Ermenegildo Zegna was just 20 years old when he took over his family's small wool-producing business in Trivero in 1910. This region had long been an important center for Italy's fabrics and wool industry.
At the time, the men's luxury suit market was dominated by British wool makers and tailors. Zegna set out to emulate his English counterparts, adopting their production techniques. Nonetheless, Zegna maintained many of the traditional weaving techniques, such as using thistles to comb his wool. Zegna's quest for quality soon brought him to look beyond his own region, and by the 1930s, Zegna himself was traveling around the world in search of the finest wool herds. It was during this period that the company formed relationships with cashmere breeders in such far-flung places as Mongolia, South Africa, and Australia.
By the beginning of the 1960s, Zegna had won recognition for his high-quality and innovative fabrics. Zegna also had displayed an aptitude for wedding new technologies with traditional hand-crafting techniques.
Zegna, who died in 1966 at the age of 74, turned over the leadership of the family business to his sons Angelo and Aldo in the 1960s. The new generation remained committed to their father's tradition of quality, yet became determined to establish the Zegna name beyond the fabrics production. While the company continued to act as a major supplier of high-quality fabric, in the 1960s Zegna began producing its own clothing. The company targeted the men's suit market. Rather than move into the mass consumer categories, Zegna instead became determined to capture a strong share of the rising Italian luxury men's suit sector.
Into the 1970s, Zegna established its own men's collection. By the end of the decade, the company had begun producing a full range of clothing, including knitwear, accessories (including highly prized ties), and sportswear. Zegna also quickly recognized the potential for establishing an international presence to back up its growing export business.
Another factory was opened in Spain in 1973, and another in Greece in 1975. The Greek plant closed after two years, however, because it was deemed unprofitable. A Zegna plant opened in Switzerland in 1977, which today employs 800 workers. While many Zegna suits are factory produced, the most expensive are still made-to-measure.
Zegna opened its first retail store in Paris in 1980. Another store was opened in Milan in 1985. By the year 2000, there were 300 Zegna retail locations worldwide. Currently, the Zegna Group has boutiques in Austria, France, Germany, Great Britain, Spain, Turkey, Mexico, the United States and Japan. More recently, stores have also opened in China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Australia and India.
The new generation of the Zegna family, including Aldo and Angelo's nine children, were by then assuming positions of greater importance within the family business. Taking the lead were cousins Ermenegildo, known as Gildo to differentiate him from his grandfather, and Paolo. With business school backgrounds, the cousins now set out to boost production and control costs. Among other initiatives, the company sought to drastically reduce its production lead times.
Ermenegildo Zegna SpA is the world's leading luxury men's suit maker. Based in the mountain village of Trivero, Italy, near the Swiss border, Zegna is a vertically integrated business, producing more than two million meters of fabric, more than 350,000 finished suits, and another two million shirts, ties, sportswear, and accessories per year. Zegna develops its own fabrics from the world's finest wools--although the company does not itself own sheep herds, it works closely with breeders and farmers in Australia, South Africa, and Mongolia to ensure its supply of top-grade cashmere, mohair, and merino wool. This commitment to top quality enables the company to produce fabrics from threads as fine as just 11 microns. Eschewing the "mass market" approach of rival Armani, which does not produce its own suits, Zegna has developed an exclusive clientele throughout the world. More than 85 percent of the company's sales is achieved outside of Italy, primarily through the company's own store network. Zegna is present in more than 380 shops throughout the world, of which 135 are full-scale retail stores owned by the company, while the others operate as boutiques within department stores. Europe is the company's largest market, at 38 percent of sales, followed by North America, at 33 percent of sales. The company also has a strong presence in the Australasia region, which accounts for 25 percent of its sales and includes China, one of the group's fastest-growing markets. Zegna also has launched an extremely exclusive line of "vintage" clothing, made from the year's finest wool, for which the client chooses his own colors and styles. Ermenegildo Zegna, named for its founder, remains wholly controlled by his family, now represented by its fourth generation, cousins and co-CEOs Ermenegildo and Paolo Zegna. Other members of the Zegna family play active roles in the company.
Zegna turned toward boosting its U.S. presence at the end of the 1980s. The company established a dedicated subsidiary there, Ermenegildo Zegna Corp., and began scouting for a suitable location, targeting New York City initially. The company succeeded in finding a site, on that city's Fifth Avenue, opening its first U.S. store in 1990. Zegna also had begun producing designer-labeled clothing for other designers. As part of this effort, the company formed a number of partnerships, including those with Romeo Gigli and also Spanish designer Antonio Miro. In 1990 the company formed a joint venture with Versace to produce and distribute a new line of V2 men's sportswear.
The company continued to roll out new stores, including stores in Mexico City, Istanbul, Tokyo, and elsewhere. By the end of 1990, the company already operated 16 stores, in addition to a network of more than 150 in-store boutiques. The following year, the company opened its first store in China, in Beijing. Russia, and particularly Moscow and St. Petersburg, became company targets as well. Zegna by then already claimed a 30 percent share of the world's luxury men's suit market, with sales of more than $350 million per year.
In the mid-1990s, the company opened a number of company-owned stores in Lisbon, Vienna, Shanghai, and Barcelona, while also adding franchise stores in Hong Kong, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and elsewhere.
In its push to expand its customer base, Zegna also began designing new clothing lines to attract a younger clientele. In 1992, for example, the company introduced two new lines, Zegna Soft and Zegna Sportswear, which offered more casual clothing styles. The company also introduced its own cologne in 1993. In Japan, in 1997, Zegna launched a new, Japan-only line, E.Z. That brand was also the company's first to be produced outside of Europe and under contract. Then, in 1998, the company introduced a new brand and retail format, Zegna Sport.
Acquisitions also marked the company's development at the dawn of the 21st century. In 1999, Zegna acquired Lanerie Agnona SpA, a maker of luxury women's wear. That purchase was followed by the acquisition of a controlling stake in Prato, Italy-based Master Loom, a maker of fabrics, in 2001. In 2002, Zegna bought most of Guida, another Italian company, which owned the Longhi brand of leather goods. That year, also, the company continued to extend its range of clothing and accessories with the formation of a joint venture company with Italian footwear group Ferragamo. The new company, called ZeFer, placed the Zegna brand on a line of footwear and leather accessories.
Zegna meanwhile continued to build its own branded business. In the 2000s, the company launched a new brand concept, called Napoli Couture. The new suits featured the company's exclusive fabric, Vellus Aurem Trophy. The 2003 "vintage" produced just 75 kilos--enough for only 500 suits, at a price of some $7,500 each. At the other end of the spectrum, the company stepped up its efforts to attract a younger, more modern clientele. In October 2003, the company unveiled a new brand, Z.Zegna, with a full-scale rollout slated for the Fall 2004 collection. With more than EUR 680 million in sales in 2003, Zegna remained firmly at the top of the world's luxury menswear market.