«There were six of us in my father’s Lancia Flaminia driving up the narrow bends of the Maloja Pass in a snowstorm. The heavy snow was battering the windshield, and the snow chains were clattering loudly from underneath us.» That’s how textile magnate Ermenegildo Zegna (64) describes his first memory of the Engadine in the 1960s. He has been a regular guest in St. Moritz since he was a boy when his family would visit from Biella in Piedmont. «We would stay at Suvretta House. That is where, in 1977, we also opened our very first Zegna store,» he adds proudly.
The grandson of the founder has been leading the clothing empire as its CEO since 1997; his cousin Paolo Zegna is the chairman of the global group, that, 110 years on, is still family-owned and run. «Successful family businesses plan for the long term, regardless of whether they are a small local firm or a global conglomerate. Family-owned and family-run businesses always keep the next generation in mind,» he replies when asked to describe what characterises a family business. «It is ethical values, such as mutual respect and respect of nature, the family and the company bosses being role models, and, of course, that rules are valid for everyone and above all for the family.»
«Gildo», as he calls himself, went abroad at the young age of seventeen. In the UK and the USA, he went to school and university, in Berlin, he learned the ins and outs of retail trade from scratch, at Hugo Boss, how to lead a brand, in France, the business of made-to-measure, and, in the USA, that of mass production. «I learned it the hard way,» he comments wryly. «Something I would recommend to any young person: Get out, see the world, get to know different countries, cultures, and industries.»
«The mind is more important than the body.»
Gildo Zegna still travels a lot today. He is on the road a third of the year, the rest of the year, he splits his time between Milan and Lugano. The many travels have their drawbacks, as Gildo found out at a young age. «I would have loved to do more sports,» he says, reflecting on the past. «Having a competitive spirit is important.» He and a group of like-minded friends started competing in masters ski races a few years ago; they wear the colours of Master Ski Racing Engadin, led by Gildo’s friend, World Master Champion Nando Mazzoleni. «We are always the first ones up on Furtschellas. We train for the slalom and giant slalom. Training starts at eight in the morning.» Snow is his element. «I learned to ski before I learned to walk.» Besides the fast alpine ski disciplines, he does a lot of cross-country skiing. Long walks are part of his Engadine routine as well. He often sets out alone. «I draw strength and inspiration from the stillness of the woods. Here, I find peace and tranquillity. The mind is more important than the body.»
In recent years, Gildo Zegna has grown particularly fond of summers in the Engadine. «It’s particularly peaceful here at that time of year,» he says. «It is a unique place – people are extremely mindful of this valley,» he adds, enthused. «No place on earth is as picturesque as the Engadine. I don’t spend nearly enough time in the Engadine, but I would one day like to retire here.»
“These jumpers were terribly itchy.”
For the time being, retirement is out of the question. Gildo’s energy and commitment are palpable all throughout the conversation with Skiservice Magazine. More often than not, the ideas for new products or even entire product ranges will be his as was the case for the «Techmerino» line. The idea was born in the cool and often humid climate of Northern California. «When I went to visit my son in California, I noticed that many people wore woollen jumpers to ride a bike. It got me curious, so I tried it out,» he recalls. «I soon discovered two things: Indeed, a woollen jumper is ideal for riding a bicycle, but the darn things are awfully itchy.» His curiosity was piqued.
Back home in Italy, he had prototypes developed with a much finer fabric and tested them himself. Bit by bit, a whole range of garments for different purposes emerged. «I wore them during the day, slept with them at night with the windows wide open, and I travelled with them around the world.» He got ever more enthusiastic about the concept. But – as all rules apply to everyone at Zegna – he first had to convince a whole wreath of people in the company of his idea. «Techmerino was not an easy sell to my team – but I am glad I was able to convince them. Users of the product will come back and buy again.»
«Wool and the lifestyle of today are a perfect match.»
Wool has been one of the essential raw materials for Zegna’s garments and cloths for generations. «It is a wonderful natural fabric. It stretches in all directions; it doesn’t smell, and, if treated properly, it will become softer with every wash. It is perfect for today’s lifestyle.»
«More than ever before, we must show an unfailing respect for the environment,» underlines Gildo Zegna. For decades, he and his family have been running projects to promote biodiversity and strengthening the sustainability of their company – around the globe. «There is no point in launching initiatives in Europe that the rest of the world doesn’t understand. It is up to us to spell out the notions of sustainability in such a way that the whole world can accept, understand, and adopt them.»
In 1910, Ermenegildo Zegna started the wood spinning mill «Lanificio Zegna» in the small town of Trivero in Piedmont. Today, the global company employs 6,500 people. It is still family-owned and family-run.