Ermenegildo Zegna menswear celebrates 100 years of subtlety

'DISCREET' CHIC: The brand built on premium cashmere has expanded to include tailored attire and sportswear that "doesn't make a lot of noise," Gildo Zegna says.
'DISCREET' CHIC: The brand built on premium cashmere has expanded to include tailored attire and sportswear that "doesn't make a lot of noise," Gildo Zegna says. (Catalano Alfonso)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Italian menswear mogul Gildo Zegna -- talkative and professorial in his bearing -- sits in his Milan office waxing, not quite poetically, about the intimacy of cashmere, the raw material that helped transform his family-run business into a global Goliath.

In an age of technology, he says, "it's important to remember the feeling of the clothes, the smell of cashmere." And here, he lifts a swatch of the lush fabric to his nose and inhales. "What we do is authentic; it's history."

Anyone who has made even a cursory pass through the menswear departments of stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue has seen the label Ermenegildo Zegna. The suits, with their lean -- but not tight -- Italian cut, do not have the celebrity aura of such brands as Versace and Gucci or the high-wattage sex appeal of Tom Ford. But Ermenegildo Zegna does business with all those labels because before the company made suits, it was known for its fine fabrics.

"We are a discreet brand," Zegna says, "one that doesn't make a lot of noise."

Something to celebrate

Usually, that philosophy -- so very simpatico with Washington sensibilities -- holds true. But recently, the company has been making quite a big commotion. This year marks its 100th anniversary. With $1.2 billion in revenue in 2009, Ermenegildo Zegna is a powerhouse of a family-run company. Who would deny that it had reason to celebrate?

So when it recently showed its spring collections on the runway in Milan, a host of family members came on stage to take bows. The company has mounted an exhibition on its history, also in Milan. And Gildo Zegna, the company's chief executive, has come forth to brag. The brand weathered the recession despite sales in the U.S. plummeting by 30 to 50 percent. He's expecting overall growth for 2010 in the neighborhood of 5 percent.

"Thank God the centennial fell this year and not in 2009," Zegna says with a smile. He wanted the company to have something to celebrate beyond its longevity.

The brand was founded by his grandfather -- that would be the company's and his namesake, Ermenegildo -- with the goal of producing world-class fabric. Over the generations, it expanded to include tailored attire, sportswear and accessories. It's headquartered in a vast, multi-story loft just outside central Milan. And it remains wholly committed to menswear -- a rarity in the world of high-end fashion where so many brands succumb to the sizzle and fickle nature of the womenswear market.

For Zegna, the most significant changes in the label's approach to men's attire has been in sportswear. Color trends trickle over from the womenswear shows and into the men's designs. "If we only offered men gray and blue suits, how can you be motivated?" Zegna asks.

While sportswear now accounts for half the company's business, its reputation is built on tailoring -- on suits. To mark the centennial, Zegna re-created one of the original fabrics from 1910 -- albeit at a much lighter weight. It is traditional menswear suiting with a subtle weave in a reserved shade of charcoal. The reissue doesn't have all the technical bells and whistles that now mark fabrics -- the ability to wick away perspiration or to create a temperature-controlled personal environment. But it looks as right for the times as if it had been invented in 2010.

A slow evolution

Such is the nature of menswear. Even now, in this post-metrosexual, post-"Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," post-Thom Browne shrunken trousers universe, menswear -- the kind aimed at grownups and not man-boys -- continues to evolve slowly and cautiously and in ways that are mostly hidden. Menswear, particularly Zegna's, adheres to the auto-buying theory of fashion.

"If you buy a car of a certain level, the technology is incredible," Zegna says. "From the outside, it looks the same as any other car, but the driver knows what is inside."

Because men's style has always been a matter of subtle shifts, any significant deviation from the standard rules of dress -- either in color, cut or silhouette -- can quickly leave a man looking and feeling as though he were wearing a costume. God bless the menswear designers who try to entice gentlemen with sequined jackets, but that's stagecraft, wishful thinking. (But keep at it, fellas, maybe someday . . . ) Indeed, it's worth noting that on the warm and sunny afternoon that Zegna sat across from the wide, pristine desk in his office to talk about his company's past and present, he was dressed in banker's gray pinstripes. His burgundy striped shirt was paired with a burgundy knit tie. And while he looked elegant and dapper, his clothes were not a distraction, just a quiet underscoring of his clout.

Within the power chambers of Washington, the parameters of men's style are especially limiting and the desire to emphasize one's power neither hushed nor hesitant. Beyond the Beltway -- out there in the big, wide, cosmopolitan world -- many a young and not-so-young man has given up wearing socks . . . with sneakers, with loafers, with lace-up brogues. Indeed, some have even discarded their shoelaces, although that seems extreme, awkward and a teensy bit dangerous. One could argue that men's divesture from hosiery parallels women's wise shunning of pantyhose.

On the Hill: Caution first

But in the same way that it's possible to see many a Washington woman sausaged into pantyhose on a blistering hot day, the same is true of men and socks. Would citizens be distrustful of a sockless legislator on the hustings? Disbelieving of a pundit wearing an ascot? Just recently television host and political commentator Roland Martin practically went to the mat to defend his honor when comedian Jon Stewart gave him a ribbing for his ascot-wearing ways. And what of Tom Daschle? Which caused more of a stir in this town: His red-framed spectacles or the tax problems that killed his nomination for Secretary of Health and Human Services? Arguably, it was a draw.

In Washington, a man is bold -- even a bit reckless -- when he strays from the standard uniform: a dark suit and tie for business, khakis and a polo shirt for business casual. And wire-rimmed or tortoise-shell eyeglass frames for those who can't see straight. President Obama plays it safe and wears dad jeans; they look suspiciously stone-washed. Surely, a man who listens to Jay-Z on his iPod knows better. Is the president willfully choosing not to do better? By executive branch standards, Vice President Joe Biden's occasional choice of a purple tie qualifies him for GQ.

Internationally, Zegna's growth may be fueled by places such as China and Brazil, where affluent young customers long for more color, more texture and more options in their sportswear. The company has seen double-digit growth in those parts of the world. But here in this self-important corner of the free world, the suit is all powerful.

Washington does not represent Zegna's future. But this city's culture explains why Zegna's history has been so good.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company