Alessandro Sartori is predestined to be where he is now. In an interview with Tim Blanks, Sartori’s appointment as Ermenegildo Zegna’s first group-wide artistic director was deemed “umbilical”. Born and bred in Trivero — the commune where founder Ermenegildo built Wool Mill, the family’s first mill in 1910 — to a seamstress mother with a last name rooted in the Italian word for “tailor”, Sartori’s tie-in with the brand is messianic, to say the least.
“My life is The Truman Show,” Sartori jested, leaning back into the settee we were on. Making a pitstop in Singapore to host Zegna’s Grand Prix soirée at The Fullerton, his brief stay was a time-off of sorts from his daily agenda. Trading his customary suit for a nonchalant all-midnight blue attire — sleek oversized bomber jacket, tailored joggers and sneakers — Sartori revisited his fateful first encounter with the Zegna universe.
As it turned out to be, the constellation of prophetic coincidences intersected at Panoramica Zegna, a winding street that passes through the steep precipices of Oasi Zegna, the Alpine nature reserve nestled in the uplands just behind Sartori’s hometown. Personally devised by Ermenegildo — a responsible entrepreneur much ahead of his time — in the 1930s as part of his desire to respect nature, the area embraced by the Panoramica was conceived as a theatre of preservation. The road gave nearby communities access to the protected mountain oasis. Including the Sartori clan.
“I remember as a six- or seven-year-old child going through the Panoramica, this beautiful street for a beautiful walk in the summer to look for nice spots for photos with my father. And we ski in the winter at a little but very charming ski resort,” Sartori fondly reminisced with Italian lilt. “So I went to Oasi Zegna before I even knew the name.”
The Panoramica was a concrete means, first and foremost, but also the pathway to the burgeoning idea of Oasi Zegna. A full circle, then, it came to be when Zegna’s Fall/Winter 2018 collection saw the Oasi Zegna sprouting onto Sartori’s sartorial canvas in its glorious autumnal beauty, decades after his first trek at the Panoramica.
The 45-looker displayed the rich tones of the Oasi — an explosion of warm golden browns and chilly shades of grey — and silhouettes tailored to the modern man’s need for versatility. Most notably, an introduction of the revolutionary “one-and-a-third breasted” form, Sartori’s partial iteration of the classic double-breasted jacket sharped to couture perfection.
If the root was somewhat personally inflected, Sartori’s design proverb was not. “I always like a modern approach so I don’t take vintage nostalgic or references for design. That’s the best way to have a fresh perspective.” The contemporary touch for the collection came through the eerie snowy work of Swiss photographer Thomas Flechtner. Aside from being a reference point, Flechtner’s artificial snowstorm — an interpretation of the Oasi during the winter season — became a backdrop for the show in January.
Extraction of the Oasi’s elements was executed in its most literal method, too. A new type of double-faced cashmere, dubbed the Oasi, which largely constructed the sports coats and top coats, was organically dyed by components sourced from, well, the Oasi itself.
“Flowers, fruits, leaves, seeds — we use a lot of components. We also decided to outsource the organic product that we can’t get from the Oasi. Tea, coffee beans, and so on,” Sartori animatedly explained. “Altogether, with a variety of 17 different components, we get all the colours of the spectrum. And more than 50% arrive from the Oasi.”
The entire process, Sartori claimed, is chemical-free and all-natural, but painstakingly so. The fruition of the Oasi cashmere took 11 gruelling years worth of research and development backed by Lanificio Zegna, one of the four fabric mills owned by the company.
Scrupulous craftsmanship is, then again, at the core of Zegna’s DNA. But why the intense propensity towards sustainability? “That’s another part of the company’s DNA. Our process gets more sustainable everyday, we always take care of nature as much as we can. Though we don’t like to use it as a marketing tool, our story has always been related to trying to be better in how we work with environment.”
Asked how he would integrate the outerwear-laden lineup into a tropical resident’s — say a Singaporean’s — wardrobe, Sartori answered without missing a beat: “You know, a big part of our collection — about 30% — is winter-colour but summer-weight. And consider the pre-collection is 70% of the total collection and almost half of the pre-collection are summer-weight. I’m talking light poplin, light cotton, silk, light wool blended with linen. Another 50% of the collection is more winter weights. With this 30-30-30 ratio, it’s quite easy for the local man to buy accordingly.”
Prior to his current incumbency at Zegna, Sartori was at the creative helm of the brand’s second sportier line Z Zegna from 2003 till 2011. He then joined Berluti, transforming the shoe-exclusive brand into a one-stop menswear shop within five years, before his homecoming to Zegna. Now as the creative spearhead to what is the world’s leading producer of fine fabric, which with over 500 monobrand stores is by far the largest luxury menswear brand in the world, Sartori’s directive holds sway to the next stage of luxury menswear’s evolution.
Touching on the topic of inclusivity in design, Sartori mused on the crucial importance of bringing Zegna’s Italian DNA global. “What you’ve seen in our fashion shows, that is exactly what is happening in our studio everyday. We cast and work with models from different parts of the world. African, Chinese, Korean, American, maybe not many Italians, sometimes could be,” he posited. “We are international, we think international. We like to connect people and like having different people come from different parts of the world. We use that approach not only for the show, but also everyday. We fit, style garments on different types of models.”
Which brings us to Sartori’s oxymoronic notion of luxury that’s intelligently balanced. To him, and ultimately Zegna, luxury menswear is about “unicity and exclusivity”, the ability to have that unique piece is pivotal.
“We are very strongly connected to the craft, the quality and the handmade work. We like to keep the quality inside the product in order to have a product with long life. We don’t want to over-design. Even a printed t-shirt from Zegna Couture has the same quality of a silk shirt,” said the designer.
Our conversation then turned into a discussion of the future of menswear.
Lifestyle Asia (LSA): “With Zegna and its long-standing history with tailoring, do you think tailoring will always be relevant?”
Alessandro Sartori (AS): “Absolutely, but maybe in different forms. Maybe with different shapes, new details — but yes.”
LSA: “How so?”
AS: “Because there’s a revolution, no? It’s interesting to see how we speak about how tailoring is changing today. But we’ve always had this on-going transformation. Always. If you look at photos of men 100 years ago, they were wearing very strange, rigid hats, vests, sticks and kind of crazy shoes and boots with all the metal trimmings. Today, these aren’t even in a man’s vocabulary. So from that day till today, everything changed. And everything is changing now.”
LSA: “How do you execute this for Zegna?”
AS: “If you think about this success that we had with the product like Wash & Go Tech Merino suit, that’s fantastic. It’s a beautiful tailor-made suit which you wash in your washing machine at home. You don’t need to iron before wearing it. Most importantly, the minds behind that suit is not the same. More and more we go into that direction, I think.”
LSA: “Where does the future of menswear lie in?”
AS: “Styling. Styling is for sure becoming more important, personal, elaborate and interesting. It’s part of our work everyday. It’s interesting to see that we wear — even myself — 15 years ago, we were styling when the pieces were still in the studio. We were designing pieces, launching products, receiving prototypes. Once we had all the pieces in the studio, so maybe a shoe, two jackets, one blouson, two shirts — we’ll style it. Styling is a very important pillar of the new design process.”
LSA: “Do you think this is a by-product of how men’s lifestyles are so diverse right now?”
AS: “It is influenced by the fact that we all believe that we need to have our own personality. We can both the same suit, sneaker, pants — but in a totally different way. If I roll up the sleeves, I don’t button or button the first button or I roll the pants or I wear sneakers with laces or without, the picture changes, completely.”
LSA: “So individuality is the key?”
AS: “Yes, but even more important than that, I can tell you the outfit you have and the way you style it and the way you live into your outfit will be an even more [stronger] expression of your personality. You see today that the cliché of being similar in what we wear to a certain occasion has been broken. Today, you see two men exactly with the same outfit. One is cool, the other isn’t. Why? Because one is the attitude, one is styling it, one is living into it in his own way and is making that outfit his own outfit. While the other just thinks of it as a blanket to cover himself.”
This continuous vision, grounded both to the ever-changing landscape of menswear and a time-tested heritage, is exactly the formula behind men’s inclination towards grasping deep into their pockets for a Zegna investment piece. And Sartori knows that. That’s why he’s here.
Zegna Couture’s Fall 2018 collection is now available in boutiques.
(Main and featured images: Business of Fashion)