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Ermenegildo Zegna on What Makes a Man

“My grandma would want me to button up.” Those were Mahershala Ali’s first words as he accepted the Best Supporting Actor award for his performance in Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age drama Moonlight at the 2017 Oscars. Ali had poise and composure. Instead of his ego, his sense of humility was on show in front of millions of viewers that night. The first people Ali thanked were “his teachers”.

Ali was the picture of elegance in his attire, too. He wore a silk shawl collar Ermenegildo Zegna tuxedo and madarin collar shirt that were classic with a twist. He finished the look with a hat that was traditional in design but somewhat radical to see in a black-tie setting. Not only was he one of the best-dressed men in attendance that night, but his look perfectly captured the new elegant, expressive mood of menswear.

This mood and our larger, evolving notions of what defines masculinity were the inspiration behind Zegna’s new Fall 2019 collection and ad campaign. Given his body of work, his public persona, and—let’s face it—his style, Mahershala Ali was the obvious choice to headline the campaign for the 110-year-old family-owned label.

To Zegna’s creative team, led today by artistic director Alessandro Sartori, a modern man is one who actively pursues personal growth; he’s not a closed book but a work in progress. “Masculinity is a state of mind,” a release from the brand reads, “One that takes on different meanings and includes many qualities, both expected and not: courtesy, politeness, patience, vulnerability, wisdom, eccentricity. What makes a man is the dignity and openness to accept and embrace the contradictions of life, to evolve day by day, being truthful to oneself, endlessly changing one’s perspective and attitudes.”

Ali’s mother was an ordained Baptist minister, and thus he was raised as a Christian, but Ali heard a different calling, and converted to Islam in adulthood, changing his name. “Because of Islam, I am acutely aware that I am a work in progress,” he told GQ in 2017. The daily practice of the religion, he said, “puts a healthy pressure on you to be your best self, beginning with your own spirit and how that feeds into your actions.”

In college, when professional basketball seemed to be his destiny, Ali questioned the motives and treatment of athletes by the establishment. “I found college sports exploitative,” he once told Esquire with characteristic cut-through. “They saw players as products.”

When Ali became a father, he stressed the importance of spending time with family, telling People, “You’ve got to be really deliberate with how you choose to spend your day because those are the moments you’re away from your child. If anything, I want to work in a more focused way and discover the right balance for my life”.

Through every life phase, project, and press tour Mahershala Ali has demonstrated just the conviction and courage Zegna seeks to put a mirror up to in its #WHATMAKESAMAN campaign. “He is a natural fit to represent the idea of what a man is today”, the release concludes. “[Ali] brings a personal gravitas and a lightness of spirit, an inner richness and wit”. That he looks so good in Zegna’s modern, exquisitely crafted suits is just a very nice bonus.

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