The Smarter Cut

zegnaErmenegildo Zegna, CEO OF Zegna group on the ethos of a classic Italian Brand.

Here’s something you may not know. Tom Ford suits are actually made by Zegna. The Italian brand has been making them since 2006 and when the deal was initially struck, Ermenegildo Zegna tellingly described this as collaboration between “the unique creativity and marketing sense of Tom, together with our Italian craftsmanship in top menswear.”

There’s no doubt that Tom Ford has marketed itself well as a brand, but it’s Zegna that Ford approaches to ensure suit quality. As does Gucci and also Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane. In fact, making suits for others now accounts for ten percent of Zegna’s turnover. So why do so many of the top fashion brands go to Zegna and how has this family-run business become one of the most important companies in suit making? The answer is a lesson in business, as much as it is fashion.

2012, the Zegna Group turned over more than $1.65 billion, an increase of almost 12 percent on the year before. This showed that in a recession men are more likely to invest in quality that lasts and technical innovation, rather than follow seasonal trends. CEO Ermenegildo Zegna talks Esquire though the stages of how his company became, and remains, one of the top menswear brands.

Vertical integration is often cited as the key to growth of any company. Once you control each stage of the process then the middleman costs are eliminated and it’s something that Zegna does brilliantly. “It’s a peculiarity of Zegna and its one of the strongest assets we have, because very few other brands have this,” the CEO says. He believes this is one of the reasons they were able to secure the services of coveted designer Stefano Pilati (previously creative director of Saint Laurent when they still had the ‘Yves’), but more
significantly, remain hugely competitive. “It’s an integrated process and if you can shorten the cycle of production you can truly beat the competition. Controlling you own supply chain is part of competitive advantage, and it’s part of guaranteeing the quality of the product and the reliability with the service.” Zegna is growing the made-to-measure business and because it’s all done inhouse, it can ensure consistency when dealing with volume. “You’re in a rush and you need a suit delivered to Dubai in four weeks? I can do
that. Anybody can do it. But if you have 1,000 suits to deliver in four weeks, unless you have a strong organisation, it is not possible. Timing and consistency — I think that these can be done only if you have control of your industry.”

As a graduate of economics from the University of London and a student of the Harvard Business School, Ermenegildo Zegna knows that diversification is vital to grow and protect a brand. The wide-reaching portfolio now includes casual and sportswear, shoes, leather accessories and under-license fragrances, eyewear, watches and underwear. But rather than just putting a logo on something, there remains the desire for involvement from the ground up. “For our prestige fragrances, we bought a field in Calabria to grow the Bergamot fruit that is used to produce the fragrance — this is the kind of involvement we have at Zegna,” he explains, insisting that quality in that diversification is something their customers expect as standard.

The company’s textile business is at the cutting edge of fabrics. Its Cool Effect fabric is resilient to sunlight and able to reduce body temperature by up to ten degrees. The Elements material has cells in the fabric that open and close so the fabric breathes. Zegna also makes a suit material called Micronsphere, a natural fabric that the brand says is “impossible to stain.”

“What we have done is offer to the customer a new reason to buy,” he explains. “The innovation factor in fashion and textiles makes a difference and using our own exclusivity and creativity —starting from the textile — is what the male customer appreciates, certainly more than women.

“Women look for the stylistic fashion aspect but men like the technical. They like to know the mechanism of the watch or the engine of a car. And likewise the technical aspect for fabric at Zegna is key.”

We cater for the professional who travels a lot and his problem is lack of time and needing something comfortable, that wears well and performs in different climates but respects his personality and isn’t to showy. The solution to his needs goes back to innovating and creating fabrics that have a practical purpose. But it’s not only on the fabric, it’s how we make the suit. We do a lot of unconstructed suits and the lining or the canvas we use is very light, because if you use superfine light fabrics everything has to be fine tuned. That is something we can do because we have our own production facilities.

“Suit styles change a lot more than people think. If you compared what I’m wearing today to my suit from two years ago, it’s a big change. It’s always led by two buttons and a single breast, but it’s the fit that’s different — we’re now seeing shorter jacket lengths, shoulders, higher button stand and more muscle pressed weight. All this makes you look different. The pants are now much more tubular and shorter than they used to be and I think it has to do with being fit. Just put the right ingredients and be at the right time.

Stefano Pilati was hired as head of design to “rev up its core men’s line and runway show,” and offer some new ideas. “Times are different. Competition is getting fiercer and we wanted to raise the bar,” Zegna says. “I think fashion is like art or like architecture, it needs continuous creativity and continuous evolution and with Pilati we are going in a more flamboyant direction but still within good taste.”

With a network of 558 stores in 80 countries (303 of which are monobrand stores) the brand has always been willing to open new stores overseas. Zegna was one of the first brands to expand in China and Russia seeing the emergence of new wealth and having the business savy to make itself available where the money was going. “It’s part of our pioneering spirit,” Zegna states. “We want to lead into new countries like China, Mongolia, Turkey, Mexico, Russia, India, Vietnam and so on. We are the first major brand moving to Nigeria. We have been among the first to move into Egypt, Morocco and next we will going to Angola.

“In Angola there is an incredible wealth, although for the time being among the few. Those are countries of natural resources and are very affluent as a result. And so certainly they like to buy the best. Africa is more important than the US. In five to ten years, Africa can become the new frontier for luxury.

“Go for long term. Don’t be afraid to look beyond the horizon because that’s entrepreneurial and pioneering spirit. Unless you take risks, you don’t go very far. Risks mean that sometimes you are mistaken, and often we still are, but if you don’t take risks you will never get very far.”

For Esquire Magazine. click here for page 1 / here for page 2

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