The success of a luxury fashion brand is a complex puzzle of factors. There is the history, the provenance, and the quality of the clothes themselves. But perhaps most importantly there is the designer steering the ship – an auteur who captures the message and turns it into something tangible and, ultimately, marketable. It doesn't always work out – Raf Simons' short tenure at Calvin Klein and Australian Justin O'Shea's fly-in-fly-out experience at Brioni spring to mind. But Alessandro Sartori, artistic director for Italian powerhouse Ermenegildo Zegna, has managed to fit all the pieces together.
Sitting in Zegna HQ, Milan, Sartori is dressed head-to-toe in black versions of the colourful Spring Summer '19 collection he unveiled the night before. The tall 50-something gentleman is a serene contrast to the energy of visiting media and assistants buzzing around him. His innate ability to stay one step ahead of the times, and give consumers what they want before they realise they want it, is just one of Sartori's skills. "I confess I was one of the first in 2007 and 2008 to really follow social media, when I was with Z ZEGNA," he says. "We started a Facebook and then after that Instagram was born."
The ability to monitor the zeitgeist via social media is an important tool in the designer's arsenal, Sartori explains."Where before everything was slower, today everything is much faster and much more interesting," he says. "Today, trends are travelling worldwide in one second and it is much easier [to follow them] than even only two years ago or five years ago… to know how Korean rappers for example, or American bankers for another example, are dressing and acting and are moving."
If Zegna has built its reputation by creating some of the world's greatest suits - including many using wool from Australia - Sartori's legacy will be deconstructing the tailoring we closely associate with them. This is most notable through his blurring of identities between the three key strands of the business – Couture XXX, Ermenegildo Zegna (the namesake line) and Z ZEGNA. The banker who invests in a bespoke Su Misura suit is just as likely to purchase a pair of customisable Cesare sneakers from the Couture line, or invest in the luxury leisure Technmerino from the Z ZEGNA range.
This ability to define a personal style based on intersecting needs lies at the heart of creating a brand designed for the modern man. This begins with the breaking down of suits into their respective parts – and creating a new kind of suit via its hypothetical absence. The visual references that once separated the three lines has also started to merge. "We need to create a new type of suit which is not only a classic jacket with a classic pant made with matching fabric," he explains. "Instead are tops and bottoms done in matching fabrics, where the top could easily be a blouson [bomber jacket] , and/or sports top, and on the bottom a classic pant. Or the opposite - the top could be a classic jacket worn with a sports pant … the new suit will be exactly this type of product. A hybrid style between sport and tailoring where the two pieces are made with a matching fabric colour."
Sartori's ascent to one of the most influential names in menswear seems almost predetermined. Born in Trivero in the Biella region of Northern Italy – the same area where Ermenegildo Zegna's wool mill, Lanificio Zegna, is located – Sartori was surrounded by the art of tailoring from an early age. Both his parents worked in the garment industry and even the family name, "Sartori", is derived from the Italian word for tailor. According to some stories, Sartori was only 14 when he cut his first suit.
Sartori's career began by studying textile engineering before cutting his teeth in fashion and design at Istituto Marangoni in Milan. He first came to the fashion world's attention in 2003 when he was announced as the creative director of Ermenegildo Zegna's then-newly announced Z ZEGNA range. This was the brand's entry into athletic casualwear and perhaps the precursor for what Sartori saw as the future of menswear. In 2011 Sartori took what could be called a gap year – five gap years, actually – when he departed to become artistic director at Italian luxury brand Berluti. In 2016, Sartori announced he would go full circle and return to Zegna, this time in the top job. In a few short years he has taken the brand to the next level, offering dynamic solutions in a world with complex sartorial needs.
"[In menswear] we have all been influenced by streetwear, but more than that, we have been influenced by the subcultures," suggests Sartori. Acknowledging street style as a vital facet of fashion has been inevitable as younger generations challenge the status quo of luxury. Where once a handmade pair of brogues teamed with the bespoke suit indicated a certain level of prestige or standing, sneakers have now become equally symbolic of status. It is this precarious balancing of the old and the new, the heritage with the future, that falls on Sartori's shoulders.
"There is nothing left of that old classic image we know as "men's fashion"," he says. "Today's image is an image on the move, [one] that is constantly evolving and influencing global trends. It has never been so challenging and yet so interesting. It's super exciting to work in fashion right now."
The writer travelled to Italy with assistance from Ermenegildo Zegna.
Check out the gallery above to see the best looks seen at the Summer 2020 runway show from Ermenegildo Zegna.