A Legacy of Thread: The Unrivaled Ermenegildo Zegna
A Legacy of Thread: The Unrivaled Ermenegildo Zegna
- Words Jacob Victorine
- Date January 17, 2018
While, these days, Italian fashion mogul Brunello Cucinelli is considered by many as not only the king of cashmere, but also the king of vertical integration and altruism, another Italian company, the Ermenegildo Zegna Group—founded more than 50 years prior to Cucinelli—has been operating by a similar credo since its inception. The legacy began during the late nineteenth century, when Michelangelo Zegna, a watchmaker by trade, began weaving wool from four looms in Trivero, in the Alpine foothills near Biella, in northern Italy. In 1910, Ermenegildo, the youngest of his ten sons, took over the looms from his father and founded the Lanificio Zegna (wool mill) at the age of eighteen with the help of his brothers Edoardo and Mario. Ermenegildo believed that, in order to be successful, his fabrics had to be “the most beautiful in the world.” He hoped to accomplish this feat by specifically sourcing natural fiber wools directly from their country of origin. According to Anna Zegna—the brand’s current image coordinator—the Alpine water didn’t hurt either. “The water at Trivero, due to its altitude, is incredibly soft, which made it ideal for washing wool,” she said to the Los Angeles Times in 2010. The combination of superior wool and Ermenegildo Zegna’s business sense quickly lead to local success. By 1927. the Lanificio Zegna employed 723 workers, which allowed the youngest of the Zegna clan to bring some of his other beliefs to fruition, namely sustainability and stewardship.
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Like Cucinelli would go on to do in his surrounding town, the Zegna patriarch began to invest in his surroundings. In 1929, Ermenegildo began planting thousands of trees along what would come to be known as the “Panoramica Zegna” road. Today, the 14-km route, linking Trivero to Bielmonte, is a modern tourist resort with breathtaking views 1,500 meters above sea level. In 1932, he broke ground on the construction of the social facilities in Trivero, including a cinema, bar and canteen, ballroom, indoor swimming pool, gym and maternity ward. It was that same year, Ermenegildo started the process to trademark his fabrics. Yet, according to The New York Times, his ambition went even further. he braved “the two-week boat journey to New York in the 1930’s, wooing Italian émigré tailors by serving Neapolitan dishes as he offered his bales of cloth.” Ermenegildo Zegna’s endeavour seemed to pay off. In 1938, he established the Zegna Woollens Corporation on Fifth Avenue in New York to distribute fabrics within the U.S. and, by 1941, Zegna fabrics won first prize in the New York Menswear Fashion Exhibition. By 1945, the fabrics were available in over forty countries around the world.
Yet, Ermenegildo not only focused his attention on the quality of Zegna’s products, but also on the quality of the company’s processes. He bought superior manufacturing equipment from the U.K. and sourced wool from countries across the world, including Mongolia, South Africa and Australia. According to the Los Angeles Times, he also kept meticulous records, “jotting down ‘recipes’ for each and every fabric that rolled off the looms at the lanficio, complete with swatches or sketches. He saved ledgers, employee records and early advertising copy, all housed in the company’s archives in Trivero.”
These records made it relatively easy for Ermenegildo to bring his children into the business when they were ready. Between 1944 and 1945, he made his sons, Aldo and Angelo, partners, respectively. During the ‘50s and ’60s, they took over management of the Lanificio Zegna from their father and expanded upon both his philanthropic and financial endeavors. In 1956, they completed the Panoramica Zegna and, in 1963, they built a residential housing estate, followed by a ski resort and additional residential housing in Bielmonte in 1965. 1963 saw the establishment of the Ermenegildo Zegna Perpetual Trophy to reward the company’s best breeders of Australian Merino wool. On November 18, 1966, Ermenegildo died in Trivero, but his lifelong work continued through his sons.
In 1968, Angelo and Aldo opened a factory in Novara, Italy to produce sleeve-units and trousers and then expanded abroad, starting in Spain in 1973 and adding further manufacturing facilities in Switzerland, in 1977. The ’70s were a time of significant expansion for Zegna. In 1970, Zegna established the Conte Zegna Mohair Trophy to reward its best breeders in South Africa. In 1972, Angelo and Aldo launched the brand’s Su Misura made-to-measure service, began production of ties and accessories and established the Della Rovere manufacturing plant, specializing in high quality knitwear. The brand also expanded its international distribution network, adding sales and marketing departments in France, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S., among other countries. In 1979, the brand presented its first leather goods collection and, in 1980, Zegna opened its first retail store, located in Paris.
During the early ’80s, Angelo and Aldo also brought their children Gildo, Paolo, Anna, Benedetta, Laura and Renata into the family business. After a short tenure as co-chief executive starting in 1998, Gildo, short for Ermenegildo, has been the sole chief executive of Zegna since 2006. Responsible for much of the company’s growth since he came aboard, Gildo helped grow Zegna into a billion dollar business, and the largest luxury menswear brand in the world. Prior to working for Zegna, Gildo received a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of London and, in the late ’70s, worked as an assistant buyer in the sportswear division of Bloomingdale's under retail legend Marvin Traub. Starting in the early ’80s, Gildo spurred Zegna’s expansion throughout the U.S. and Europe through shop-in-shops in stores such as Harrods and Neiman Marcus. In 1985, the company opened its first store in Milan, followed by stores in London (1987), New York (1990), and China (1991) located in a small boutique hotel in Beijing.
During the late ’80s and ’90s was a period of exponential growth for Zegna. Under the direction of Gildo, the brand not only rapidly expanded its ready-to-wear lines, but also began working toward becoming a fully vertically integrated company. In 1989, Zegna launched its Zegna Soft brand and, in 1995, it acquired Tarsa, a clothing manufacturer based in Mexico. In 1999, Gildo oversaw the introduction of another new brand, Zegna Sport, and the acquisition of Lanerie Agnona SpA, an Italian womenswear manufacturer, which eventually became Zegna’s womenswear line Agnona.
Like his father before him, Gildo has worked to sustain and expand upon his grandfather’s vision of Zegna as leader in conservation. In 1993, the company established the Oasi Zegna, a freely accessible nature park in the Biella Alps and, in 2000, it founded the Fondazione Zegna, with the mission to “give continuity to the values, philosophy and work of Ermenegildo Zegna,” including conserving environmental and cultural resources, fostering sustainable development in local communities, supporting medical and scientific research and educating and training young people.
Incredibly, Zegna expanded even further during the start of the new millennium. In 2001, the company became the majority owner of fabric maker Master Loom and, in 2002, it acquired the company Guida, including its Longhi leather goods brand. That same year, the company launched the Zegna School “to help employees grow and develop their full potential” and partnered with Ferragamo to launch ZeFer as a way to expand Zegna’s presence in the footwear and leather goods markets. In 2003, the company launched its first fragrance, Essenza di Zegna, distributed by YSL Beauté, and added Sharmoon, a menswear manufacturer and retailer in China, to its portfolio. In 2004, the company launched Z Zegna, with an eye on younger consumers, as well as made-to-measure shoes. A year later, Zegna debuted its Z Zegna fragrance and its first collection of sunglasses and optical frames, Ermenegildo Zegna Eyewear, produced by De Rigo.
Since the mid-2000’s Zegna has not only expanded its presence through manufacturing and retail, but also through architecture and design. In 2007, the company debuted its first Global Store, designed by architect Peter Marino. Since then, the company has opened additional Global Stores in Milan, New York, Tokyo, Dubai, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Las Vegas, among other places. The stores are characterized by their blonde wood interiors that, according to Marino, are reconstituted from sawdust. 2007 also marked the opening of Zegna’s Global Headquarters in Milan, designed by architect Antonio Citterio, which houses the company’s global showrooms, product development, store planning, sales and marketing teams; 2007 also saw Z Zegna debut at New York Fashion Week.
In 2010, Zegna celebrated its centennial with numerous parties throughout the world and the publication of Ermenegildo Zegna — An Enduring Passion for Fabrics, Innovation, Quality and Style, a 408-page, 635-illustration book that traces the first hundred years of company’s history. According to the company’s website, the Ermenegildo Zegna Group currently has more than 7,000 employees worldwide and a total of 525 stores (298 of which are directly operated). Along with its Ermenegildo and sportier Z Zegna brands, the company also produces Ermenegildo Zegna Couture, Su Misura and Agnona. Apart from personal sartorial endeavours, the Zegna group has also produced suiting for brands such as Versace, Armani Collezioni, Gucci and Tom Ford over the years. In order to more fully embrace the fashion aspect of the business, in 2012, Zegna hired former Yves Saint Laurent designer Stefano Pilati as its creative director and he oversaw the design of its various lines, in particular Ermenegildo Zegna Couture and Agnona, until his departure in 2016.
In 2014, Zegna bought a 60-percent stake in Achill, a four-generation-old, family-run sheep farm in New South Wales, Australia, bringing the company’s goal of complete vertical integration full circle. Later in 2014, Gildo’s son Edoardo joined the Zegna Group to run the company’s omnichannel, adding a fourth generation Zegna to the family business. Most recently, in 2016, the company hired Alessandro Sartori, former designer of Z Zegna and then creative director of Berluti, as its artistic director.
Sartori is just the latest example of Zegna’s knack for continuity and loyalty, even if he isn’t officially part of the family. Born in Zegna’s birthplace of Trivero, Italy, Sartori grew up spending time in his mother’s dressmaking workshop, studied fashion design at Istituto Marangoni Milano and was hired by Zegna immediately after graduating in 1989. He eventually left, came back to design Z Zegna from 2003 to 2011, and has returned again with a plan to make the most out of Zegna’s vertical integration: “It’s about the one-to-one relationship you’re able to have with your customer, telling him something [that] is unique. Here we can design from the fibre, creating a specific wardrobe for an ideal customer. It’s about that shirt, that print, done in that colouration, and that’s it. Each piece tells a different story,” he told The Business of Fashion in 2016. And, despite menswear’s general movement toward streetwear and away from tailored clothes, Zegna’s hundred-plus years of values—namely its commitment to quality fabrics, storytelling, transparency and sustainability—make it likely that the company will be around for someone to write a similar article as this one a full century from now.