Alessandro Sartori’s Ten People to Meet: Making the Menswear World of Ermenegildo Zegna
“Actually, it’s very interesting because my mum was a tailor and my family name means tailor [in Italian]. But my brother is an electronics engineer and has nothing to do with tailoring.” Alessandro Sartori kicks off our conversation about becoming the master of menswear he is today. He is on FaceTime in Singapore, where the tour of his latest campaign for Ermenegildo Zegna has taken him, with events starting in New York, before continuing in Berlin and Dubai. Titled #WhatMakesAMan (yes, hashtag included), the campaign was a call to the Zegna community, questioning the notions of masculinity in today’s world. A bold move in the current climate – post #MeToo, amid the fourth wave of feminism. “We took the risk, of course, and to be honest, we don’t have 100% of the people on board. But there are 80 to 90% of people who have been engaged like never before. I received letters, messages and emails […] They really take part in the conversation and there is nothing more beautiful than when you feel that someone is engaged at the level that they perceive someone else’s opinion,” he explains.
There are no wrong or right answers to Zegna’s hashtagging question – it’s an accepting community of evolving ideas of manhood. In fact, traditionally feminine qualities come to mind within the first couple of answers from Sartori. His love of menswear and tailoring was born at the age of three, when he would run into his mother’s atelier. “I [remember] being very near to the very fragile, sensitive and kind of textured approach to fashion.” Those days of growing up in Biella, a northern Italian city in the region of Piedmont, can still be seen in his poetic tailoring, which continues to respect, but also reinterpret, tradition. In fact, all of his experience of fashion comes from Italy – he studied fashion design in Milan, then went on to work on the newly opened Z Zegna line in 2003. He stayed there until 2011 when, having established it as the younger, fashion-enthusiast brother to the Ermenegildo Zegna brand, he left to become the artistic director of Berluti. There, Sartori injected a breath of fresh air into the heritage house, extending its expertise into ready-to-wear and a more complete view of a wardrobe.
During those early days of Sartori’s career, his influences came from dual sources. “My favourite were two different parts of these paradigms in fashion. On the one side it’s famous brands and on the other, the Italian tailors.” He name-checks Caraceni, a traditional tailoring business dating all the way back to 1893, for the way their imagery always portrayed “beautiful men wearing beautiful garments”. He also loved Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent for their rich textures and elegant luxury, but the one designer he remembers being stunned by as a fashion student was Romeo Gigli and his exquisitely modern play on strictly gendered dress codes. “He was designing two collections – Romeo Gigli, which was his own, and then Callaghan, which was another brand that he was working for, only for women.”
That feminine quality of menswear is what today stands out as Sartori’s own design signature at Ermenegildo Zegna, where he returned in the newly created role of artistic director of the whole group in 2016. At the time, streetwear was all the rage, entering the realm of luxury fashion via the main door. But instead of jumping on the bandwagon, Sartori considered this shift in men’s style with poetic sensibility. One of his first product launches for the house was the Tiziano, a trainer combining couture-like techniques of weaving with a chunky, of-the-moment silhouette. That casual yet refined interpretation of everyday dressing was reflected across the whole Zegna wardrobe in his debut, AW17 show. In the three years since, menswear has definitely moved on from hoodies and tracksuits, with a new-found nostalgic dedication to old-school elegance. Once again, Sartori seems to be in his groove.
“I don’t think that streetwear will disappear completely because it’s part of the generation,” he says. “The idea of blending sportswear elements into tailoring and tailoring elements and fabric into sportswear [has] always been part of my job, but today, like never before, I really like the idea of building a new form of suits. There is a combination of the matching fabric, the top and the bottom, but they are not a classic blazer and a classic pant. On the contrary, one of two elements could be a classic element with the other one completely belonging to another generation.” He recognises one of the most successful suit designs to come out of Zegna in the past few years as a bomber jacket with a modern, tailored trouser, made in a fine, 14-micron wool and cashmere. “That’s the suit of tomorrow,” Sartori declares.
Beyond the suiting, Sartori pushes the sartorial limits of his devoted clients: “To me, in menswear, there is a very thin but deep line between being innovative and modern and being costume.” As examples, he mentions the 11⁄2-breasted jacket, a hybrid of heritage styles, as well as a trench that’s shorter than the classic style. For trousers, it’s about adding details to the classic cut. Think cargo pockets or tapering, all making a new uniform that Sartori describes as “entertaining and different”. In the evolution of Ermenegildo Zegna as a brand in more than a century (the brand was founded in 1910), Sartori also sees the evolution of their audience. “There are the customers who are changing with the brand, but there are also new customers who are totally new guys. They don’t follow the rules like the other ones and have a much more personal-styling mindset. But what I like to do is to size for both, design new collections for both and try to be as new as I can with one thing in mind – to stay in their closets as long as possible.” And it seems to be working well.
According to Forbes, Ermenegildo Zegna is the largest menswear brand in the world by revenue. It doesn’t seem like Sartori is fazed by that big statement. He is working in his own lane, coming up with unique ideas that make sense in his own world, led by the mantra set by Ermenegildo Zegna himself. “There is a very interesting sentence that the founder wrote down for all of the employees and workers in 1910. He said his aim was to produce the most beautiful fabrics in the world with the care of the environment.”
The brand is well known for treating their employees as part of a big family, as well as for their forward-thinking, environmentally sustainable tendencies. During the 1930s, the founder planted trees around the area of Trivero, where the factory is still based today. That ecological venture then transformed into Oasi Zegna, which was officially named in 1993 as a natural park, supported by the brand. On the sustainable front, the Ermenegildo Zegna XXX catwalk show for SS20 included looks made out of remnants of wool discarded during the process of suit-making, then remixed and rewoven into new fabrics. Sartori also found the house’s long-time dedication to wellbeing as the inspiration for the #WhatMakesAMan campaign, focusing on the personal connection tailors and their customers can share.
“If a guy of yesterday was going to the store to buy four suits and five shirts, the guy of today doesn’t do that any more – the guy from today is coming to us or we’re going to his apartment, as he just wants to build a silhouette that reflects himself.” Double-Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali was one of the key people in the creation of the story, having developed a relationship with Sartori. “We were designing exclusive outfits, individual in Hollywood, and he came with a stylist when all of the other actors just sent a stylist,” the designer remembers. Sartori designed his outfits for both of his Oscar wins, as well as many other occasions. When they approached Ali to star in the campaign, he was passionate about sharing his personal stories. “There is a world to discover and I get to define that for myself. That’s what I believe, what about you?” the actor asks in the video. With individuality as the key instrument in expressing the future of menswear, Sartori’s isn’t a singular vision. Instead, he proudly curates the best of the world’s talent, a selection of whom are starring on the pages of Issue 3 of 10+.
Collage by Patrick Waugh. Issue 3 of 10+ – ENDURING, MOTION, GRACE – is OUT NOW and available to order here.