After the sharp, streamlined business suits on which Zegna built its reputation, the Italian company has gone back to its roots – literally. It has returned to its heartland in the Biella mountains, where back in the Thirties the family company planted its Oasi Zegna, a visionary reforestation and environmental project.
I remember so clearly the tranquillity of this area of rich, green plantation, where I strolled after visiting the Zegna Lanificio or wool mill during the company’s centenary celebrations in 2010.
But there was more than a visual concept to the idea of making greenery – including pines, oat grass, azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons – the backdrop to Stefano Pilati’s autumn 2015 Milan show.
For Gildo Zegna, the spirit of striving and spending has changed dramatically. As we sat down before the show, he suggested that the current instability – whether it is terrorist attacks or an earthquake in the Swiss franc – requires a new way of thinking and being.
“A leader has to find relief in nature and its silence – it’s about recharging,” said the chief executive. “Instead of being over anxious, you have to try to re-energise yourself with a free mind.”
I have known Gildo for a long time and seen the path of the family business over the past two decades. But backstage – even before I saw designer Stefano Pilati’s powerful collection – I felt that fashion frisson of change in the air.
The show itself, with its bushy green background and damp earth as the runway, started with a dozen outfits that had a shimmering veneer as though caught in spring rain. Yet these were not rugged clothes, but rather a checked coat, or a similar jacket with chequerboard trousers. The fact that the clothes were so tailored and smart, even if they had protective accessories, distinguished them from weekend wear. They were substantial, but had a mannish elegance.
“I am giving new life to Harris tweed,” Stefano told me later, as Gildo and I walked through the backstage area and saw the glistening tailoring. The designer also emphasised that he had mixed Zegna fibres with recycled archive Harris tweeds.
Gildo Zegna, chief executive officer of Ermenegildo Zegna
Image: Ermenegildo Zegna
The show notes explained that Pilati’s vision was of eco-leaders’ uniforms – clothes made with respect to the environment.
I can’t remember Zegna ever putting such a focus on the great outdoors, yet these were not really Scottish Highland clothes. Velvets in rich colours offered a civilised strand to dressing up. And the entire collection – give or take some over-complications towards the end – was powerful. It was also the best outing so far by Pilati, who seems finally – after an earlier trip to distant planets – to have merged his own taste with Zegna’s.
Gildo’s words resonated with me throughout the day in Milan. Perhaps it is time to take stock of the frenzied buying, madness of money and fearful craziness of the world. And just maybe fashion, as so often, has got there first, becoming a bellwether of changing times.