MILAN, Italy — Last Wednesday, when Alessandro Sartori started his new position in Milan as artistic director of the Ermenegildo Zegna Group, it was more sentimental homecoming than first day on the job. His connection with the company is umbilical. Sartori was born in Trivero, where Ermenegildo built the family’s first mill in 1910. He joined the company out of design school in 1989, left, came back, stayed until 2011, when he moved to Paris for Berluti, the sole menswear jewel in the LVMH crown. For all that history, Sartori insists a return to Zegna was never on the cards. “I love Paris as much as Milan,” he says in an exclusive conversation with BoF. “And I had a fantastic relationship with Antoine Arnault and his family. But then Gildo Zegna called, and his ideas and projects for the future really fascinated me.”
No, “fascinated” isn’t strong enough, the Zegna chief executive’s proposal obsessed him. And obsession is something that sits as well on Sartori’s elegantly ascetic frame as one of his own designs (remember sarto is Italian for “tailor”). He is practically messianic about the creative possibilities of Zegna’s vertically integrated operations, unmatched in the industry. “The future of this business,” Sartori calls it.
Did he get an inkling of such a thing at Berluti? “Absolutely, in the combination of craft and modernity, but on a different scale. Antoine and Pietro [Beccari] were super smart. I watched them carefully. It was probably the only place you could get such deep experience with leather, in shoes, in bags and in all the treatments. But here, the story is related to the personalisation of the raw fibre.” And it starts at the very beginning, with the diet of the Merino sheep on the Achill wool farm in New South Wales that Zegna acquired in 2014. What truly thrills Sartori about this “360 degree project” is the unprecedented opportunity it gives him for personalised brand storytelling.
It’s about the one-to-one relationship you’re able to have with your customer, telling him something which is unique.
He believes it comes first, even over service, quality and creativity. “It’s about the one-to-one relationship you’re able to have with your customer, telling him something [that] is unique. Here we can design from the fibre, creating a specific wardrobe for an ideal customer. It’s about that shirt, that print, done in that colouration, and that’s it. Each piece tells a different story.”
During his eight years as artistic director for Z Zegna, Sartori made his knack for storytelling clear with a handful of shows whose cinematic sweep stood out in Milan.
“I found some of those collections very new for what they were,” he says now, “which probably means they were wrong at the time.” But the storytelling going forward will be more intimate. “Men have evolved so much,” he continues. “It’s no longer about age, 25 or 70. We choose with much more attention, like choosing a piece of art or a chair for your home. In the ‘90s, product was driving, function came first. You need function, of course, but it’s no longer the first element. Very few companies are thinking to design something because someone needs it. Men are looking for what they really like, rather than what they need. Desire is more important.”
As Sartori sees it, his anticipation of that desire, with this intensely personalised approach, will have a huge effect on the actual design process. “It’s not just a season,” he says. “I have to think about a summer team and winter team. Or are parts of the team working only on research? I’m still thinking this out. Of course we’ll have seasons, but I see much more capsules, surrounding you with different moments, rather than going into a showroom and buying lots of fabrics or tons of shirts. I’m looking to blend talented senior people expert in specific products – luckily some are already here – with young talents coming from school, to design windows, store décor, shows.”
Sartori’s appointment was a huge step for the Zegna Group. It’s the first time so much power has been handed over to one person, amalgamating under one title responsibilities that were covered by a handful of people before. The rationalisation is a logical response to a shifting fashion landscape in which companies have been consolidating their second and third lines under a more unified brand umbrella. “I don’t see the three brands as main line, second line, third line,” Sartori clarifies. “I see three different men who are part of the same story. One mood, one general feeling, designed with the same approach but dedicated to a different customer. Z Zegna has a fresh, young, fast approach. More casual, modern, fashionable. The su misura man is addicted to details. The Ermenegilda Zegna man is much more into a contemporary lifestyle. But the three brands need to work together. They need to talk. Theoretically, we easily go from the high street to our own tailor these days, so why shouldn’t someone wear a Z sneaker, Ermenegildo cashmere jogging pants and a couture leather jacket?”
The other obvious question about the hugeness of the job has to do with personal cost, especially at a time when the industry has been sensitised to the massive demands being made on its figurehead individuals. Sartori sees that more as a difference not just in corporate cultures, but between menswear and womenswear. Still, he’s a guy who loves to grab his backpack and hit the road on his own, and it doesn’t seem like there’ll be much time for that anymore. “There wasn’t a lot before,” he counters. “It’ll be more or less the same now. I don’t see it in a big way, other jobs are much more heavy than this one, unless you’re suffering because you don’t like the work. I know it’s obsessive, crazy in a way, but it’s my love at the same time.”
And, just as in any other crazy love affair, Sartori feels nothing is impossible. Why should he, when Zegna can place at his disposal unsung stars like the lab technician in Tuscany who invented a way to weave leather into a yarn? Pelle Tessuta it’s called, and Sartori is enraptured by its possibilities. “You can print the leather, the single yarn or the final product. And when you see the result, you’ll think ‘Wow, that’s something I’ve never seen before.’”
Asked what visible differences a Zegna follower might expect to see in this rearrangement of the business under one guiding aesthetic, as opposed to the contrasting visions of the handful of designers who’ve had their hands on the various tillers over the past five years — Sartori says, “There are the pillars: the authenticity, the quality, the fabrics, the Italian style… Then I try to apply my signature with my love of music, my love of deep, rich colours, my cinematic storytelling.” He is already thinking about shows. “I like the idea of using Milan in a different way. I remember Romeo Gigli shows when I was a student. He used parts of the city that hadn’t been explored, abandoned places. I don’t like the idea of one venue for one company forever. You move to give a different emotion.”
Sartori’s own move has provided just that for him. “It’s romantic being back in the family with people I love.” He still has a feel for Paris though. He’ll keep a small place there. Reflecting on his favourite Zegna ad campaign, the one done 15 years ago by David Lipman in New York, he quotes the tagline, “At home anywhere in the world.”
“I think I will be the Zegna man,” he muses. Someone, maybe, he was always destined to be.