• Tim Blanks

Stepping Out of Classicism at Ermenegildo Zegna

The overwhelming impression was a generously proportioned, collar-free casualness: effortlessness that was absolutely effortful.

MILAN, Italy — Alessandro Sartori is drawn to the desert. His idea of distraction is grabbing his backpack and heading out on his own into an uncharted world of sand and sunsets. A couple of months ago, he dressed his friend Benjamin Millepied’s company, L.A. Dance Project, when they performed at Marfa in the high desert in West Texas. The experience hung heavy over the men’s collection Sartori showed for Ermenegildo Zegna Couture on Friday night in Milan.

First, there was the colour palette which, with a little mental rejigging, covered a full spectrum, from chill pre-dawn to the blush of sunrise, morning’s sky blue, midday’s white heat and the heady pinks of sunset and, finally, the teal blues and blacks of the desert sky at night, with every earth tone in between.

Then there were the clothes, track pants in sand-blasted suede (Sartori said 70 per cent of the pants in the collection were similarly sporty), a top cut from a cactus-green leather in a net of elasticated plongé, suits in an unlined silk so light and fluid it needed a hot desert breeze to inflate it into life. The overwhelming impression was an effortless, generously proportioned, collar-free casualness, though fortunately, I was parked next to Gildo Zegna, who could point out that a coat that went past (looking just like plain old striped cotton) was actually Zegna’s Century Cashmere, printed; the pattern on a sweater laboriously hand-embroidered; the complex, springy knit an innovative cotton jacquard — in other words: effortlessness that was absolutely effortful.

Which begs the question: does such awareness enhance appreciation? Sartori recently hired two young female artists for his studio — one specialising in hand-painting fabrics, the other a specialist in hand embroidering anything — who have raised the bar on customisation for clients. And, at the end of last year, Gildo Zegna bought Con Bonotto, a Veneto-based company whose fabrics combine the innovations of the past with the experiments of the future, that cotton jacquard being one example.

Before the show, Sartori was talking about how Zegna’s su misura (made to order) approach to ready-to-wear menswear had encouraged the connoisseurship of a whole new customer for the brand, whose attention to detail raised fashion fetishism to new heights.

The designer might almost have been evoking their obsessive retreat into their own sartorial specificity with his staging. The venue — Milan's Università Statale — couldn't have been more classic. It was where Sartori used to hang out in his late teens, reading a book, soaking up the highbrow vibes. But he warped it. You stepped out of that classicism into a disorienting mirrored labyrinth, which then opened onto a mirror-studded courtyard of burnt orange sand surrounding a single blasted tree in the same shade.

It was a fabulously surreal, solipsistic environment. I couldn’t stop thinking about the character Des Esseintes, in Against Nature, J.K. Huysmans’ 19th century paean to self-absorption. Des Esseintes was a man who tried to remodel reality to his own spec. Once upon a time, fashion had that power. For a very few designers, it still does.

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