SHANGHAI, China — The closing event of Shanghai Fashion Week last Wednesday was not your typical runway spectacular. Instead, Italian menswear giant Ermenegildo Zegna took over the city’s Exhibition Centre to premiere a big-budget cinematic thriller, A Rose Reborn, directed by internationally acclaimed South Korean director Park Chan-wook.
It’s not the first time that Zegna’s creative director, Stefano Pilati, has used film to tell his story of the brand. To mark the launch of his first collection for the company, he created a tongue-in-cheek video, starring himself as a news anchor. He has since commissioned several more films, which have served as the backdrops to his Milan ready-to-wear shows and employed Swedish director Johan Söderberg to create a film to communicate his Spring/Summer 2015 couture collection. However, A Rose Reborn — which is 20-minutes long and was unveiled in three episodes, over the course of a month, via YouTube, Youku and a dedicated website — takes Zegna’s bet on the power of film to another level.
Amidst slumping sales growth in China, the film was explicitly created to reaffirm Zegna’s position in the market, where the brand opened its first store in 1991, long before other luxury brands. “I was asked to come up with a project to reboost the presence of Zegna in China and we discussed different vehicles, like a fashion show, which I rejected,” said Pilati. “I thought a movie could be good, because of the history the Chinese have with movies in terms of their passion for them. They know everything about cinema and have such a rich cinematic history of their own. It was a good vehicle to engage people and spread an interesting message. It’s about affirming our presence here more than assuming we are in the Chinese market like everyone else.”
Pilati assembled an impressive team to bring the concept to life. Alongside director Park Chan-wook, the company hired British actor Jack Huston and Hong Kong actor Daniel Wu. Japanese scriptwriter Ayako Fujitani, Korean scriptwriter Chung Chung-hoon and Clint Mansell, who scored Black Swan and Requiem for Dream, also lent their talents to the project.
“What I knew is that I wanted to work with an Asian director and a Chinese actor. It wasn’t about Chinese versus Korean — it was about using an Asian approach, an Asian eye, an Asian aesthetic. I wanted something that could really grab the Chinese audience’s attention in a more rounded way and a narrative was integral for this,” continued Pilati.
The film follows an aspiring and passionate engineer (Huston) as he attempts to broker a business deal with an enigmatic Chinese tycoon, Mr Lu (played by Wu). Huston is sent on a series of mysterious journeys, complete with riddles and plenty of intrigue, as he travels across the globe from London to Wyoming to Shanghai to Milan, where the film concludes.
While the cast wears Zegna suits throughout the film, Park has done a remarkable job of smoothly integrating the brand into the narrative — in one scene, Huston takes a call while having a made-to-measure fitting at the Zegna boutique, where a screen plays a video of the brand’s craftsmen at work. Clothing is also woven into the narrative itself. For example, every time Wu and Huston meet they take part in a series of bizarre rituals which involve them exchanging a single item of clothing, in this case Pilati’s ground-breaking “Broken” suit, which is made from mixed and matched fabrics and textures. “The video is a visual exercise from the director’s point of view. Clothes are relatively important, in general, but here they are part of the script, part of the characters of the people. It was important that we had a chance to define an aesthetic and define Zegna in a broader way,” explained Pilati.
“Director Park was sensitive enough to understand and translate the concept of the broken suit, so it became part of the narrative. You can also see that this sophisticated act of style is actually brought to the film more by the Eastern character than the Western character, which, for me, completely changes the perspective and highlights what we are doing in China,” he continued.
According to Pilati, over 10 million people have already watched A Rose Reborn online. Before it's Shanghai screening, the film was also presented at the Busan International Film Festival and the Festival Internazionale del Film di Roma. It will appear at next year's Toronto International Film Festival.
Pilati expects the film to have real business impact. “You do fashion shows and ad campaigns, it’s part of your profession, it’s your metier and you should be good at it… I am pretty sure [the film] will make people think and that, for me, is already a success. On the other hand — and we have already had a few signals — I think it will also increase business.
Zegna is one of a growing number of luxury brands which, in recent years, have learnt to think like media and entertainment companies, creating and publishing original content in order to earn attention, spread their message directly to consumers (bypassing magazines and other traditional outlets) and attract fans who will carry the brand across the Internet.
Chanel and Ralph Lauren are amongst the luxury labels that have invested significantly in the strategy. But Burberry has perhaps demonstrated the greatest appetite for the approach. Back in 2011, when the brand staged a holographic runway show in Beijing, chief creative officer Christopher Bailey revealed: “Burberry is now as much a media-content company as we are a design company.”
Divia Harilela travelled to Shanghai as a guest of Ermenegildo Zegna.