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Growing Over Time
If many of the core values at Zegna come directly from the founder, each generation has significantly changed the company. The two sons of Ermenegildo Zegna threw themselves into developing Zegna's ready-to-wear. In 2007 clothing and accessories made up more than 90% of the company's turnover, while textile sales accounted for less than 10%. The grandchildren credit their fathers with developing exports, now 88% of total sales. "I was a kid the first time I heard my father say, 'One-third, one-third, one-third,'" says chief executive Gildo Zegna, 52. "Finally, last year we reached that: one-third America, one-third Asia, one-third Europe."
For the current generation, the push has been to develop Zegna as a global brand. That includes opening more stores (rather than selling through department stores and independent boutiques), such as the giant, carefully planned flagship locations in Milan and New York City. Gildo says the growth in emerging markets like India, Brazil and China has been wonderful for the men's business. "These new consumers want to have fun with fashion," he says. And the men in these markets, unlike those in more traditional ones, are uninhibited about spending as much as women do for clothes and accessories.
The boon of emerging markets for a company like Zegna cannot be overstated, says Paola Durante, director of Merrill Lynch's luxury group in Milan. In traditional developed markets, she says, the women's business easily represents 60% to 70% of the total. In new markets, however, the men's-to-women's share is closer to fifty-fifty. Durante notes that Zegna's determination to remain focused exclusively on the men's market is interesting to watch. "They are the leaders, with Hugo Boss, in their sector," she says. "We are all watching to see whether Hugo Boss can succeed as a menswear brand and also do women's."
Gildo says he's convinced that being unique will count with customers and therefore he won't stray from Zegna's roots. "Are margins in men's lower than women's? Yes, but so what? We are the only one dedicated to menswear," Gildo says. "We are a very masculine brand, and we are focused in what we do," he says. In 1999 the company acquired a small women's brand, Agnona, to test the waters. It has also created joint ventures to develop a shoe line and accessories.
Even if textiles no longer weigh as heavily in sales, Zegna continues to be a principal supplier of wools to the luxury-goods industry, producing in Italy and weathering competition from abroad by focusing on top-grade fabrics and capitalizing on in-house expertise. When you walk through the mill, it's fascinating to see the mingling of high tech and no tech. The raw material is prepared and then fed into sophisticated spinning machines, automated dyeing vats and noisy, lightning-fast looms. In quality control, suddenly the pace slows, as experienced Italians examine every piece of cloth. No machine can detect flaws as well as the human eye, executives claim. Some flawed pieces are sent for hand mending, and others are discarded. After several more steps, the fabric looks good but is disappointingly rough. The group of factory workers looking on laughs. "The most important is the finishing," explains one. "It gives the touch, the softness," says another. "It is the soul."
Besides the emerging markets, the excitement in the men's field will be in technological improvements in finishes for fabrics, says Gildo. At the design studio in Trivero, a merry band of fabric designers delights in showing off the new smart fabrics. One squirts ketchup, then soy sauce onto a suit fabric, and then wields a green highlighter pen before spritzing the material with water and sponging it clean. This treatment, used on the Micronsphere suit, is derived from an anticondensation technique developed for Lufthansa. Other treatments are designed to prevent clothing from wrinkling, even when slept in overnight on a plane. Some fabric finishes allow suits to be machine-washed rather than dry-cleaned. There's a black fabric, which, thanks to a step in the dyeing process, acts more like the color white, reflecting some of the sun's infrared rays rather than absorbing them. The designers are testing it by taking turns wearing a jacket that is half traditional black and half new black. It's a technology borrowed from the automobile industry.
Of course, even aerospace technology trickles down and becomes more widely available and easier to copy, but the experts at Zegna say the trick lies not in implementing the technology but in using it without compromising the feel of the fabric. That requires access to the best-quality raw materials and long-term know-how.
The researchers are working away, but the holy grail for the fabric designers is still a long way off. "Imagine we could promise tomorrow that this fabric will make you feel better," says Augusto Ferraris, head of design. "This is the future."