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Ermenegildo Zegna faces forward with designer Stefano Pilati

Staid menswear label Ermenegildo Zegna brings aboard Stefano Pilati from Yves Saint Laurent as head of design, signaling a 'new chapter.'

November 24, 2013|By Adam Tschorn
  • Looks from the Ermenegildo Zegna Couture collection feature actor Jamie Dornan as the new face of the men's label.
Looks from the Ermenegildo Zegna Couture collection feature actor Jamie… (Inez & Vinoodh )

For menswear aficionados, Italian luxury label Ermenegildo Zegna has long stood for a high-quality yet understated gray-flannel sensibility. But for colorful, personality-driven runway fashion? Not so much.

Which is why it's significant that, after 103 years, the brand has decided to put a face with its name for the first time in a branding initiative that was unveiled earlier this month in the razzle-dazzle capital of the world, Los Angeles.

The new star is Stefano Pilati, who spent eight years as creative director of Yves Saint Laurent and who joined the Zegna Group in January as head of design for the Ermenegildo Zegna brand and designer of Couture, its premium menswear line of handmade suits, shirts, outerwear and accessories, which was shown on the runway for the first time during Milan fashion week in June.

Putting Pilati in the driver's seat marks a major branding shift for Zegna, which started as a textile maker in 1910 with a handful of employees and two dozen looms and has grown into a global label that saw revenue of 1.261 billion Euros in 2012 (about $1.7 billion U.S. at current rates), due in large part to its focus on super-luxe fabrics. Until now, the firm has eschewed the designer-as-star approach that is so prevalent these days, as seen at labels such as Chanel (Karl Lagerfeld) and Saint Laurent (Hedi Slimane).

But Zegna descended on Los Angeles earlier this month for a pair of high-profile events to signify it's ready to take a seat at the celebrity-driven branding party.

First was a star-studded grand reopening cocktail party at Zegna's recently relocated and expanded Rodeo Drive flagship that had Pilati posing for photos and mixing with celebrity guests, including Edward Norton, Jeremy Renner and Jim Parsons.

That was followed by the unveiling of an advertising campaign at a larger event — an equally star-studded dinner party at a cross-town design gallery — that left no doubt about Pilati's move to center stage.

Part of the campaign for Zegna Couture is a short video that starts with Pilati, seated at an anchor desk, introducing the collection, followed by a video voice-over in which Zegna Group Chief Executive Gildo Zegna, the fourth generation to work in the family business, calls it "a new chapter in Zegna's history."

The campaign also features actor Jamie Dornan (recently cast as Christian Grey in the upcoming film version of "Fifty Shades of Grey") positioned as the new Zegna Couture ideal: a blue-suited, scarf-wearing rake of a fellow, appearing in a series of images alongside model Paolo Anchisi, who is dressed in a slightly more conservative (but no less elegant) range of gray suits.

Pilati calls the campaign "New Éminence Grises," a French phrase for those who who wield power behind the scenes. "Part of it comes from the fact that Zegna is this brand that's always been known for its excellence in fabrics and its gray suits, and this new collection is one with a lot of color," he said.

But all the branding sizzle in the world isn't worth a tarnished cuff button if it's selling substandard steak, so what about the clothes themselves?

The new spring Zegna Couture pieces hit the shelves of the Rodeo Drive flagship in Beverly Hills just as Pilati arrived in town, making it the first stateside store to offer the collection (only two other U.S. boutiques — in New York City and Chicago — and 30 stores globally will carry it). Based on what we had a chance to check out, it's just the dash of fashion-forward fresh air the brand could use.

There was noticeable, but not over the top, color throughout the collection of suits, suit separates, shirts and outerwear; a range of blues (from navy to sky), greens (sage, fern, jade) and a few eye-catching colors like Bordeaux, coral and butter yellow, but in a range that also included earth tones such as olive, mud, brick, khaki and tobacco.

While strikingly beautiful from afar, it's only upon closer examination that the marvel of the fabrics can be truly appreciated; they include micro-pattern wool mohair, printed silks, floral jacquard wool and cottons shimmering with iridescence. One fabric that appeared in suit separates somehow managed to combine a floral jacquard with a chevron-pattern background.

Some of the other fashion-forward flourishes include pajama-like contrast tipping on dress shirt collar points, jacket lapels that fall somewhere between notch and peak, and rounded jacket cuffs that flare slightly, unencumbered by either buttons or buttonholes.

"There are no buttons for two reasons," Pilati said. "First, it gives the piece a certain Minimalist look. Second, all of these pieces are handmade, so if a customer wants a button and a buttonhole, that's OK. If not, that's OK too."

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