Crest of a weave

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 February, 2011, 12:00am

They were a tribute to Ermenegildo Zegna's biggest market. The Italian fashion house's autumn-winter 2011/12 styles presented at Milan men's fashion week earlier this year featured China-inspired pieces carefully integrated into the collection.

The highlights appeared in an ambitious interactive catwalk show titled 'In The Mood for China' that reflected Zegna's plans.

'When you get into a new product like that you never know what you are going to get,' the company's CEO, Gildo Zegna, says after the show. 'To figure out the balance of China images and the models' tempo, it wasn't easy ... but it worked and was a way to promote China and the digital world effectively.'

Gildo Zegna is following a modern strategy with his focus on China and interactive presentation; even so, it came as a shock to traditional fans of the label founded by his grandfather 100 years ago.

Sitting behind a huge blonde wood table in his Milan headquarters, the 56-year-old acknowledges there was some risk of alienating long-time supporters with the shift, but responses suggest he has won them over.

'They did not expect the jump because they still have in mind the classical Zegna that just specialises in textiles. However, the reaction is positive.

'They loved the decoration of the China-inspired wardrobe with the autumn-winter collection. They loved the balance and that we were inspired by the colours of the landscape and places like the Great Wall ... They appreciated the sophisticated rough wear look with the suits, too.'

Zegna's designers drew inspiration from China's rich cultural heritage, in particular the Song dynasty painting, Along the River During Qingming Festival, to create a mix of beautifully tailored suits and casual wear featuring the luxurious textile that Zegna is known for, as well as more rough textured material. Theirs was a warm palette of red, mahogany, terracotta and bronze, leavened with slivers of bamboo green and shades of grey. There was casual outerwear made with waxed cotton, leather peacoats and shearling duffle coats, and baby-soft cashmere sweaters, some with unusual suede detail. Eastern influences blended surprisingly well with Zegna's Italian sartorial tradition.

The timing couldn't have been better, coming just after the fashion house's centennial celebrations in Beijing last year, which also marked Zegna's 20 years in the mainland.

Impeccably suited in Fabric No 1, a pinstripe fabric that was the first to be woven by the company, Gildo Zegna is clearly still high from the successful launch of the Centennial Collection.

'It's the first time that one single pattern sold so many products,' he says of Fabric No 1.

An alumni of the Harvard Business School, Gildo Zegna has carefully steered the label's transition to a younger, more international identity to fit with the globalised economy since becoming CEO in 1997.

The company's first fortunes were built on making quality men's fabrics and made-to-measure tailoring. Now, in addition to the original formal wear created under the Ermenegildo Zegna label, the group has grown to encompass the Z Zegna upper casual-wear range, Zegna Sport, which includes apparel, shoes, leather accessories, fragrances and eyewear.

It still produces some 2.3 million metres of fabric a year for the fashion industry, and runs several grass-roots wool and raw materials initiatives.

Ratcheting up its international presence, Zegna launched an online boutique a few months ago to bring its vast wardrobe directly to consumers in Europe, North America and Japan (the website is available in four languages). China is yet to have its own shop window but that may only be a matter of time.

Vertical integration and creativity are crucial to the label's success. In the hands of the fourth generation of the founding family, with Gildo at the helm, the Zegna Group now has 550 outlets in 80 countries, most of which are owned by the family business.

'We are lucky that we have family unity, we still control the whole business and we have good corporate governance, which is very important,' Gildo Zegna says. 'I run the business as if it was public so the family [members] all have rules to obey, clear responsibilities and an external board of directors ... which is not the case for all [family] businesses. You need strong management and discipline.'

His foresight in shifting the group's focus towards Greater China more than a decade ago helped cushion his family business after the 2009 economic meltdown shrivelled markets in the West. While many companies are still suffering post-recession blues, the Zegna Group has bounced back with a gusto befitting of their Italian heritage.

Sales dropped briefly from Euro871 million (HK$9.27 billion) in 2008 to about Euro800 million in 2009 as the crisis struck.

'Now we are back,' Zegna says of their recovery. 'Confirmed sales revenue [for 2010] was Euro957 million, and we predict that 2011 will be another decent year ... provided that Greater China keeps growing the way that it has been.'

Indeed, Zegna sees greater opportunity in the financial clouds.

'One of the challenges is to manage the international complexities; you have to be smart enough and quick enough and flexible enough otherwise you just burn your investment,' he says. 'The crisis helped to decide who is next - and we are part of who is next.'

Although China has become the group's largest market, it wasn't easy starting up there 20 years ago. Zegna had to move in gradually and learn through experience.

'It's just a matter of moving the logistics and infrastructure when going into new frontiers,' says Zegna.

About five years ago, when franchised stores were underperforming in some second-tier cities, he was quick to act. Zegna took back franchises, closed some stores and reopened others on a grander scale.

He set a similarly rigorous stance in Brazil and Mexico, and it turned out to be a smart move in all three instances as the group sets its sights on other consumers, in Russia and India. The next three years will definitely have an Eastern focus.

The boom in men's ready-to-wear, sportswear, accessories and leather goods has rejuvenated all three Zegna labels.

'With this three-brand strategy, you get new customers; new markets open up. You can be more accessible and super luxurious at the same time. There is a reason why we created this brand-on-brand strategy within the company. You get ideas from competition. If Z Zegna and Zegna Sport were not there, then Ermenegildo Zegna would not have woken up in that way,' he says.

'The non-formal 'sportswear' side of the business is key. It's 50 per cent of our business and Asia is 50 per cent. This is how the market is changing.'

Zegna concedes the French still lead in marketing and branding of luxury goods, especially with labels such as Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Chanel. 'But the Italians are probably stronger in terms of product,' he maintains. 'One thing we did not take down during the crisis was the quality of our product - quality lasts forever. Luxury is no compromise.'

Zegna's passion for his job is evident, but he prefers to wind down with other kinds of luxury.

'I need silence and time on my own - it can be sport, reading or walking my dogs in the woods.' he says. 'Luxury is the capacity to stop. I have to tell myself to do this more - it allows you be more creative.'