Ermenegildo Zegna and Alessandro Sartori were reminiscing about a meeting the two had last year in the Italian Alps, near where both men grew up. Inside the brand’s Fifth Avenue store, they explained, they started discussing the future course of the family-owned fashion label Ermenegildo Zegna and ended up talking about almost everything.
“We were supposed to meet for a coffee, but it lasted six hours,” Mr. Sartori said. “It was many coffees, including a beautiful lunch.”
“With a couple of good wines,” said Mr. Zegna, who goes by Gildo.
“Very much,” Mr. Sartori said. “There was one I will remember.”
Mr. Zegna broke in to say it was a Barbaresco Gaja, 1968 vintage.
“It was a fantastic wine,” Mr. Sartori said. “I was riding home very carefully.”
The lunch was the culmination of a yearlong “flirtation,” as Mr. Zegna described it, with the result being the appointment of Mr. Sartori last February as artistic director of the Ermenegildo Zegna Group.
After five years at Berluti, where he transformed a company known for its high-end shoes into a full-service men’s fashion company, Mr. Sartori, 50, is returning to the label where he began his career in 1989 and worked as a men’s wear designer for many years.
For Mr. Zegna, 61, the move is an attempt to re-energize his vertically integrated company, which owns its own sheep farm and mill to provide the luxe materials that go into its suits, which start at $2,995 and go up to $5,495.
“I felt we had to give an extra kick to the brand,” said Mr. Zegna, the grandson and namesake of the label’s founder. “I felt we were a little too stable, to say the least. We had to foster growth and create a new energy and enthusiasm.”
In addition to hiring Mr. Sartori, the label has streamlined the leadership of the three separate men’s wear collections (Mr. Sartori will oversee the design of all three), offered a bespoke shoe capsule collection only in London and started a new advertising campaign called “Defining Moments,” which features Robert De Niro in a rare turn as a fashion pitchman.
“We didn’t want someone to be too formal, because Zegna is already too formal, too businesslike,” Mr. Zegna said. “I think Mr. De Niro has a casual, mature, more elegant style.”
During the interview on Thursday at the store on Fifth Avenue, Mr. Zegna was dressed casually, in brown corduroy pants and a chunky blue sweater. Both were vintage Zegna garments pulled from his archive, what he called his “chateau of clothes.”
“It’s fun, because, since Alessandro came back, I’ve been pulling out so many pieces,” Mr. Zegna said. “And those pieces, he knows where they come from.”
He added: “We don’t have to talk much. We look at each other and we have an idea and we just do it.”
In his blue blazer, white turtleneck, luxe fabric sweatpants and sneakers, Mr. Sartori looked like a hip movie director. He wants to bring a fresh, innovative blend of tailoring and sportswear to the label, he said.
That evening, both men changed into traditional dark suits for a party for the brand held at a two-story SoHo apartment owned by the businessman and art collector Peter Brant.
Among the partygoers were the architect Peter Marino, who designed Zegna’s new London flagship; Francesco Carrozzini, who directed a short film for Zegna’s new campaign starring Mr. De Niro and the young actor McCaul Lombardi; and Mr. De Niro himself, who looked very much the lion in winter. The living room walls were papered with large-scale Basquiat and Warhol canvases. Waiters in black livery served cocktails, Champagne, Italian wines and bowls of squash ravioli, among other offerings.
Earlier, at the store, Mr. Zegna turned contemplative regarding the first time he met Mr. Sartori, when he was a man of 38 and his protégé was 27, and about what it means to have him back in the fold at this stage in the game.
“It means opening a new chapter of my life and the life of the company,” Mr. Zegna said. “I’m wiser. He’s much more mature. He’s more intense.”
Fashion, he added, “is about timing.”
Robert De Niro’s Talking, Wearing Italian: Ermenegildo Zegna Reveals Its Campaign Coup
Tonight in New York, the Italian menswear company Ermenegildo Zegna will host a dinner to celebrate a new campaign that packs a seriously powerful casting coup: It features Robert De Niro.
To secure the services of such a storied star is quite something—especially one who, his long-standing friendship with Giorgio Armani apart, is rarely spotted in fashion land. According to Ermenegildo Zegna artistic director Alessandro Sartori and CEO Gildo Zegna, this campaign, entitled “Defining Moments,” has special resonance in that it marks the start of a new strategy for the house. De Niro stars opposite Maryland up-and-comer McCaul Lombardi (of American Honey) in a series of images shot against archetypal la-la backdrops. Alongside the print campaigns, Sartori and Zegna commissioned the director Francesco Carrozzini to shoot a series of short films recording the actors discussing their “defining moments.”
When I sat with Lombardi at Sartori’s debut show for Zegna in Milan last month this project was still unannounced officially, so no chance to ask him about sharing screen time with De Niro. Carrozzini’s endearing film shows the young actor understandably wide-eyed and rapt as the star of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas discusses working with Marlon Brando, his early mentors, his doubts about TV work, his passion for New York, and what makes him take a role. The films go live on Ermenegildo Zegna’s site and social channels tomorrow, and a behind the scenes teaser is here.
But why does this campaign represent a pivot for Zegna? According to Sartori, it’s the first phase in a switch to focusing on the idea of human conversation instead of branded monologuing—simply focusing solely on product. He said: “As well as the hands that make it, part of the story of Zegna is defined by the people who wear it—people around the world from different generations and with different experience. So we are starting from this idea.” The “Defining Moments” strategy, he added, will not be limited to advertising; other plans are being hatched.
The subtext to all this is the sea change in masculine habit that has seen the suit, or at least the banal suit, drop from its spot as the default item of dress for many. While Ermenegildo Zegna is not limited to suiting (just check Sartori’s debut collection), it is arguably defined by it. Gildo Zegna tacitly acknowledged this when he said: “The market, the consumers, and the demands of both are constantly changing, and for a company to remain competitive, it needs to offer products that meet customer expectations. Alessandro’s entry into Zegna as artistic director of the brand has undoubtedly brought new energy and new ideas. The ‘Defining Moments’ campaign . . . is the beginning of a new path for Zegna that is consistent with our history and our DNA, and at the same time has a clear vision of the future.”
“You talkin’ to me?” Zegna is hoping the answer to that will be yes.