MR Honors The Game Changers, Part Three, Ermenegildo Zegna

by Karen Alberg Grossman




Zegna, the world’s largest men’s clothing brand, continues to influence how men dress.


One doesn’t become the world’s largest men’s clothing maker by resting on one’s laurels. In fact, since Ermenegildo Zegna (grandfather to the current CEO) bought his father’s textile looms in 1910, the company has done nothing but innovate. They were the first to pioneer lightweight suiting fabrics and the first to embrace sportswear. They revolutionized luxury made to measure and are one of the few functionalfamily businesses left in our industry.

“Our men’s business can only be strong if our Zegna business is strong,” maintains Bob Mitchell of Mitchells Family of Stores. “From 20 suits in 1993 when I first started buying the collection, Zegna now represents 20 percent of our total men’s clothing. They are a lifestyle brand with a taste level that appeals to a broad range of upscale customers. I treasure my twice-yearly meetings with Gildo when he peppers me with questions about anything and everything. He’s driven, highly responsive to our needs and a great partner.”

Says Murry Penner of M.Penner in Houston, “I respect their transparency. You might not always like what they say but their message is consistent and clear. What’s more, they are legitimate retailers who respect their competition by maintaining prices throughout the season. And no vendor is more profitable in independent stores.”

Adds Neiman’s Russ Patrick, “Ermenegildo Zegna continues to be the largest menswear business at Neiman Marcus. The Zegna family’s passion for quality and reinvention, for cultivating exceptional employees and for operational excellence, has allowed us to grow the business to what it is today. Gildo has been personally involved with Neiman Marcus for decades. Our many beautiful Ermenegildo Zegna shops are a direct result of that mutual commitment.

“On a personal note, meeting with Gildo is a highlight of every trip to Italy. He is one of the most inquisitive leaders in the industry. I always make sure I am full of Italian espresso to help me prepare for the many thoughtful questions he has on his mind! I greatly admire his constant quest for knowledge.”

Here, we speak with CEO Gildo Zegna, part of the fourth generation to run the business, about challenges, opportunities and change.

What specifically do you think differentiates Zegna from its competition?

First and foremost, our dedication to fabric innovation and our pioneering spirit have driven our success. We are unique in that we are a completely vertical, multigenerational family run business that is truly global. We now have a presence in over 100 countries around the world! More than anything else, our people and our collaborative culture differentiate us from our competitors. We always want to be the best at every business we enter so we strive for nothing less than the highest standard.

We all recognize the intrinsic challenges of a family business and the decreasing odds of survival with each generation. So what makes yours work?

I believe passion is most integral to our success. Also, I am constantly driven by the legacy I received from my father and the vision I would like to transmit to the next generation of the Zegna family.

What are Zegna’s most notable recent accomplishments?

Stefano Pilati’s appointment as head of design for Ermenegildo Zegna Couture was a bold step for our business. Moves like this set Zegna apart as a pioneer in menswear, continually pushing boundaries. With Stefano, we are evolving menswear and expanding our product range to address a more fashion-oriented consumer.

Last year, we launched “Made to Measure Casual Luxury” so we could offer men customized sportswear solutions to personalize their wardrobes. This new service is a testament to our constant search for innovative new products that balance personal elegance with everyday functionality. And it’s already clear that our customers love it.

Our latest innovation within Z Zegna is Techmerino, our natural high-performance wool project, now offered as a complete wardrobe. Techmerino is highly breathable and provides perfect thermo-regulation against both hot and cold climates, keeping the skin dry and the body temperature constant as it maximizes the natural features of wool.

What are your current goals and future plans?

Coming off our recent opening in the Miami Design District earlier this year, we are focused on expansion in major markets. Our next retail opening will be at Brookfield Place, which is playing a key role in the makeover of Lower Manhattan. This will mark our third retail store in NYC. Also, we’re always trying to enhance our customer experience. To keep up with the evolving demands of the consumer, we’ve increased our focus on omni-channel initiatives.

What are your challenges in today’s marketplace?

The changing dynamic of international customers is certainly a challenge today, due in part to currency fluctuations. This past year we’ve seen volatility in the currency markets, which requires us to navigate wisely.

And of course, the role that online plays in today’s business challenges us to re-think how we provide the best shopping experience for our customers. Inevitably that leads us to an omni-channel approach, which we’re embracing as the new reality of retailing.

You were among the first companies to go direct to consumer. How have your wholesale accounts reacted to this? Where do independent specialty stores fit into your business model?

Balance is the key to an effective distribution model. Essentially, each channel has a role to play. We consider independent retail stores a core part of the Zegna brand in the U.S. department stores are also important as are, of course, our own stores. It’s a virtuous circle where we all help each other and most of our accounts can appreciate this. For Zegna, which is predominantly retail-driven around the world, the U.S. is a unique market in that wholesale makes up a substantial part of the business.

How are you attracting Millennial customers at your luxury price points?

I don’t believe one can generalize about Millennials: it’s not like they’re all attracted to any one thing. But the launch of the new Z Zegna this spring gave us the opportunity to speak more clearly to a new customer. Z Zegna merges modernism with our traditional roots and gives us the opportunity to innovate in ways we do particularly well. You could say that Z Zegna blends the elegance of precise tailoring with the performance of technical sportswear. Surely Millennial customers find it appealing, but in fact, the brand’s identity reflects the way more and more men want to dress today.

Our shoes and leathergoods business, especially sneakers, has also introduced many new customers to the Zegna brand.

Where’s the potential internationally?

Each market shows potential right now. In mature markets there’s a new generation of potential Zegna clients, whereas the opportunity to grow emerging markets over the last decade lies in consolidating the position we’ve acquired. In addition, Africa and countries in Asia such as Japan and Korea are a focus for the group in 2016.
Thanks to Zegna’s global footprint, international travelers arrive in the U.S. with a pre-established appreciation and desire for the brand. We see this reflected positively in our U.S. sales across retail and wholesale.

Talk a bit about your corporate culture.

Zegna is a company that asks a lot of questions: of our customers, business partners and of ourselves. We’ve always listened closely to our local markets; this helps us to be better partners. In our constant drive for excellence, we not only challenge ourselves daily but we also welcome challenges from our customers.
Given Zegna’s rich heritage, we are continually evolving while respecting our environment. My grandfather’s dedication to the community has been passed down through each generation and is today expressed via the Zegna Foundation and the preservation of Oasi Zegna, the nature park that surrounds the Zegna wool mill.

Who among your retail accounts do you most admire and why?

We are very fortunate to have the best wholesale distribution network in the business. We do observe two common traits among those retail accounts who are most successful with Zegna: 1) They know their clients, and 2) They understand their local markets and are deeply involved in their communities. Our closest partners stimulate our creativity, motivating us to innovate both product and business ideas. This always strengthens our partnerships and grows the business on both ends.


Gildo Zegna Gets Personal

Your joys in life: Nature and sport
Your mentors over the years and what you learned from them: My wife has taught me to achieve balance in my life; from my father I learned discipline, vision and courage.
Your philosophy of business: Continually think out of the box to take a fresh approach.
Your philosophy of life: Finding the balance between family and business.
What you know now that you wish you’d known then: With technology always evolving, this business requires constant innovation.