Ermenegildo Zegna has always appreciated the responsibilities that come with its position at the top of the global luxury ladder. More than 5 percent of net profits is donated to supporting “local communities and environmental defense,” and the Oasi Zegna initiative, which defends cultural and natural resources under threat in Italy, is the only such organization to be recognized by the Italian National Trust. So Zegna’s most recent menswear presentation, which was staged in a nature reserve very convincingly re-created inside Milan’s Fiera Convention Centre, was an organic reflection of the company’s corporate ideals—not just for how the clothes were shown, but also for what they were made of. Stefano Pilati’s symphony of sustainability elevated recycled yarns to luxurious new heights, combined them with the finest natural fabrics known to man, and cut the whole lot into a collection that was one of the Fall season’s strongest. Much as it was all about Pilati creating a new vocabulary for Zegna, it was also his opportunity to make a personal statement about an issue that has absorbed him for years. He’s taken his time about expressing it so overtly, but what came down the packed-earth catwalk was more than worth the wait.
What inspired your greening of Zegna?
STEFANO PILATI: I’ve always been very curious about this issue. I read all the papers, watch all the documentaries. But this felt like the right moment to be more active about it. What really inspired me was when I was in Miami at the New York Times Luxury Conference in December and there was a panel with a lot of interest around the subject of sustainability, and Livia Firth was wondering why this consciousness hadn’t been brought into fashion in a broader way. I was already working on my January show, so that was a coincidence that made me think there was something more going on than just my journey.
What did designing with sustainability in mind actually mean for the collection?
I’ve never been as advanced as I was this season. I used different fabrics from many different suppliers, not only Harris Tweed and Lanificio Zegna, but also fabrics woven from totally recycled yarns. What I liked was how recycled yarns and materials could be combined with natural fabrics. That combination of fashion and sustainability felt contemporary, because ultimately anything with a sense of civic responsibility is going to feel that way.
Did you feel restricted at all?
You don’t have the range you would usually have, but I looked at the restrictions as a kind of level that I had to raise to challenge myself and my suppliers. Most of them were super-happy to find someone who wasn’t just taking them for what they were. In fact, I found an enormous number of choices. I was surprised how many there were in Italy. At the end of the day, it was a matter of taste. The concept of luxury can be very cynical. It looks at something “green” as being somehow boring. So for me, the challenge was to do something very strong and very powerful. That’s why I call the new Zegna man an eco-leader. I didn’t want to just do a collection with organic cottons and dyes and recycled fabrics and be kind of bland. I wanted strength. So I took the restrictions and made them a point of departure.
“I didn’t want to just do a collection with organic cottons and dyes and recycled fabrics and be kind of bland. I wanted strength.”
And those suppliers can then go on to use their elevated consciousness with other customers. So it’s a domino effect.
I hope so. For example, I’ve been observing the work of Stella McCartney for a long time and wondering how she does it so effortlessly. She has progressed so much, there are almost no limits for her. And in a way, I’ve brought that to menswear and to a luxury house, and put it together in a stylish, contemporary way. I hope it’s going to be influential. It’s definitely influenced me a lot. There will not be another collection that is not a good 50 percent made with recycled yarns. But I know you understand it’s not my brand. I work for Zegna. They’ve embraced the clothes and followed me, and I feel lucky in that sense. So now it’s just about how to redirect what we already have in place, making it stronger and even more relevant.
Stella has expressed frustration that after all this time, more people haven’t followed her example. Look at how fashionable fur is again, for example. But if she’s shown it’s possible to be hugely successful and eco-conscious, why do people resist that change?
Because we approach things in the same old ways. That’s why I talked about a comfort zone. Considering what’s going on in the world right now, it feels like nothing has changed. It’s the same with fashion. It’s always looking for sensation. It doesn’t give a fuck if we kill animals. It needs to elevate itself. We always look to the past, try to refine what has been done already. We prefer our comfort zone in bringing back the ’70s and ’80s. But what about doing something good for ourselves that still makes us feel stylish and happy and fashionable?
Do you think its something as banal as eco-consciousness not being seen as sexy by the fashion industry?
Yes, totally. Why is a bit difficult to answer…maybe because we’re not all together doing it, maybe because, even if Stella is very influential from my point of view, she’s not enough. She’s alone. I guess it’s because of that. One thing that is true is that the research and development suppliers do is way more advanced than years ago, when it was much more difficult to glamorize something with just pale beige. That’s not the case now.
“Why do you want to define something as luxurious when you want to give it to millions of people?”
Do you think it’s just a matter of time, even though you’ve said you’re not an optimist?
I hope so. I’m not an optimist, but in this case I do believe in what I do. One or two is better than nobody. Even if it will be three or four out of hundreds, it will still make a difference.
I thought it was very clever in the second half of the show to propose a new kind of suit dressing, a business uniform for the men who run the world, turning the Zegna man into an eco-leader without him even knowing it. He buys a new coat because it’s so seductive, and then finds out it’s woven from recycled cashmere.
Our fashion show is a marketing tool, so you need to find a way to develop your message that also addresses the brand you’re working for. It has to go back to the Zegna lexicon. But this is why I had fun, balancing the look of it and the content. That’s what I’m interested in. And I think it’s also what a brand like Zegna should stand for.
Tell me why you think luxury is a choice.
There is an abuse of the term. Why do you want to define something as luxurious when you want to give it to millions of people? It needs to be defined in a different way now. When I talk about it as a choice, it’s more about attitude than actuality. If I
find something that helps me define my style and is also eco-aware, I’d rather buy that than something of unknown origin that is just for the sake of showing off.
If somebody asked you why your clothes are so expensive when you’re using recycled yarns and fabrics, what would you say to them?
Talk to Gildo [long, hearty laughter]. So far it’s the exclusivity of it, and the production is rarefied, and also because it’s sophisticated. And the level of sophistication is not about the color combinations or the silhouettes or whatever, it’s about the content. When I talk about luxury as a choice, this is what I mean. My work is targeted to people of a certain spending power. Their sophistication is not just defined by image but also content. If I put together two coats I like—considering I have no problems with budget because that’s the client we’re talking to—and one is a bit more expensive but one has a bit more content, I think I’d go with the one with the content. I may not be an optimist, but I’m a romantic, and that’s the way I can be rewarded.
“The level of sophistication is not about the color combinations or the silhouettes or whatever, it’s about the content.”
So why aren’t you an optimist?
Middle-age crisis! [that laugh again]. We miss leaders. We have too many followers and not so many leaders. But that’s another conversation.
You mentioned that this is work you’re doing for someone else, that it would be different if you had your own label. But is this still about creating a legacy in some way?
Absolutely. I don’t do things with that in mind—like being a precursor or the leader of the pack—but I do them with a sense of responsibility. And it’s comprehending all aspects of the job: the fact I talk to people, dress people, work for this company. We talk about contemporaneity and I want to be contemporary; we talk about modernity and I want to be modern. I’m just trying to do a good job.
—Tim Blanks, Style.com