A visit to Ermenegildo Zegna’s new flagship store in London
Dressed in a sleek white silk suit, Benjamin Millepied, the French dancer and choreographer of Black Swan fame, twirls, leaps and pivots on film. On his feet are bespoke black double-monk shoes – one of nine different footwear styles designed by Alessandro Sartori in his first act as artistic director of Italian menswear label Ermenegildo Zegna. To mark the launch of the bespoke-shoe collection, the Zegna family combined the occasion with another momentous one: the unveiling of the brand’s global, or flagship, store on London’s Bond Street, the only location in the world where the shoes will be available.
Housed on prime luxury retail property, on the same block as Dolce & Gabbana, Miu Miu and the Sotheby’s building, Ermenegildo Zegna’s new Mayfair location draws in flocks of fashion folk on opening night. From 7pm onwards, the boutique is abuzz with long-time clients, London socialites and Milan’s well-heeled, who have flown in for the occasion.
I meet Sartori on the second floor of the new store before the party starts. Naturally, he wears a suit, but looks relaxed with the top three buttons of his crisp white shirt undone. He starts by showing us samples of five suit fabrics, folded neatly over blocks of wood laid out on the table. He picks up a navy pinstriped pattern, and tells us that it’s crafted from 50 per cent cashmere and 50 per cent mohair, since he wanted to juxtapose softness and rigidity. The five bolts of fabric have been produced exclusively for this store, and are expected to sell out before the end of the night, since only one of each exists. “One suit – after, finito,” says Sartori, dusting off his hands for added emphasis. “For one man, one personality.”
One-of-a-kind, personalised design is an increasingly popular trend in luxury fashion, and Sartori notes that the market for bespoke offerings is becoming more and more appealing to male consumers. He is keen to point out the difference between bespoke and su misura, or made to measure. “Made to measure is prêt-à-porter with your own measurement. Bespoke is completely handmade from scratch – it takes five or six times longer,” he explains.
While made-to-measure footwear is relatively easy to come by, bespoke shoes are rare, even at the top echelons of international fashion houses. The nine in Sartori’s debut collection for Ermenegildo Zegna have distinct looks, designed to appeal to a range of defined personalities.
“Each one is a strong point of view – a starting point, without being clichéd,” says Sartori as he introduces the different pairs, each inspired by one of his closest friends, and produced in collaboration with English shoemaker Gaziano & Girling.
The shoes are enclosed in glass boxes in the couture room of the new boutique, where the decor speaks of the bespoke process. A mannequin sports a brown leather apron stamped with “Ermenegildo Zegna Couture” in gold, and shoemaking tools are displayed on the shelves.
“You’ve already seen the Benjamin shoe,” Sartori says, referring to Millepied’s video, which has been playing on the first floor of the store all afternoon. He picks up a tassel-adorned loafer, dubbed David, after an art dealer, and points out there is no seam connecting the front and back of the shoe – it has been masterfully cut from a single piece of leather.
Sartori explains that there are several steps to making a bespoke shoe – from the initial meeting with a client, where the fit, shape, materials and finishing details are decided upon, to cutting a pattern, sewing the leather, building the heel, creating the sole and polishing the final product. The whole process takes about six months: a client can schedule a shoe fitting at the new London global store, pick out one of the nine styles and voice his own special requests and preferences, from colours and textures to custom monogramming.
Sartori points to an evening shoe named Michael, after a sommelier, which can be fitted with a range of coloured satin laces, in hues of emerald green, royal blue and deep maroon. “These levels of personalisation are the future,” he says.
Sartori, who was previously artistic director for Berluti and before that for Z Zegna, a younger subsidiary label of Ermenegildo Zegna, likens his new role to being in a candy shop. Although a candy shop, cluttered with excess and vibrant colours, may sound like an unlikely comparison to a menswear label best known for its traditional mono-hued suits, more shades are trickling in under Sartori’s direction. “I want to bring much more colour into future collections – we adapted a couple of things in the new store to the new collection and made the colours on the ground floor much lighter,” he says.
The thimble, or ditalé in Italian, is a recurring motif in the Bond Street boutique. In the couture room, it makes an appearance in a rustic copper finish, while on the other three floors it can be found in a bright shade of yellow, underneath a loafer, beside a leather laptop bag or behind a folded pair of trousers.
“I like these objects – we created objects that started from a tradition, but were designed in a modern way,” says Sartori.
Tradition is key to the Ermenegildo Zegna DNA. The brand, which was founded in 1910, is still family-owned more than a century later. Generations of the Zegna family continue to uphold the legacy Ermenegildo left behind, which includes promoting environmental awareness, supporting artists and rewarding quality wool manufacturers. For Anna Zegna, image director and granddaughter of the label’s founder, one of the highlights of the new global store is the artwork that hangs on the second floor. Created by South African artist William Kentridge, the tapestry, titled Dare/Avere, or “give/take”, is an oversized, collage-style depiction of Zegna’s history.
“Ermenegildo came to England to learn how to weave the most exquisite fabrics of the world, and we pay tribute to him again in England,” says Anna, who wears a navy blue suit and gold earrings. “Kentridge always puts characters in his art. So, since Ermenegildo Zegna himself was such a character, we sent in three different pictures of him.”
These silhouettes are woven into the tapestry, which is laden with symbolism. On one silhouette of Ermenegildo, his face is replaced with a sewing machine – since, Anna explains, the photograph was taken when the brand evolved from purely making textiles to producing ready-to-wear. Light pink, green and off-white suit pattern pieces are mixed into the image, and these are woven from mohair wool from the Ermenegildo Zegna Mohair Trophy – an initiative that launched in 1970 and awards the best mohair-fleece farmers in South Africa.
“Kentridge always designs on accounting books, and to relate to his work we sent him several of the accounting books that my grandfather used to keep,” Anna says. Snippets from these accounting books, dating back to 1944, show costs and fabric amounts, as well clients’ phone numbers. These are replicated on the tapestry, along with an 18th-century map of Italy, which was given to Anna by her father – Ermenegildo’s son, Angelo. “There are many ingredients that tell a story, and one of the great traits of the art of Kentridge is to freeze, in a way like a movie, a moment of life. And this in a way brings together many different aspects and is like a history of the brand all together,” says Anna.
In keeping with her grandfather’s deeply pro-environmental outlook, Anna highlights the eco-friendly aspects of the new London store: from the use of solar panels, new LED lighting systems and Forest Stewardship Council-certified woods and papers, to the conscious effort made to minimise waste and pollution during the building process. “We also used very strict rules for taking away all the materials that had been demolished, with little wastage and low impact in the transportation – so [we took] many big and small approaches,” she explains. The construction even came to a month-long halt at one point to protect the welfare of a bird. “We had to stop the building for a while because we had a gull that created his nest on the top floor and to protect it, we could not continue the building or disturb him until he moved out.”
Anna explains that all of her focus in recent months has been on the new London global store and, more specifically, on bringing in the tapestry by Kentridge. Now, she’ll continue her hunt for new talent in the art world, searching for those worthy of support under the brand’s ZegnArt platform. “I’ve been to an art fair last week and have seen a couple of interesting artists, so we are in the process of really putting the seed into the ground. It’s a never-ending process,” she says.
While the unveiling of the new global store and bespoke-shoe collection is a proud moment for Sartori, he, too, has plenty of work to get back to – namely, designing the autumn/winter 2017 collection for Ermenegildo Zegna. “I like the idea of visiting a city; there will be some very surprising pieces,” he hints, refraining from going into further detail. He claims he is superstitious – ironic, since the show is scheduled to take place on the evening of Friday, January 13. When asked if there are any womenswear collections in the pipeline, Sartori quickly dismisses the prospect: “I want to do a men’s story.”
More colour and new silhouettes are part of Sartori’s plan to offer a fresh Zegna experience, while building on the brand’s bountiful heritage. The new Zegna man, says the artistic director, comes from a cluster of many different clients, who share three common traits: “One, a strong sense of style. Two, they are authentic people with strong values. And three, they have an Italian taste, or a love for the Italian taste.”
Read this and more stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, December 8.