The Italian megabrand is on a mission to modernise how men dress and reinvent suits for a generation that doesn’t wear them
“You don’t mind if I eat?” asks Ermenegildo Zegna, already tucking into one of those ham and cheese focaccia sandwiches that Italians half wrap in white waxed paper because it looks good and doesn’t get your fingers sticky. “I’m very casual.” He’s talking about his late lunch, but the man who runs the family firm could just as easily be discussing his business.
Zegna the brand, like its boss who is sitting in front of me, is loosening its collar. It has no choice. Since it was founded by Zegna’s grandfather in 1910, it has been associated with one thing — suits. But now, alas, suits are out of style. Off-the-peg sales have halved in Harrods, and boutiques have suffered declines of about 30%, analysts say. Meanwhile, more casual men’s brands, notably Berluti and Loro Piana, are on a tear — sales are up more than fourfold over the past five years in Berluti’s case.
Zegna can’t change too much, though. No brand loved by the likes of Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Cruise can dump its DNA. What Ermenegildo, whom everyone calls Gildo (pronounced Jildo), needs to do is reinvent the suit, while adding some deft casual wear along the way. And that’s what he is trying to do, with a new designer, Alessandro Sartori, that he has poached from (where else?) Berluti.
I meet the pair in the bespoke-suit suite on the top floor of Zegna’s London store on Bond Street, which has taken almost two years and tens of millions of pounds to build and opened just before Christmas. Sartori, 50 — who got his first job in fashion at Zegna aged 23, as a fabric designer, and rose through the ranks to become designer of Z Zegna, Zegna’s younger, hipper label, before heading to Berluti — has been given a new title, artistic director. Gildo, 12 years Sartori’s senior, calls him “confident, curious, fast and good at communicating with everyone. There is a chemistry between the two of us. We look each other in the eye and we know if something is right. We can only do better than before.”
One of the first things the duo want to do is to take suiting to new heights. While sales of off-the-peg suits, even Zegna’s posh ones that start from about £2,000, may be down, Gildo believes there is a growing market for super-luxe personalisation. “The unique, limited-edition mentality is coming back. We have two floors of made-to-order or bespoke suiting here in London because London is the number-one market in the world for made-to-measure.”
You can’t wear a £5,000 handmade suit without the right shoes, so Gildo has also chosen London to launch a bespoke footwear line. There are nine styles, with 10 leathers, in 60 colours, with 10 lining options. They will be made by the Savile Row-based Gaziano & Girling, “the Berluti of Britain”, as Gildo describes them. The shoes will only be available in the capital, cost from £5,000 and take six months to make. If the experiment works, other locally made products will be added as exclusives to stores in France and Italy “to respect the local culture and craftsmanship”.
To try to pep up sales of off-the-peg suits, the duo are adding new silhouettes and introducing more casual styles to appeal to a new generation, the Idris Elbas and Chris Pines of the world, both of whom have worn Zegna’s suits on the red carpet. “We are selling different kinds of suit — modern suiting, more casual suiting — with a different structure, colour, shape or style. We’ve created unconstructed suits and a square shoulder, called the Manhattan silhouette.” Two days ago, they started selling them in a new way, hot off the Milan catwalk, with a see-now-order-now capsule of 15 looks.
Gildo and Sartori are also changing the way Zegna talks to its customers. “You have to teach people how to style a suit differently. We say, ‘Don’t wear a solid tie, wear a knitted tie or a polo shirt.’ Be comfortable, more casual. Show them that and you will still be able to sell suits.” Sartori describes this approach as “writing a new grammar in men’s tailoring”.
The new casual wear includes cashmere sweaters, blazers, coats and the type of sneakers a fiftysomething would not find not too kidult to wear. To bolster the bottom line, there are new accessories, especially luggage and leather goods, that cost, well, rather a lot. And the bottom line does need bolstering. “We are going through a transition year,” Gildo concedes. “This year will be worse than last year overall. But, as you see, we are making changes that can enhance our brand next year.” As a private company, Zegna does not release profit figures, but Gildo will say it generated sales of £1.1bn last year.
The first fruits of the Gildo-Sartori relationship were unveiled two days ago in Milan. A new ad campaign will follow next month, fronted by Robert de Niro. As he finishes his sandwich and moves onto coffee, I remind Gildo that there is another famous American — now suddenly and unexpectedly powerful — who needs to learn how to wear a modern suit. Would he like to dress Donald Trump, who takes office on Friday. Gildo, ever the merchant, doesn’t hesitate. “I never say no to a new customer.”
The classic chaps
Try a knitted tie instead of a block-coloured silk one.
Don’t ruin a good suit with a cheap shirt. Wear one with double cuffs.
Learn how to tie a bow tie. Practise with an online tutorial. It’s not hard.
The cool crew
Tie-phobic? Wear a colourful pocket square.
Swap smart shoes for classic (and clean) trainers.
Unconventional colours make suiting look more modern.