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

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.

San Francisco haberdasher Wilkes Bashford, who says his store was the first on the West Coast to carry the Zegna label in the late 1960s, believes the Zegna family was “visionary about what they created.”

“It’s a very smart family,” Bashford said. “And I think they have always been very careful and consistent in how the brand is presented and marketed.” In the 40 years the brand has been on his shelves, “they’ve evolved,” he said, “but they haven’t changed.”

The company’s ability to evolve was also cited by Kevin Harter, vice president of men’s fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s, who pointed to the company’s decision to roll out additional sub-brands instead of diluting the main line.

“They’re the original Italian heritage brand, and they’ve managed to stay current for 100 years. Z Zegna is a testament to that and Zegna Sport is a testament to that,” Harter said. “They’ve recognized where fashion’s evolved but they value that [customer] loyalty. The [Zegna] family is genius.”

As the company enters its second century, the family is hard at work grooming the next generation of Zegnas to work in the family business at the same time it’s making a major push into the Asian market. In fact, after the June fashion week fete in Milan, the globe-trotting centennial celebration and historical exhibition decamped to Shanghai in July to mark the opening of a flagship store designed by Peter Marino.

A smaller version of the exhibition will be included in next week’s invitation-only birthday bash in Beverly Hills, co-hosted by Anna Zegna and actor Ted Danson in support of the environmental organization Oceana. The event will also mark this month’s publication of the weighty 408-page, 635-illustration coffee table tome “Ermenegildo Zegna — An Enduring Passion for Fabrics, Innovation, Quality and Style” (Skira, $100), which traces the company history over the last century.

In addition to the book, a host of new, limited-edition pieces are being offered, including high-end pen and wristwatch collaborations. The company is also showcasing a new suiting fabric that feels as soft and silken as a pocket square — and is based on something very old.

“It is ‘Fabric No. 1,’ which was designed by our grandfather,” Anna Zegna said. “Each individual weft and warp was sketched and articulated by hand in his notebook.” She explained that the company reproduced the exact design in modern superfine wool, cutting the weight nearly in half from 500 grams per meter to 270.

That hearkens back to the way Saks’ Eric Jennings described the company: as a classic car on the outside, but with one heck of a lot going on underneath the hood.