There is no such thing as "just a blue suit", it's a trick of the eye. What you're really seeing is a fabric made up of at least six varieties of blue – maybe even some red or brown, to provide depth - that your brain interprets as "just blue".
At least that's according to our guide at the Lanificio Zegna – ground zero for the Ermenegildo Zegna brand located in the small town of Trivero in the Biellese prealps of Northern Italy. We're almost two hours drive from Milan at the Zegna factory and mill where some of the world's greatest suits using Australian wool are made.
It's hard to catch everything being said as we make our way through enormous, whirring machines spinning the web-thin wool fibres that make Zegna fabrics some of the lightest and softest on the market. So good, in fact, that the biggest names of fashion come to Zegna for their wool, including Tom Ford and Gucci. Further into the factory, past a machine that is adding the finishing touches to a fabric marked "Australian Wool", details of the mill's century-old history begin to surface.
The factory has zero water wastage, a mind-blowing feat of forethought put into place by the founder who funnelled water back into the surrounding landscape; over 500,000 conifers were planted by the company across the region, and for each of the children born in the nearby town of Trivero, a white pine was planted. During the '70s, there were at least a thousand people working here, many of them locals from the town below. But advances in technology have seen this number drop to roughly 450. Where there was once a person to every loom, now there is approximately one person to 10 looms – although there are some areas that still require the touch of human hands.
Specifically in the area of quality control, where women sit and swiftly run gentle fingers across endless metres of fabric seeking even the subtlest imperfections. It's painstaking and time-consuming work, but this dedication to perfection means Zegna fabrics come with bragging rights of zero imperfections in the final product.
These details, along with a suit's journey from sheep to shop, are something rarely talked about outside of tailoring workrooms. But telling the sheep-to-shop story is one that luxury Italian textiles and menswear label Ermenegildo Zegna is making a very real investment in.
It begins with its 60 per cent stake of Achill Farm – a 178-year-old, 6300-acre property outside of Armidale in New South Wales owned by sixth-generation wool grower Charlie Coventry – back in 2014, when Zegna had the idea to "close the circle" on wool production. This acquisition made Zegna the first fully-integrated brand which could boast control of every step of the fabrication process. "Investing in a farm was something we'd had in mind for a while," explains Paolo Zegna, global chairman of the Zegna brand. In Sydney for the 55th Zegna Wool Awards, he announced that, after four years, enough wool had been sourced from Achill Farm to produce the first Achill wool suits.
"This season for the first time, we have the Achill Farm fabric," says Paolo, who despite having every right to boast manages to retain humility in the announcement. "I was 22 years old when I first engaged in wool production and marketing in Tasmania, New South Wales, and Victoria. This became the foundation of my work. After taking charge of the textiles department at Zegna and making regular visits to Australia, I built relationships with people involved in producing wool and innovating the process."
The journey to create the first Achill Farm fabric wasn't easy. For the first three years, Coventry and Zegna pushed through a crippling drought which tested the pair in every possible way. The tide has turned at Achill and for the wool industry at large, something that the company intends to capitalise on. "We can honestly look at the [increased] price of wool as a positive good for the whole wool industry for Australia," explains Paolo. "It was on a decline state for many, many years and the price was not considered sufficiently rewarding to the growers, and a lot of sheep and holdings were abandoned."
The 62-year-old grandson of the brand's original founder has made it his personal mission to strengthen the relationship between Zegna and Australia, and sees the Achill project as a chance to re-educate the public on what he feels has been grossly misrepresented and undervalued. "Don't use the word commodity!" The rebuke is given with a laugh but there is no mistaking the seriousness in Paolo's eye. "This is exactly what has been said over the past 50 years. Wool was unfortunately treated as a commodity ... We have said that wool is a precious natural fibre. Today it is even more precious because there is less of it compared to the worldwide consumption. So you have to treat it as something which has a value not to the wool grower but as a value to the consumer."
Paolo is hoping the suits created by Achill, and the buzz generated by the project, will continue to encourage a dialogue between wool growers in Australia, and encourage a new generation of farmers to continue on the legacy. "It's a way to make the consumer more sensitive and more curious, better informed about what's behind their suit. It's not only about buying a suit because it is by Zegna. It's about Zegna opening your mind to a different perspective on how to see a wool suit. And for that … I think it is a promotion for wool in general."
As we leave the noise of the factory, we're herded into a newer part of the building – a small museum commemorating the history of Zegna in the region. Sitting in the stairway is a sculpture made using the original wooden crates used to ship Australian wool to Italy back in the 1920s. Paolo might be 'closing the circle' in a commercial sense but he's also continuing a tradition that places Australia at the centre of the world's luxury fashion industry.