Alessandro Sartori has just flown 16 hours from Los Angeles to Singapore, not to unveil a new collection, open a new store or host an exclusive VIP customer event, but rather to discuss the question: what makes a man?
An intimate group of men and women have been invited to a waterfront property at Sentosa Cove as part of Zegna’s latest campaign #WhatMakesAMan. There’s no runway show. No accessories strategically placed on tables. And throughout his one- hour open conversation with the party-goers—a motley crew of entertainers, journalists and a cultural conversationalist—Sartori doesn’t even mention his current collection. Not once.
The lack of a commercial angle is, at first, confronting and strange. Sartori is in Singapore for 24 hours just to talk about the changing tides of masculinity? But, as the night settles in, the honesty of the endeavour is refreshing. The world’s largest purveyor of luxury menswear is legitimately invested into starting conversations. Has Zegna cracked what other brands have been struggling to do in the wake of the digital revolution? Actually adding meaning to fashion? Earlier in the day, seated in the wood- panelled sur misura room in the brand’s Ion store, a gregarious Sartori pushing back the effects of jet lag from his red-eye flight, sat down with Esquire to explain why #WhatMakesAMan is not only important, but needed, in today’s evolving landscape.
ESQ: What you are doing is quite revolutionary as most luxury brands historically focus on the craft or the aspirational lifestyle of their brand. But your recent campaign, #WhatMakesAMan, is focusing on deeper issues. Were you afraid that this would be ill-received?
ALESSANDRO SARTORI: The company has always had a vision to take care of the community and the environment since 1910. Zegna was not only a fabric producer when it started, but also a place where people could earn a better living. Zegna built a village next to the company—a hospital, gym, schools, houses for its people—and also planted half a billion trees to offer oxygen to the environment. This is the root of Zegna.
Today, we are a global brand and have been doing fashion for more than 60 years. More than anything else, we have a diverse range of customers from all around the world. And what do they want? They want to reflect their own personality in the outfits they wear. It is no longer like in the ’90s, when customers would come in to buy an outfit—five suits, five shirts and three pairs of shoes. Today, when a customer comes into the store, they are having a conversation with us about their lives, who they are and what they want to wear as a result.
We needed to do a campaign where the objective was not to sell a product or an idea, but rather to stimulate discussions without offering solutions. We released a manifesto as part of this campaign to highlight that there are many types of men. What do you think makes a man today? There are so many different answers. A good 80 to 90 percent of people were engaged like never before; we’ve never had such an overwhelming response from letters, emails, phone calls, messages and comments on social media. But, there are still 10 to 15 percent of our customers who asked why we were even talking about this. To them, this was not part of our purview; they wanted us to focus on fashion.
ESQ: As the world’s largest luxury menswear provider, you dress so many men globally; you make them look good to feel good. So the campaign is not only fashion-adjacent, it is fashion- fundamental because you are adding meaning to fashion. In terms of your campaign stars, how did you choose them?
ALESSANDRO SARTORI: They needed to be friends of the brand and they needed to be honest and authentic; these were the main principles when deciding on our campaign stars.
For example, Mahershala Ali has been a friend of the brand for over three years. We met in LA when he came to meet me without an appointment. I was there launching a capsule for Hollywood at the time. Mahershala came to see the collection and we just started speaking. After that, I dressed him for his first Oscar win and I also designed a costume for his second Oscar win. He is a fantastic guy.
And when it came to shooting the #WhatMakesAMan campaign, Mahershala came up with his own script. The words you hear and see in the campaign film? They are all his own.
ESQ: You’ve created a T-shirt with different words used to describe what makes a man—from ‘change’ and ‘failure’ to ‘dreaming’ and ‘resilience’. Which of these words jump out at you?
ALESSANDRO SARTORI: All these words are important. But if I had to choose two that resonate with me, they would be ‘fragility’ and ‘passion’. Because I am not worried to show people that I am vulnerable and have fears. And, at the same time, I am so passionate about what I do.
Also the ‘journey’ makes a man. I used to always look ahead and rush to achieve the next milestone. But now, I am focusing more on the present. I am also writing a lot more. I like to write down my emotions and then go back and reflect on them. For example, I wrote down what I felt during my recent campaign shoot with Nicholas Tse in Los Angeles and I will go back and revisit those notes in six months’ time.
ESQ: In today’s connected age, there is an epidemic of ‘never enough’…
ALESSANDRO SARTORI: As my yoga teacher says: “You have to put intermediate steps into every action you do”. So you have to breathe as you shift from one pose to another, but it’s also a great mindset for life. If you want to get to a point, you need to put in intermediate steps, checkpoints or moments to enjoy the journey. It’s taking pause.
ESQ: #WhatMakesAMan ties in with the idea of toxic masculinity. Are there examples of how toxic masculinity has impacted you or someone you know?
ALESSANDRO SARTORI: Traditionally, if you are a boy, you needed to follow particular stereotypes: play sport, be strong, don’t cry. That ideology transferred to the whole of society. Look at fashion photography. In the past, men were just perfect in magazine editorials—they had big muscles, a nice car, a beautiful girl by their side and were travelling first class or on a private plane. If you were going outside the norm and projecting a man with fragility, that was never considered for editorials or advertising as interesting or appealing. Today, things have changed.
I have never felt at ease with traditional masculinity. It’s just not a prototype of my life or what I feel. I would much prefer to have a vintage, dodgy old car and spend the day around Venice watching the Biennale rather than racing around a track in a sports car. Each one of us has our own thing, but what is important is that one is not better than the other. They are just different. You need to live your life and be confident with your own emotions.
ESQ: The fashion industry is constantly selling us the latest and greatest every season. How does this consumerist mindset tie in with #WhatMakesAMan and sustainability?
ALESSANDRO SARTORI: We are working on sustainability on many layers. For example, we have the Achill farm in New South Wales where we grow our own organic merino wool; we dye our garments from natural pigments sourced from our Oasis Zegna property; and we upcycle old and used fabrics to create new garments in our #UseTheExisting production methodology.
On the design front, I try to create pieces that stay in the customers’ closet for as long as possible. What does this mean? Quality construction, but also creating a shoulder pattern on a jacket that it allows you to alter the sleeve length by 2cm, while retaining the shape of the shoulder so that you can give the garment to someone else. I never design a collection without three fittings. The first fitting is focused on creating something new, crisp and sharp. But from fitting number two onwards, I take all the iconic pieces from the previous collections and I drag them into the new collection to see if there are pieces that can be combined and styled with the new season. Sustainability is not just sourcing and production, but longevity in design. I would love it to be in someone’s closet forever.
ESQ: If you had one take-home point from the #WhatMakesAMan campaign for customers and readers, what would it be?
ALESSANDRO SARTORI: Be honest. To yourself, to your values, to your friends. But that doesn’t mean you need to tell everybody about your inner self. I’m talking about being honest with the people who really matter in your life. That way, you will have a much richer and meaningful life. And you’ll smile more.
Visit the Ermenegildo Zegna website to find out more.