There are times in any creative industry which make us sense a heavy despair, an almost undefined fear and uncertainty. Seasons in fashion with a lack of boldness and intransigence challenging the industry and its creativity. We see collections that look way too similar. Collaborations over collaborations, without any soul or message. A system that knows it needs to change but cannot figure out how. This becomes dangerous, especially in times in which learned ideas and concepts of creativity control a whole system. During such times, how can we challenge creativity, how can we redefine creative exchange, how to use power and platforms in the right way? This season, a quite surprising collaboration between Fear of God and Ermenegildo Zegna gives us some interesting input to answer some of these questions. Because, above all,
Alessandro Sartori: „I think it’s particularly important to have a radical part within your work in order to think in a very new, modern, fresh and open-minded way, for every point of the work. At the same time, you need to adapt yourself to the team, to the brand, and to the position you find yourself in. You need to be practical and pragmatic. So, for example, even if I love the 40s and 80s – I’m sure I share some of that love with Jerry – as far as a type of trend, as far as how expenses have been and how fashion was at the time – it is over. Now, we need a more responsible, contemporary approach that respects others. „
Jerry Lorenzo: „I think it is about understanding the framework and boundaries that you are creating within, being as radical as possible without stepping outside of the understanding of the parameters, issues and social responsibility that we live in today. I think it is really necessary to push radicality, but without stepping outside of the understanding of where the product and ideas are going to live. „
California-born Jerry Lorenzo enjoys finding himself outside the fashion world when he drops his collections without following any fashion calendars. Instead, he always waits for the right moment. But it’s not only his approach that is unique. Years before launching his brand in 2013, the 42-year-old American started to work on his very own creative vision, aiming to start a story of American expression with the right understanding of American subculture and a passion for good craft. Or, as Guy Trebay put it in an interview with him for the New York Times, „Solving the dilemma of how to get a hoodie generation into tailored clothes.“
Lorenzo expands his empire with zero investors, strongly believing in Jay Z’s words: „Until you’re on your own, you can’t be free no matter how much money you’re making.“ Although he never had any formal training in fashion – or, maybe even because of that – he is one of the only creatives in fashion to really explore the nuances of a pair of sweatpants, to show how its cut can be as subtle as any pair of tailored trousers. With his work, he wants to both create stories and find solutions, way different from how designers such as Virgil Abloh approach fashion today, on a more conceptual level.
Lorenzo’s perspective emerges from years of working in retail, from managing former Dodger all-star Matt Kemp (Lorenzo is the son of former professional baseball player and coach Jerry Manuel), from once aiming to become a sports agent, or even from being a party promoter, throwing legendary parties in LA called JL Nights, back in 2008. After observing his party guests – among those Pusha T, Kid Cudi or the founders of streetwear label The Hundreds, spending five grand a night at a party – he was motivated to take the next step in his life and start his own clothing line. His vision of fashion catches the attention of not only A-list celebrities such as Kayne West, Justin Bieber, Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, Michael B. Jordan or Jared Leto, but now also Alessandro Sartori, creative director of Ermenegildo Zegna.
Sartori was born in 1966 in Biella, a province in Northern Italy close to the fabric mill of the Italian heritage brand Ermenegildo Zegna. His father designed mechanical looms and his mother ran a tailoring shop. He studied fashion and design in Milan and joined Ermenegildo Zegna shortly thereafter as a product designer, then later became director of Z Zegna, the former brand’s extended sporty line. Before he returned to the company in 2016, he went on a big adventure with french powerhouse LVMH as artistic director of Parisian menswear brand Berluti. His succcess was remarkable: During his five-year stint, the company’s annual revenues grew from less than 30 million euros to more than 100 million euros in 2016.
Today, Sartori oversees all Zegna brands, including more than 500 Ermenegildo Zegna monobrand stores. Known for his hybridization of the sartorial and the casual, for his exploration of high-performance materials, for his passion to fuse past and future, dressing a Humphrey Bogart for the 22nd century as he would put it, his aim is to modernize Italian sartorial craftsmanship. So, it only makes sense that Sartori reached out to Jerry Lorenzo for a collaborative collection that challenges a common vision. A new grammar of style is how both call their project, an exclusive collection that reinvents proportions, silhouettes and a new masculine elegance, wearable for women, too. Is the result more than an unexpected ode to beauty and to a new, laid-back luxury?
Sina Braetz: Everything in this world requires creativity. Would you agree?
Alessandro Sartori: Yes. I think we are here to create beauty. And beauty has a meaning which is larger than the concept of a collection. Beauty starts from the concept, from the mission, from the message, and of course from the collection. Beauty cannot happen without the best of your effort to create it. All what we do is a perspective, it is the essence of our work. You will not hear Jerry and myself speaking about budget, numbers and turnovers, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t need those numbers. Because, in the end, we need to pay our bills, too. But it rather means that we start from another point of view.First of all, we need to offer a vision for what we want to build and that starts with a creative concept and a strong DNA. From there we go to all the other touch points, but the creative part is the most important part of the work we do.
SB: So the intention of creativity for you is beauty?
AS: Yes. Beauty is not only a beautiful outfit. Beauty stays in all that you do. When you talk to people, customers, ambassadors. Beauty is about new input, new silhouettes, an honest message, an open conversation, a fresh story.
SB: Why beauty? Why is it so essential for our world?
AS: Because it is energy, it is the push, the stimulus to elevate your life, to find motivation in order to do a different thing. To spend time in order to be able to read a book, to see a movie, to have an interesting conversation with a friend and so on. All relates to beauty; it is part of our human growth. I strongly believe in it.
Jerry Lorenzo: I totally agree. Beauty is the stimulus, the spirit, however you want to call it. It is what keeps the machine going, what keeps us going.
SB: How much do you think is the fashion world stuck with learned concepts of creativity, for example, those suggested by social media?
JL: First of all, I think that if we are not careful with where our ideas are coming from, we end up seeing a lot of designers that are starting to look like each other. I think we can all be guilty of consuming too much and not understanding where our inspiration is coming from. We are really just making it a point to understand the platform of social media. But it is important to make sure your inspiration comes from an honest place and that you send out the right parameters to do so. I think if you don’t ever focus on making sure that this is a priority, you can easily be influenced by social media and by what you’re consuming. What we tried with Zegna and Fear of God is to influence social media and not the other way around.
AS: I agree. I would not link creativity to social media. I think social media is a fantastic tool to get to where you want to go, to talk to your customers and to have an open conversation with your ambassadors. This is very important. The other way around, the work of designers and creative people is totally different and starts from a completely different point of view. If we’re entering a circle in which we gain information on social media as far as our creative work is concerned, we don’t express a concept. I like looking at pictures, images, specific periods with trends, beautiful artists, beautiful men even if not famous, but I don’t want to get my input from social media.
SB: Where do you mostly experience limitations when you try to challenge your own creativity?
JL: The biggest limitation is really the physical capability in terms of the factories and production teams that you’re working with. But limitations are also good as long as you can play within certain boundaries. A lot of times, creativity means overcoming. I think you can look at that from either side of the coin.
AS: I agree but I also think it is difficult to explain, maybe we are thinking too much about the kind of wording. When you start with an honest approach, you base your research around natural ideas and with this creative base, we don’t even have this limit. I know it sounds strange, but it’s a difficult question to answer. I don’t think about creativity in terms of limits, it’s just a question of how you approach it.
SB: When you released your collaborative collection, you obviously didn’t know how the reaction of both of your customers would be. How much do you struggle as a designer with the reality that many things cannot be controlled?
JL: I think everything we do is always a vulnerable expression and as designers and creative directors, we have to be comfortable with being vulnerable. Once you are comfortable with exposing your thoughts and exposing your point of view, it gives you the freedom to express yourself in a way that you feel is more than a marketing tool and stays true to who you are. I think the more you shy away from that vulnerability, it can keep you from expressing yourself on the highest level.
AS: I totally agree. An honest approach is already the answer to your question. And that is why each company has to find its own strategy rather than following what other people are doing. This is the most important need today. To be yourself and to respect your values and your vision.
SB: How important is the use of references when working on collections for you?
JL: For me, I pull from emotions and physical objects that I’m somewhat connected to. I love vintage, I love storyboarding. On that, I expand my point of view. In my opinion, there is only one recreating with these references and that is God. I think outside of him, there is nothing really new. To me, it is really how you see the past, how you see the future, and how you put a little bit of yourself into that vision.
SB: Can you observe a greater understanding of references within your customers today?
AS: What is nice today is that customers are arriving in the stores and are very well informed. This opens a different level of communication. Today, sales associates in the store need to be stylists themselves because if they are just selling products, the conversation with the final customer doesn’t get to the level we need. The customer should be able to trust the sales associate because only then can he / she choose the perfect outfit. Also important: You should be able to tell someone if something looks good or doesn’t look good, you need to have the right attitude in order to give the best suggestions. I like that, much more than how it has been in the past.
JL: I think it’s because we live in an age of information that there maybe is a responsibility to share more than what designers used to share in the past. And I think it’s important to engage with your customer and give them as much as they need to understand. I think transparency and honesty have always put us specifically in the best place to move forward.
SB: How do you personally use your platform and your power in a respectful and responsible way?
JL: I think it’s about acknowledging the responsibility with the gift of the platform. I believe that with everything that we do, we understand the reach that we have, we understand the influence that we have, and we know that with that influence, there is a lot of responsibility to teach, to spread love, to encourage people. And we try to do that through every piece of clothing, through every word that is communicated on that platform. I don’t think you can separate responsibility from the platform.
AS : From what Jerry is communicating, he proves that everything belongs together. You cannot split yourself, your brand values, your collections and your work from your original message. If you do so, customers won’t believe it. With Zegna, we did the same thing several years, I embraced diversity since day one. Our campaigns incorporate that and I use all the media, all my time with journalists, fashion shows and customers I meet to speak about the values and our point of view. If you have a point of view you can always win but also lose customers, because maybe someone doesn’t like what you say. We live in such a time where it’s important to be honest. If you don’t risk to lose customers and if you want to be cold and neutral, you will never be the brand you need to be.
SB: Brand collaborations kind of started as a new trend in fashion and then became a key element within the fashion system. They marked a new era. Are brand collaborations a crucial foundation of modern creative exchange?
JL: Speaking about me and Zegna, I don’t think we entered this because collaborations were trending or because it would be a popular thing to do. I think we entered into this collaboration because we brought equal points of view to the table and we knew we could do something new together. I think we were maybe driven by what the rest of the fashion industry is driven by when collaborations happen. Obviously we knew that by collaborating, there would be some stories and press and buzz around it. But we wanted that buzz to be centered around our point of view and not to be centered around the fact that we are collaborating together, putting logos for the sake of putting logos next to each other. We came together for a deeper, shared vision.
SB: Jerry, what was the biggest challenge collaborating with one of the biggest luxury menswear brands?
JL: I think that the biggest challenge for me was getting over my own insecurities, just the intimidation of bringing a very personal point of view or proposition to a 110-year-old luxury house. And then on top, to collaborate with someone like Alessandro, who has this amazing resume was intimidating as well. But I think the warm welcome that we received from Zegna’s team and the patience and graciousness of Alessandro really helped the process. And I think as soon as we started to exchange point of views, it was great to see that we were immediately on the same page. So, all that which would have been hurdles or would have felt like something that was going to require lots of heavy lifting, felt achievable because we shared the same vision.
SB: What defines that common vision? What connected you the most?
JL: I think we both love beauty, we love elegance and we love sophistication. And we also love easiness and comfortability. We poured that into every piece. What may have seemed like two far apart worlds, were very very close in terms of a point of view.
AS:I have to say that Jerry’s approach surprised me a lot, in a very good way because I never worked the way he does. At Zegna, we are very much linked to a specific schedule which is the fashion week schedule, the pre-collections etc. Jerry’s schedule has a different format. When he designs collections, he is following more what he feels and what his customer does, too. And this system is working, so it is prooved that there is a system beyond that classic system. Second, we are very good at conveying a different message. We have the same passion for quality and for new forms of creativity, combining modern sportswear – or let’s say kind of sportswear since it is not classic sportswear, but rather a laid-back American leisurewear mixed with Jerry’s attitude for a modern lifestyle – with a new form of tailoring.
SB: Alessandro, how is Jerry’s workflow and approach of frequencies from collections translatable to bigger brands that depend more on calendars and certain trends?
AS: In my opinion, we have to evaluate different formats season after season. What we learn in this period is that we can do different things. As far as Zegna is concerned, we were working and designing from home for almost three months and then we conveyed the collection in July. We did a lot of work in a different way. I don’t want to say that we need to work under these circumstances, but I see that there are different methods to work. Maybe we can travel less. Maybe we can concentrate more on design, styling and the collection process. Maybe we can do smaller collections but with more meaning, etc. The work we did with Jerry is already very modern as far as the approach is concerned, because we didn’t follow a precise marketing brief… or any marketing brief. [ laughs] We were mostly following our feelings, the style and the image we wanted to build. And this was very honest and open-minded.
SB: Would this strategy work in the long run for Zegna’s future?
AS: I can’t answer this question because there are too many different needs for a big Zegna collection. Also, these needs are related to the fact that we have many stores and so on. I didn’t want to stress the system, but for sure I wanted to keep updating the system. So what I learned is that there are different approaches and we need to be open to evaluate different solutions. This is for sure. Am I going to change the Zegna system today? No! But even if not, Zegna’s system is always updating itself, season after season. And probably the lockdown plus all the work we did with Jerry and the work I did during this period with my team is already an episode of this change.
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