Zegna: Centennial of a Classic

The Ermenegildo Zegna Centennial Collection
Anna Zegna talks about her family’s legendary brand and its big year.
The Ermenegildo Zegna Centennial Collection

Italian fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna has built an empire on men’s suits, neckties, knitwear, sportswear and signature fabrics. Founded in 1910, the company continues to privately operate under the fourth generation of the Zegna family.  

Having built a reputation on utilizing the finest raw materials (Ermenegildo famously had “recipes” for fabrics), innovative customer relations and premium cuts, the company has grown to be multinational and include numerous sub-brands such as Z Zegna and Zegna Sport. In Seattle, both Butch Blum and Mario’s house the brand. Ermenegildo Zegna is one of the few retailers that is able to claim zero debts during times when most consumers are seeking bargains, not particularly luxury suiting.

Anna Zegna, a fourth-generation member of the family and image director of the Ermenegildo Zegna brand, had much to say about the brand’s century of operation, hopes for the future and its recent book (visit ZegnaCentennial.com for details) and traveling exhibit, which showed the process, history and innovation that defined the company.

The brand is known for its history and style. How do you know how to adapt and appeal to a broader customer range, and how do you know when it’s OK to change?

If you want to be an industry leader for 100 years, you have to change because the world is changing so fast we can’t even believe it. Style is changing and updating. One of the secrets is to respect your own personality and tradition but innovating always and going one step forward. It’s interesting to design for men. I prefer to work for men rather than women, because there are certain rules in the men’s wardrobe. There are certain proportions that evolve, but they don’t dramatically change. Zegna is more about this consistency and these constant updates. You know that our DNA is fabric. The basic ingredients of any product in menswear are what you use—whether it’s yarn for the sweater, unbelievable cotton, or whatever. The new fabric innovation is not only the pattern but also how the fabric is made.

We are a totally vertical company, so we buy the raw material and we create the final product. Today, more and more, you have to listen to the market. My brother, for example, he is passionate about the product, not sitting around his office. He goes around and tries on, and this concept of updating and understanding the evolution of men is what, in the end, brings in something new every season.

Also, the brand is becoming more global. Once, we were Italian, and now we’re in America, Europe and Asia. China is becoming a very important market. Understanding the mentality of the Chinese customers, understanding the needs and the lifestyle, is a very interesting challenge. We’ve been in China since 1991, and the Chinese customer started with the business suit. Today, they’re dressing equally with the business suit and the sportswear.

How much of the brand do you feel represents an Italian aesthetic versus an international aesthetic?

Limited Edition Zegna Centennial Cufflinks

I like how you said, “the spreading of the Italian aesthetic,” because I think that, in the end, we are known for a sense of beauty and a sense of culture and of aesthetic in the widest sense of the word, whether it is architecture, painting, art or music. Italian men have always had a special passion for dressing up, and all Italian men think they are designers—because they love it. I think this is embedded in the way we are. Secondly, I think we have a sense of color, so we use the color in a very subtle way. Look at how many different blues you have there—blue is blue—but, at Zegna, we have at least 15 different varieties of blues.

Also, I think this desire to match something very sartorial with something more comfortable is very Italian. I wouldn’t call it dressed down, but less contrived. Italy was able to transform a business suit into something very wearable and comfortable. There is this sense of ease that the Italians have. America has always been very successful in casual—this is not casual, this is more chic and refined.

Since we like to innovate a lot, there are certain products that are really unique to us. In the summer, we present the Cool Effect Blazer and the Cool Effect Suit, which is used on dark fabrics and is specially treated to reflect sun rays, allowing our bodies to feel 10 degrees cooler. This has been a very important innovation for us that the customer has loved. These special pieces are going to be found everywhere.

How often are you bringing new fabrics into the portfolio?

Constantly. If we have certain fabric innovations that are terribly revolutionary, we tend to keep them for X number of seasons because they are so successful. What is interesting is the customer is expecting Zegna to invent new fabrics every season, so we have customers who come here and ask, “What is new?” They are almost collecting.

What are some of your favorite parts of the exhibit?

I would first say that the exhibit is sort of condensed version of what we have in Milan, and we have divided it in four parts: the mind, the band, the style and the environment. We represent the four facets of Zegna.I love the mind because I think that it is the vision, and, without vision, you can’t build what comes next.

Ermenegildo Zegna

I believe that what is quite unique about our family history is that every generation has really brought a change. My grandfather started with fabrics, my father and uncle entered ready-to-wear in the early ’70s, and then there’s my generation. My brother and cousin developed this unbelievable retailing world as the foundation, and then continued with the environmental approach. I think it’s interesting to see how, without getting off track, we were able to develop and evolve not only the product but a vision of the entrepreneurial business.

We did the book in two years, and the book just came out in America. I’m happy that I’ve done the book before the exhibition, because the amount of material we have collected and put together is really showing how rich the brand is. It was quite fascinating to follow, for example, the brand evolution of advertising—from the first advertising in the ’30s, to arriving in America in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s almost like a prophecy, because today Zegna is definitely at home anywhere in the world.

We are so much involved in everyday work that sometimes it’s nice to sort of stop and look at all the history. What I would say is remarkable is the consistency of what happens. I believe it’s strong in its 100 years of work.

By Gabi De Mello Costa for Weekly Seven