THE HOUSE OF ZEGNA
In Villa Zegna, the original home of patriarch Ermenegildo, a family dynasty preserves its past
The Italian village of Trivero, hidden in the Alpine foothills of Biella near the border of Switzerland, owes its existence almost entirely to the prodigious entrepreneurial zeal of an eighteen-year-old kid named Ermenegildo. It was here in 1910 that the tenth son of a watchmaker founded what would become a global textile empire on four humble looms. Over the decades, as his wool mill expanded, so too did Zegna’s influence on the land that surrounded it. For forty square miles in every direction, it was Zegna country, and two generations later, with the company thriving under the helm of his grandchildren, Gildo (chief executive officer) and Paolo (chairman), it still is.
Trivero is less a factory town than a benevolent modern feudal estate, the utopian vision of a man who realized that employee happiness engendered fierce loyalty and pride of craftsmanship, which in turn yielded better fabrics. “The workers have helped me,” Zegna once said. “I have to give them back as much as I can.”
In addition to housing — and a ski resort — Ermenegildo built the town’s municipal hall, library, gym, movie theater, public swimming pool, hospital, and nursery school. An early environmentalist, he also bought up land in huge swaths and embarked on a then unheard-of mission to reforest the slopes in and around Trivero with 500,000 conifers, rhododendrons, and hydrangeas. His sons, Aldo and Angelo, eventually completed a steep nine-mile mountain road he had planned, called the Panoramica Zegna, which links the town to neighboring Bielmonte, allowing locals and tourists to enjoy the splendor. In 1993, much of the property was donated to create Oasi Zegna, a massive nature preserve and educational institution maintained by the family and open to the public year-round.
At the heart of it all is Lanificio Ermenegildo Zegna, the wool mill, which is as tasteful and historic a manufacturing compound as you’re likely to encounter, still run as meticulously and productively today as it was then, and built for the sole purpose of producing fabrics that had to be, in Ermenegildo’s words, “the most beautiful in the world.”
It comes as no surprise that Ermenegildo chose a spot about forty steps above the mill’s entrance to construct his home, Villa Zegna, where he lived — and watched over his enterprise — until his death in 1965. Completed in 1930 by architects Caraccio and De Munari of Turin, the home is an Art Deco masterpiece, further embellished by artist and designer Otto Maraini in the 1940s, who added intricate tile mosaics, lavish chandeliers and mantelpieces, and etched glasswork.
The villa is a sacred place for the family, whose multiple generations gather together each year for Christmas and private events in its tastefully over-the-top rooms. They take its preservation as seriously as they do the legacy of Ermenegildo’s namesake company, which will soon be entrusted to the fourth generation, now in their twenties and thirties. For his part, current CEO Gildo has made sure that privilege isn’t just a birthright. Along with attaining a university degree and fluency in English, every Zegna family member is required to work in a related field outside the company for at least three years before even being considered for employment.
No matter how well-groomed he or she is for the task, the next Zegna in line will have big shoes to fill. With 1.2 billion euros in revenue in 2014, the Zegna Group has expanded shrewdly over the past twenty years and become a true luxury juggernaut, not only under its own brand, now huge in Asia, but also as a supplier of premium silk, cashmere, and long-fiber fabrics across the fashion industry to houses like Saint Laurent, Tom Ford, and Gucci.
In fact, there is a very good chance that any custom suits you might have hanging in your closet were made from material that was sheared from sheep on a Zegna farm in Australia, flown to Trivero, and then spun and woven into wool just a stone’s throw from Ermenegildo’s window.