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At 100, the Zegna textile firm and suit maker is looking good

Business acumen and a feel for fashion are key to surging into 21st century.

September 10, 2010|By Adam Tschorn | Los Angeles Times

The Italian textile manufacturer and men's suit maker Ermenegildo Zegna is scheduled to bring its yearlong, peripatetic centennial celebration to its Beverly Hills store on Tuesday. At almost exactly the same time, New York Fashion Week hits full stride about 3,000 miles away on the opposite coast.

While a company representative said the timing was purely coincidental (after all, the Milan-based brand pulled out all the stops for a 100th birthday bash during men's fashion week there in June), it's a good example of how the family-run company has managed to grow into a successful global business by operating outside the regular conventions of fashion.

In an era of instantly recognizable logos, celebrity designers, high-profile collaborations and over-the-top runway shows, the company whose name hardly trips off the tongue (it's pronounced ayr-men-ah-JHYL-doh ZAYN-yuh by the way) manages to churn out suits that range from $1,995 (ready-to-wear) up to $40,000 (made-to-measure) and have been worn by the likes of Bill Clinton and Tom Brady. Zegna suits are slim, but not too slim; they catch your eye, but don't pull your focus; and seasonal shifts can be so subtle that leaving an Ermenegildo Zegna runway show can make you feel like you've just been on the business end of a Jedi mind trick.

But retailers point to that stealth approach to style as one of the things that's helped propel a company that began in 1910 with two dozen looms and a handful of employees into a 21st-century global juggernaut with 550 stores in 86 countries. It sources fabric from Switzerland; has trouser legs and sleeves made in Mexico, China and Spain and dress shirts in Turkey. In 2009, the company rang up just over $1 billion in global sales of items including made-to-measure suits, sportswear, underwear, footwear and fragrances. That puts it in the same league as the 192-year-old Brooks Brothers brand, which, according to industry trade publication WWD, sees annual revenue in the neighborhood of $850 million.

In addition to its labels — which include the original Ermenegildo Zegna line, a younger-skewing Z Zegna sub-brand, a sport-casual collection called Zegna Sport and a women's label called Agnona — the company has produced men's suits for a host of other luxury brands, Versace, Armani Collezioni, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent among them. And when the exacting, detail-oriented American designer Tom Ford launched his eponymous menswear line, it was Ermenegildo Zegna he entrusted to manufacture his suits.

"[Zegna is] not dressing the trendsetter," says Eric Jennings, men's fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. "They're dressing real men in real situations." Jennings credits the company's longevity, in part, to its resistance to chasing fashion cycles.

"Rather than focusing on big changes in the style and cut and silhouette, Zegna puts its focus on the fabrications, making fabrics that are weather resistant, breathable and thermo-regulating," Jennings said, likening the company to an automaker. "Instead of changing the look of the car, they're focused on what's under the hood."

It's what's "under the hood" — textiles — that started the Zegna story back in 1910. That was the year young Ermenegildo Zegna took the reins of his father Angelo's lanificio (woolen mill), which had been built into the foothills of the Alps in the town of Trivero. According to family and corporate lore, the location was chosen because of the water that flowed out of the mountains. "The water at Trivero, due to its altitude, is incredibly soft, which made it ideal for washing wool," explained Anna Zegna, a family member who serves as the company's director of communications.

To that asset, Zegna added the best of everything he could lay his hands on — manufacturing equipment from Great Britain and wool sourced from every corner of the globe (today the company gets mohair wool from South Africa, merino wool from Australia and cashmere from goats in Mongolia). Early on, the company recognized the value of advertising. In 1968 the textile company branched into ready-to-wear. In 1972 it added made-to-measure services, and in the 1980s it expanded into sportswear.

We know all this because Ermenegildo was a scrupulous record keeper, 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.

But there's also something deeper than swatches and ledgers that connects the company's beginning to the present day — family. The business is run by the fourth generation of Zegnas, including CEO Ermenegildo "Gildo" Zegna and chairman Paolo Zegna, as well as communications officer Anna Zegna.

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