THE SARTORI-AL THREAD: Alessandro Sartori
Text by Kee | Photos courtesy of Ermenegildo Zegna
Alessandro Sartori

Menswear designers don’t often get the credit they deserve. After all, how many times can a suit or overcoat be deconstructed until someone calls the bluff? The difference with Alessandro Sartori is that his tinkering with menswear comes from an honest place, designing wares that today’s fashion set don’t necessarily need but seriously desire. Doing it on behalf of the Ermenegildo Zegna name, he has provided the 111-year-old family-owned biz with the blueprint to ensure its relevancy for another century to come.

We can’t exactly say when we knew Alessandro Sartori became great. It could be the moment he decided to drop all of his tools in his first stint at Ermenegildo Zegna – at the height of his game no less – to take the lead at storied menswear label Berluti in Paris. It could also be those moments when his couture-blessed tuxedos for actor Mahershala Ali embellished both his Oscar wins with Best Dressed mentions (a hard task for a tuxedo to accomplish if you ask us). It could also be that moment when he turned a pandemic-hit fashion week in Zegna’s favour with a livestream of a 3.3km-long runway show for spring-summer 2021 that covered the Zegna forests and facilities. But truth be told, Sartori’s greatness comes from his sensibility and sensitivity – of which the latter is a hard tell if you’re judging by his image of slim-cut threads, turtlenecks, and sleek shades or thick framed glasses. Zegna’s campaigns since 2019 are just some evidence of Sartori’s woke-ness. In #WhatMakesAMan, which is still part of the core messaging for the brand today, Zegna poses the question about what modern masculinity means. This simple open-ended question has started a discourse for men and women but ultimately Zegna’s endgame is to get everyone to internalise – a necessary course of action that might have been forgotten in an era of information overload. We speak to Sartori about his legacy, designing during the pandemic, and how he plans to change menswear for the better.

Backstage at Ermenegildo Zegna XXX spring-summer 2021 show

MANIFESTO: You have been with Zegna for close to two decades over two stints. Have you had time to reflect on your impact in menswear?

ALESSANDRO SARTORI: Listen, it was a very different era when I first started. I can’t judge for myself as to the impact I’ve made – you can tell me – but hopefully I have. The idea of blending sportswear and tailoring, the idea of blending craftsmanship and modernity, the idea of using exclusive and quality fabrics to make fresh looks belonging to Zegna: I think I contributed that to the menswear world as well. I feel particularly excited about the journey to come.

Alessandro Sartori showcased his first collection for Zegna in his second stint at the Zegna Group, circa January 2017

M: You have many career highlights at Zegna. What do you consider as your most important one?

AS: We have done many shows, each one with its own experience, hosted in different environments that have been quite majestic. We went from the Falck iron mill to Università Statale to the beautiful Milano Centrale. Then we went from the show in Oasi Zegna to the last show in the city of Milano. Each place made its own mark as well as the quality of fashion we were delivering.

If there was a moment that was particularly exciting for me, it would have been my first show after I came back to Zegna. It was held at the Pirelli HangarBicocca museum. It was where I started this new journey at Zegna as of January 2017. The show was very strong, exciting, and full of emotions. But I think it was the last phygital show we did (for fall-winter 2021) that changed the paradigm of menswear and for Zegna. The format of delivery was very new for the company as well as for the industry. Fashion-wise, this was my strongest show.

It’s the idea of delivering new techniques with new aesthetics. I’m talking about bringing the indoor needs into the outdoor world as well as the outdoor attitude indoors. It’s the fusion of the two needs that derive a new aesthetic. There is fluidity in the silhouettes, monochromatic looks and a lot of new constructions. It’s very couture-driven though it looks simple from the outside; the insides of the garments are very special. We also used a new jersey that we created that looks like a woven fabric. It can be used in many different ways and is instrumental in providing us with another silhouette.

Mahershala Ali was dressed by Alessandro Sartori for both of his Oscar wins

M: The pandemic has provided many obstacles for the industry. How do you think these challenges have evolved you as a human being as well as a designer?

AS: I think I have evolved a lot. In the beginning, we were mostly working inside the studio or with the artisans and patternmakers with us. Today, it is a collaboration with a larger team – we have PR, digital, marketing, wool mill designers… that’s because we want to deliver a single message. We have different methods of working but we are doing it together to derive a more profound result. It is a much broader job than before. It is like cooking around many chefs and it is very new for me. We started this process a year ago at Zegna and I don’t think it is a very common way of working in the industry because the designer is usually working solo or together with the artisans. I enjoy it and there’s a very interesting energy. It is like every season is a start-up.

M: The evolution of menswear and tailoring is a delicate balancing act. There are standard silhouettes and colour palettes to work around, yet there is always a need from the industry to showcase newness. How have you catered to those requirements and not lose sight of the traditions of a fashion house that is more than a century old?

AS: The evolution of menswear continues to happen every season for us but the pandemic has fast-forwarded many things. It feels like 10 years have passed in a single year. We have all noticed what we need and don’t need in our wardrobes today. The attitude is different; we find ourselves wanting to combine attitude and style. We want to have easiness with our choices but a fresh image. Today, we can say that we have all started a new journey and I really like it.

The new image of the suit will be fresher and the construction will be simpler and cooler. It will be more pure; it will be a new sort of minimal but not the ones from 15 to 20 years ago. Today’s version consists of beautiful prints and nice jacquard, and a lot of solutions. I can say that menswear has closed a chapter and started a new one – and the new one is very exciting.

Oasi Zegna in Northern Italy is the symbol of Zegna's sustainability initiative

M: Your consistency has been profound, even during your short stint at Berluti. You returned to Zegna and never missed a beat. But today’s challenges are obviously different and more wide-ranging, from social issues to environmental. Sustainability, for example, has been a cornerstone for Zegna since the early days of its founder but the house has played it down all these years until the recent introduction of #UseTheExisting (Zegna’s sustainability pledge). Do you see #UseTheExisting as the only way forward for the house and for fashion?

AS: #UseTheExisting as a methodology has been part of us for a very long time, since our founder started the company. We have never sought to use sustainability as a marketing tool. We are authentic in our conversations about it. We don’t even have to force a sustainable approach when we work or design because we do it naturally. It’s not even a question for us; it’s in our DNA. #UseTheExisting started years ago with the idea of reducing our waste to zero. I remember the early conversations about this in 2016 and early 2017 and we were talking about how much waste the industry is generating. We can see from our sources with the washing to the spinning to weaving to the crafting… and for even the garments you don’t sell, there is a huge waste of new raw materials. This is an existing problem for the industry, on all levels and segments. Basically, this waste is between 40 to 50 per cent and sometimes more. We are finding means to recuperate these used materials and to restart the process. What is exciting is that from the waste, we are able to make something new and offer a second life to the fibre. We are fully committed to this green mindset.

I won’t be able to tell you that we are only exclusively using used fibres in the future because new fibres are also important. What we are doing, however, is to use natural colourants and traceable products. There are layers of sustainability and we will do as much as we can in all these layers.

#WhatMakesAMan campaign for spring-summer 2021, starring Gabriel-Kane Day-Lewis and his mother Isabelle Adjani

M: For Zegna’s long-running #WhatMakesAMan campaign, there is an open dialogue with customers about the topic of masculinity and their own internalisation of the topic. Although this is a very different approach from what has been done in the past, how groundbreaking has this campaign been for the house?

AS: I would say this campaign is about people listening and understanding. It is very interesting to note that what we are working on is always from an honest point of view. We knew before executing this that there will be criticism as some people don’t want to voice their opinion. But that’s fine; we‘re living in an open society. The Zegna family shares these values and we want to speak about it.

M: Feedback is immediate now thanks to social media. Do you read all the comments and do you get affected by them?

AS: Of course, we read them. But we don’t take it in a negative light. We just take it that it is from someone with a different opinion.

M: Has such immediate feedback changed the way you design clothes?

AS: No! I don’t ever react from the comments or else I would feel what I have done is wrong. But what I do is to listen. I have emotions and I do feel what others say but that’s just being human.

Jerry Lorenzo with Alessandro Sartori for the Fear of God collaboration

M: How do you bridge the gap between what the younger generation understands as fashion today (i.e. hype fashion and gimmicks) and what you offer in terms of craftsmanship and quality? There was the Fear of God collaboration with Jerry Lorenzo last year that helped to generate some buzz from a community that doesn’t often look to Zegna for solutions.

AS: We have had many possibilities to work on collaborations. We only decided on the one that we truly like. The one with Jerry [Lorenzo] was the one I liked because he is a friend of mine so it was an honest partnership. It was a real story.

I do agree that reaching out to the younger crowd is important but bear in mind that the Zegna community is very broad and interesting. Actually, I don’t even see any gap. I work with about 20 males and females in the design team and they are from different nationalities and age groups, ranging from early 20s to some in their 50s. I never felt any distance with these people. I really live my job. I’m not the person who goes to work and comes back home to do something else. My team lives in this way too and we’re all friends in the same community. We have similar taste in modern art and music and photography.

This is really my favourite moment in my career. I’m always looking forward to the next show and the next idea and creating the next emotion. I need to stop and just live in the moment.



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