Although you might not recognize the name of Z Zegna creative director Paul Surridge, you’re probably familiar with some of the luxury brands on his résumé including Burberry, Calvin Klein and Jil Sander.
And thanks to a current full-court press by Italian luxury brand Ermenegildo Zegna to build its decade-old Z Zegna, a younger more fashion-forward menswear label, in the United States market -- and the designer’s considerable skills -- it’s a name you’re likely to hear more often.
In researching a piece for Sunday’s Image section about the label’s decision to open its first-ever standalone store in North America in the Beverly Center, we sat down with the British-born 1997 graduate of Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design to chat about his tenure at the Italian luxury brand, the role of fashion shows and why L.A. is an important research destination for creative directors and fashion designers.
All the Rage: Z Zegna is often referred to as a “younger” brand compared with Ermenegildo Zegna. What is the key demographic?
Paul Surridge: I don’t see Z Zegna as an age but as a state of mind -- some day I’d love to put a 60-year-old man in a Z Zegna campaign. I don’t think they’d let me do that but I love the idea.
ATR: Another word that’s often used is “urban” -- but what does that mean exactly?
PS: The thing is, “urban” is a word that kind of works in every language -- Japanese, Chinese -- but for me it means “metropolitan.” The lines between work and leisure are blurred now, and I want to work in something and I want to stay with it the whole night -- that’s where the emphasis on technical fabrics comes in. It’s like I’m on my bicycle or in a taxi and don’t have time to change. So urban to me means the pace of city living and having a versatile wardrobe that reflects that.
ATR: You’ve been creative director of Z Zegna for almost two years, succeeding Alessandro Sartori who was at the helm since the label was created. What has it been like?
PS: The first season was sort of an express train to a heart attack, it was a tough season for me. I joined the company in July, and by the nature of our calendar I should have had the pre-collection [already] designed but didn’t, I was down a designer and I was just thrown in the deep end and started swimming, swimming, swimming.
ATR: You’ve now got three runway collections under your belt, what’s that been like?
PS: Yes, the first collection for me was about getting into the brand, making a fashion show, making it exciting. The second one was both an evolution and an adjustment at the same time. I don’t take too much criticism to heart. If you listen to everyone it’s like drops of ink in a glass of water: in the end the whole glass is gray and you don’t have a point of view any more.
ATR: I’ve read some very positive reviews of your most recent collection – is that your favorite of the three?
PS: Yes, I got some very kind words from some very celebrated people so I felt pretty happy.
ATR: What made the difference?
PS: For the fall/winter  collection I thought: “You know what? it’s time to bring Paul Surridge to the table because everyone knows I’m here now and there’s a reason it’s me [here] and not the person next to me.” I thought about what I had to say as a designer for Z Zegna because, at the end of the day, people want to know what you’re all about.
ATR: How important is the fashion show format for a brand like Z Zegna?
PS: A fashion show is a passport into the possibilities of the brand. We can fill shops and showrooms with a pre-collection, but when it comes to the [runway] show there are editors, photographers and stylists and they want a story, they want to be inspired. And that’s what I’m there to do -- inspire my team. That’s what a creative director does.
ATR: Which past job has been most helpful to you in your current role?
PS: I learned a great lesson from Christopher Bailey at Burberry about how to regenerate heritage and make it relevant for a younger customer. I was a first-hand witness to that -- he’s an amazing visionary and that definitely helped me change the language [at Z Zegna] and to speak more clearly to a younger generation.
ATR: Do you get to Los Angeles very often?
PS: I used to get out here about once every two years depending on the collection and the season. If you have time as a designer, as a creative director, L.A. is the place to come for research. Classics like Fred Segal, show you how L.A. contemporary stores are managed -- what the cool kids are doing -- as well as Maxfield and all of Melrose [Avenue].