LOS ANGELES, United States — Since joining Ermenegildo Zegna as head of design in January of this year, Stefano Pilati has kept a low profile, shunning backstage interviews and staying out of the limelight, seeming to prefer to let his work speak for itself instead.
A major manufacturer of luxury textiles and suiting (for brands like Tom Ford and Gucci) and a purveyor of classic men’s tailoring under its own Ermenegildo Zegna label, Zegna is the largest luxury menswear player in the world, with more than €1.2 billion (about $1.6 billion) in annual revenues. But in the face of growing competition in the luxury menswear sector, Pilati has been brought in to bring a new, fashionable edge to the powerhouse, tradition-steeped menswear brand by designing its "Zegna Couture" collection and overseeing the brand’s overall image.
But when it came to directing the opening of Zegna’s brand new flagship on LA's Rodeo Drive and the unveiling of his first ad campaign for the company, Mr Pilati says he hesitated to get too involved. “There was a moment where I thought, ‘Well maybe I shouldn’t participate, because it is not really me,’” revealed a polished yet effortlessly cool Pilati, (dressed in a delicately embellished bomber jacket from his debut collection, paired with jeans and a t-shirt) over breakfast at the Chateau Marmont hotel in West Hollywood, the day after a star-studded store opening party.
Pilati explained that it was actually go-to luxury architect Peter Marino who designed the new Zegna store, which has been conceived with a more classic Zegna aesthetic in mind. “But then at the same time, I am part of Zegna, so I wanted to support the event. It was the first time, in a way, that I was here officially for Zegna.”
Indeed, the LA party was effectively Pilati’s public debut for the Italian menswear behemoth (complete with the requisite celebrity shenanigans, including photos with Sharon Stone, Gerard Butler, Edward Norton and Joe Jonas) for which the designer oversaw practically every detail, right down to the deejays.
“They have art names but I don’t remember them,” jokes Mr Pilati when I ask him about the layered, electronic music that played in the background as the good and great of Hollywood mingled with Zegna executives and members of the international press. He knows the deejays' real names, of course. In fact, he brought them to Los Angeles from his current home base in Berlin. “One is François and the other one is Todd. They are both very good, so that is why I brought them here,” he adds, showing he is as plugged-in as ever into the creative zeitgeist.
This talent for plucking what’s cool out of the air has been a key pillar of an impressive career, during which Stefano Pilati has become one of the most talked-about fashion designers in the world. As creative director of Yves Saint Laurent, he was singled out by New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn, in 2005, as one of six “elite” fashion designers in Paris, alongside Marc Jacobs, Nicolas Ghesquière, Phoebe Philo, Olivier Theyskens and Alber Elbaz.
But the YSL role was the first time Pilati had stepped out from behind-the-scenes and into the limelight; he previously worked alongside some of the industry’s greatest designers — first Giorgio Armani, then Miuccia Prada and Tom Ford — but always in the background.
Churning out four collections a year for Yves Saint Laurent was no easy task, especially under the growing glare of the global fashion spotlight, amplified by the knowledge that the brand’s legendary founder, who died in 2008, and his business partner, Pierre Bergé, were watching as he tried to forge a modern identity for the venerable French brand.
Finally, in 2010, after a decade in the pressure cooker of Parisian fashion, Mr Pilati exited YSL, having been dogged by rumours and speculation for several seasons about his impending departure. Afterwards, he hinted to the media that he was ready to take a break — that was, until he had dinner with Gildo Zegna, the affable and energetic chief executive of Ermenegildo Zegna, whose grandfather started the brand in 1910.
Through the powers of persuasion, Mr Zegna brought Pilati out of his self-imposed professional hibernation by exposing him to the rich heritage of the Ermenegildo Zegna business and offering him the chance to simultaneously build a new womenswear line under the framework of Agnona, a dormant womenswear brand owned by the Zegna Group, and design for Zegna Couture, a collection which sits at the very top of the brand’s pricing pyramid and acts as a communication vehicle for Zegna as a whole.
For Pilati, it proved to be too irresistible an opportunity to turn down.
Mr Zegna saw Stefano Pilati as the ideal man to re-spin Zegna’s rich heritage into something more modern, with a current fashion edge; something that could help place Zegna comfortably alongside Louis Vuitton's menswear offering, designed by Kim Jones, and Berluti, which was in the process of transforming itself from a bespoke shoemaker into a men’s luxury lifestyle brand under former Z Zegna designer Alessandro Sartori.
In June, Mr Pilati unveiled his first collection for Zegna Couture to rave reviews. “The soul of the show was in the feeling” that Mr Pilati brought to the brand, wrote Suzy Menkes in the International Herald Tribune. Tim Blanks said the presentation “set Pilati's clothes in a cultural continuum of music, film and fashion.” And, Alexander Fury of London’s Independent newspaper declared: “What Pilati did today was give Zegna a fashion relevance, and a fashion identity. ”