we also take inspiration from sports, from leisure. The look is more relaxed.”
Zegna has encapsulated this shifting customer base in its latest campaign, What Makes A Man, starring Mahershala Ali. “In the past you would have a guy coming into the store and buying four suits and four shirts for the season, but today that man doesn’t exist,” says Sartori. “He might spend the same amount of money, but in a different way, mixing and matching products in his own style and for his own way of life.”
So, what makes a man today? “It’s not about an advertising campaign with a guy drinking whisky and smoking a cigar and having a beautiful woman with him. But we also don’t want to make a statement, because it’s not our place to say what the man of today is. So instead we started a conversation, because being a man today means so many different things.”
The brand is betting that includes environmental responsibility when it comes to their wardrobe, but feels confident the younger generations of Zegna customers think sustainable as much as they do sartorial.
“With the Use the Existing project, we are simply reinforcing our pledge in the sustainability journey that has existed [ for us] since 1910,” says Ermenegildo. Sartori agrees, adding: “I notice the change [ in customers] just out on the streets, when I travel, when I talk to people in the stores. There are many small brands doing things, but it takes the big brands to make an impact, and these principles are what guided our Use the Existing collection and will continue to guide the future ones.”
Designers have proved that the concepts of ‘green’ and ‘stylish’ are not mutually exclusive, that innovation along the supply chain can offer inspiration