January 22, 2018

Zegna Gives Fashion an Anatomy Lesson

Zegna Gives Fashion an Anatomy Lesson


MILAN — If some designers amass vintage clothes to form a personal collection, Alessandro Sartori does so for an entirely different reason: to perform dissections.

“Shhhh!,” he said backstage, hours before his Ermenegildo Zegna show held in an underground hall of the Neo-Brutalist Rontgen building at Milan’s prestigious Bocconi University. “I buy vintage clothes and take them apart.”

His purpose in anatomizing old duds is to find in them methods of stitching and construction that have largely passed out of existence. Here and at factories and workshops throughout Italy, centuries-old craft traditions have dwindled and with them the know-how to produce garments worthy of being labeled Made in Italy.

Before coming to Milan for the round of men’s wear shows here, a reporter paid a visit to the factory campus of the design house Ermanno Scervino just outside central Florence. Over the last decade, Ermanno Daelli and his partner, Toni Scervino — they are best known, perhaps, for having dressed Kim Kardashian — have bought up a series of faltering local specialty manufacturers, hired their employees and installed them in a series of linked workshops devoted to the kind of precise small-scale production that remains a hallmark of Italian design.

An ambient hum filled the factory on a rainy day as white-coated women — and they were mainly women — laboriously hand-cut lace, sewed the infinitesimal stitches required to create micro-pleating, wove sweater sleeves on a tubular manual knitting machine and gathered the most gossamer cashmere into the springy geometric pattern called nido d’ape, or honeycomb.

“This is the kind of person that made Italy great in the world,” Mr. Scervino said of Franca Bonechi, a woman with the look of a Scorsese extra and a tough attitude at odds with the refinement she brings to her profession as a seamstress.

In terms of industrial scale, Ermanno Scervino is a mom-and-pop shop relative to the might of Ermenegildo Zegna, among the largest textile companies in Italy and certainly the only one with the capacity to sell its own hydroelectric power to the Italian state.

Yet embedded with the culture of each company is a stubborn pride of creation, an ethos inadequately characterized by the inevitable reference to what Gildo Zegna, Zegna’s chief executive, called “our DNA.”

The corp-speak version of biological determinism has, let’s face it, gotten a little stale. Yet there is a case to be made for its cultural counterpart. Mr. Sartori, 52, was born in the same place as Mr. Zegna himself and all but grew up at the label. He began as a textile designer before taking over the role of artistic director at Z Zegna in 2003 and where he now — following a five-year detour to help put the luxury goods label Berluti back on the map for LVMH — serves as artistic director.

In preparing for his show on Friday, Mr. Sartori drew on the work of the Swiss landscape artist Thomas Flechtner, though mostly for the Alpine set of artificial snow mounded around scattered white platforms and for natural patterns that drew on those Mr. Flechtner documents in his work: ski chevrons cut through fresh powder, bird tracks in the snow. And he made specific reference to the Oasi Zegna, a large nature reserve Mr. Zegna’s grandfather set up in the 1930s in the mountainous region of their factories.

Environmentalism is nothing new for the company, Mr. Zegna said before the show. “For every child born at Zegna, we plant a white pine tree,” he said. And as long as a decade ago, the company had already introduced processes for producing chemical-free dyed with things like tea, tobacco, mushrooms and crocus and made permanent without use of caustic fixatives.

Backstage at the Zegna show, with looks from the fall collection.CreditValerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

“Maybe we did not do a good enough job of communicating,” Mr. Zegna said. He meant communicating details to new consumers about the supply chain that would once have been considered unsexy and are now as much a part of marketing as a hangtag.

“Young customers are very sensitive to that concept,” he added. Beauty at any cost is no longer an option, especially at the upper levels of luxury.

And the things Mr. Sartori created for his collection of men’s wear qualify, in part because of the funky preindustrial processes that were a part of their creation, but also because their craftsmanship would leave any future designer who tried to dissect them agog.

There were slim great coats of double-face cashmere whose impeccable line owed to sartorial details like vertical bellows that preserve the silhouette when you reach into your pocket; or sports coats with detachable interior belts that can be worn inside or outside or removed altogether; or shearling blousons with a triple cross-stitch X (the Zegna couture logo) shaved into the surface; or one-and-a-third breasted jackets that fit as tautly as a true double-breasted model does when fastened, while remaining tidy when the coat is undone.

“You don’t want your jacket flapping around,” Mr. Sartori said.

The cashmere corduroy used for color block suits is proprietary to Zegna, whose mills are capable of weaving wool by the mile or else in the small artisanal batches used to create a brushed alpaca jacket with wool from herds the company cultivates in Peru. There was much to admire in Mr. Sartori’s latest effort: the wool and mohair quilted jackets and jumpsuits insulated not with feathers but wool; the snap-bottom pants that were a nod to sweats as the new suit trousers; and the casting, which was notably diverse.

If there was a disorienting note, it was the fake snow that drifted down from the rafters, insidiously clinging to clothes and shoes and hair and, one hoped, not one’s lungs.

“The Milanese do love their fake snow,” said one wag as he hastened to the exit. And it is true. Count on designers here for at least one indoor bomb cyclone a year.



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