Paolo Zegna doesn’t normally drink champagne at noon. The 50-year-old chairman of Gruppo Ermenegildo Zegna SpA is the sort of guy who ends the day with a gin and tonic. But what the hell, he left his daughter Georgina’s birthday celebrations midway in Italy to come to India, where he has just opened the country’s largest single-brand luxury store at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in Mumbai. Besides, it’s for Business Lounge. So Moet it is.
At Zegna’s split-level, 3,000sq.ft Mumbai store, you can now order the company’s piece de resistance, a made-to-measure suit. Your measurements will be sent to Europe and four to six weeks later (depending on customs), you can take delivery of a Zegna suit, made by Italian craftsmen in Stabio, Switzerland (yes, odd, “but there are no strikes in Switzerland”, as Zegna points out). Thanks to the 35% plus duties on luxury brands, at a starting price of Rs1.5 lakh the suit will probably be a little more expensive than if you ordered it in Europe.
This dream retail experience is miles ahead of Ermenegildo Zegna’s 1999 attempt at Crossroads (Mumbai’s first mall, which faced so much traffic that at one point it restricted entry to people who could produce a cellphone or credit card. It was sold to Pantaloon Retail last year). In those days, the Zegna store was sandwiched between local clothing brands and international sports brands. “The fact that certain customers didn’t come in was a lesson,” says Zegna.
It’s a lesson Zegna hasn’t forgotten. So, while he wants to open five stores in the next five years, he’ll only do it if the real estate is right. “Not if it’s in the wrong environment, with the wrong neighbour.” Next in line is a store in New Delhi.
The five-store plan seems almost inconsequential when weighed against Zegna’s presence in China (it’s difficult to resist the old India-China comparison). The company opened its first outlet in Shanghai in 1991 and now has 30 stores across that country. In fact, in terms of country-wise sales, China is in the No. 4 spot behind the US, Japan and Italy. “In the next three years, we forecast that China will move up to the No. 2 slot,” says Zegna.
In three years, we forecast that China will move to the No. 2 slot from No. 4 in terms of our salesThe family-run business, which is managed by the fourth generation, now produces 600,000 suits and jackets every year. While India clearly doesn’t feature in the numbers race, Zegna says that Indian consumers are far more savvy than their Chinese counterparts were when the brand first launched. “In 1991, they didn’t know anything about international dressing. Customers would come into the store and try a pair of trousers over the trousers they were wearing. Here, we’re starting from the top.”
As with other global luxury menswear brands in India, the family-run Zegna group hopes to woo some of the country’s estimated 100,000 high net worth individuals. The neighbourhood is already abuzz with the competition. The Canali store opened in the same shopping arcade more than two years ago. Brioni (James Bond’s fave last month won the title of most prestigious luxury men’s fashion brand in a US survey) is now at The Oberoi, located 10 minutes away. Hugo Boss has stores in New Delhi and Mumbai. “Opening Mumbai has been a long project,” says Zegna, who began to plan the store in 2005.
This time round, Zegna has a majority stake in a 51:49 partnership with a silent partner, who is “not in the fashion business and who doesn’t want to be involved in the running of the stores”. The partners first met during the Crossroads episode, proof enough that something good comes out of every experience.
One more thing that came out of that early adventure is that the company is open to tinkering with some designs to suit Indian tastes. At their Crossroads store, the company sold a Guru jacket, with an adapted collar, and Zegna says that because the Indian market is so unique, they are likely to experiment this time too.
So much has changed since Zegna’s first trip to Mumbai, in the years before the economic reforms. He stayed at the Taj then, too. “There was nothing. No Louis Vuitton, no international brands, just lots of jewellery and carpets,” says Zegna. On that trip, he found a similarity in the attitudes of Indians and Italians towards foreigners. Both are “open, joyful and positive”, he says. And a little different from the Chinese, who look upon outsiders with suspicion, “like a monster coming in from who knows where”.
After a couple of glasses of Moet, it’s an easy switch from first trip to first suit. “It was thick and heavy,” he laughs. In those days, the fabrics used to make summer suits were heavier than the ones that are currently used to make winter suits. He was 14 when his father took him to the local tailor, who measured him for the pale blue, mohair suit. “I would not wear it today,” he says.
Zegna believes that after years of smart, informal dressing, there’s a strong comeback of the suit. “It’s driven by young people who want to buy suits, even if they choose to wear one without a tie.” An ideal wardrobe, according to Zegna, would be 10 to 12 suits each for the summer and winter seasons. But then, he’s in the business of suits.
For those of you who want just three, Zegna suggests a navy pinstriped suit (“elegant for the evening”), a dark grey in a birdseye design for the day, and a beige cotton or pure linen double-breasted suit “which looks great on Indian skin”.
Zegna doesn’t have a son he can initiate with a powder blue suit, but he does have two daughters who are very interested in the business. Clementina, 16, draws beautifully and will learn how to cut this summer. Georgina, who just turned 13, is very interested in the stores. “She notices tiny details and picks out faults that many people miss.” The fifth generation has begun to prepare.
Name: Paolo Zegna
Born: 1956 (Turin)
Education: Graduated in economics and social sciences from the University of Geneva
Work Profile: Over the years, he has held many positions in the Ermenegildo Zegna group in the fields of informal clothing, textiles, production, organization and marketing. He has been a member of the board of directors since 1989 and is currently the chairman of the group.
Interests: Skiing, golf, travelling.