Z Zegna

A British expat stationed at the helm of Z Zegna—the younger, more experimental arm of 104-year-old Italian luxury fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna—creative director Paul Surridge seems to approach each season with a mix of minimalistic precision and scientific wonderment. Through it all, he pays homage to the house’s dignified history (and makes rigorous use of Lanificio Zegna, the family’s state-of-the-art fabric mill).

The result on Surridge’s spring 2014 runway was a yin and yang of futuristic yet sophisticated evening wear juxtaposed with a painterly mix of daytime neutrals (as seen in the behind-the-scenes photo above). On our own shelves, Surridge’s vision takes shape in sublimely cut suits in innovative fabrics, poised for a night out, and refined T-shirts and polos that raise the bar on summer weekends, without breaking a sweat.

Keep reading for a Q&A with Z Zegna creative director Paul Surridge himself.

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Extraterrestrial substances. Hinged exoskeletons. A mad scientist’s lab. The out-there allegories that runway critics dreamt up to describe the Z Zegna Autumn/Winter 2013 men’s collection are highly imaginative—and quite fitting. The brand (a forward-thinking offshoot of 100-year-old fabric artisans and menswear masters Ermenegildo Zegna) has tactile experimentation woven into its DNA.

What makes Z Zegna’s vision of next season all the more intriguing, though, is a fusion of outer limits with earthly antiquity, as innovative fabric concoctions and construction techniques are grounded by inspirations randging from 17th-century masterpieces to harsh Alpine landscapes.

Z Zegna’s Creative Director, Mr. Paul Surridge, was kind enough to speak with us in the days following the brand’s recent runway presentation in Milan. Read on to learn how space-age alpaca, nomadic pilgrims, and the Mayan calendar played into one of FW13’s most striking collections.


[Photos by Olaf Unverzart.]


MEN’S SHOP DAILY: The collection is titled The Urban Wanderer Meets the Great Outdoors. What outdoor locales inspire you the most?
“Well, I grew up in the country, and being English, I know a bit about cold weather, windy weather, and protection from the elements. My team and I were inspired by landscape photography, in particular the work of Olaf Unverzart. It’s mountains, glaciers, these vast, corroding landscapes. I mean, I’m always inspired by nature—it’s something that’s so much bigger than man himself. Looking at the recent activities around the world, one thing you cannot control is nature.”

[Photos by Olaf Unverzart.]

Would you say this is clothing for the end of the world?
“I’m sorry, the end of the world? [Laughs.] Well you know, it’s funny—we also referenced The Road, the film based on the Cormac McCarthy novel. There’s a moment in the film where they’re arguing over one shoe. I quite like the fact that at the end of the world, all the things you throw away, things you have no value for on a daily basis, suddenly become very valuable. There was even a film about the end of the Mayan calendar that came up—obviously we didn’t write that in the press notes, because we would seem like religious fanatics [laughs]—but it was not so much about the end of the world, and more about this kind of shift. What people expect from clothing now has started to change. It’s about giving someone value for their money, and giving them something to invest in.”

[Photos by Olaf Unverzart.]

The Road is fiction—at least for now. How do you bring things back to reality?
“We looked at traditional hiking and rambling wear—things that people wore to be comfortable while being active. When you’re dressed to perform, to do something, it’s functional and practical. It’s no longer about fashion, it’s about necessity, and it’s about the production of the garment.

“We were also inspired by nomadism, and early religious paintings of pilgrims. Looking at the way people used to travel, they couldn’t just step into a car—it was more like two weeks on horseback. I wanted this kind of medieval approach that referenced a time in which no one today has life experience—when people had very little, but what they had, had to have a purpose. They would own one single cup, for example, which would be multi-functional. This idea of having very few things that have to perform and function was my way of moving away from minimalism, and into a kind of practicalism.”

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[Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome Writing, circa 1605.]


What drew you to the works of Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio [1571–1610]?
“I like the sense of drama you get from Caravaggio’s paintings, and the sense of power. And I like that the stars of his paintings were often people from the street, rather than princes, and kings, and dukes. They were very much like real people, who were being depicted in their normal way of life, or quite painful depictions of real life.”

[Caravaggio’s Portrait of Pope Urban VIII, date unknown.]

And how did those inspirations manifest in the collection?
There were a few paintings in particular. One was more about the composition and the segmentation of the body, so you’ll notice in the show there was this kind of belted-jacket bodice, and the tunics with the big white sleeves. Other paintings inspired the color palette. I wanted to reduce the color down from past seasons, but not present a black collection, which felt kind of wrong. So it’s about taking real pigment color—the actual color from pigment itself, before the colors become contaminated—natural color that’s kind of permeated in this sequence of darker tones, and then these highlights of cadmium red and the white shirts.”

[Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, circa 1598.]

Do you have favorite items within the collection, or do you look at it more as a whole?
“There are always things that stand out personally. The things I like, more often than not, are the ones that are the most painful to get right [laughs]. But one of my favorite looks was the navy tabard* [below, center] with a white shirt, and a kind of matelassé pant. I like the simplicity of the garment. It’s a key look, and I think a new proportion. A lot of people have picked up on it in reviews—it’s kind of a heraldic, medieval simplicity, but made modern.

“One of the things that people picked up on after the show, was that it felt kind of menacing, or medieval, or dramatic, but without being too poetic. And that’s something that I didn’t want the collection to be—dandy, or romantic. I wanted it to have this historical element, but without being costume.”

[*Tabard: a sleeveless jacket consisting only of front and back pieces with a hole for the head. historical: a coarse garment of this kind as the outer dress of medieval peasants and clerics, or worn as a surcoat over armor.]

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Ermenegildo Zegna was founded in 1910 as a high-end fabric supplier. How does that history play into your work today?
“One thing that I’m very careful about is the fabric content, because for me, that’s how you ‘Zegna-fy’ everything. At the starting point of each collection, it’s crucial to ask, What can we do with the brand to keep to the Zegna tradition? And for me, the biggest sort of safety net is fabric. I work with our fabric directors to create fabrics—this season in particular, we used an Agnona fabric, which was a shearling-looking alpaca wool mix. It was actually a jersey construction that looked like shearling.”

How else do new innovations play into the collection?
“I’m very keen to make Z Zegna like a forum for technology. For me, it’s not an entry into the Zegna world, it’s a brand by itself. Technology is something that always inspires me anyway, be it in product design, or architecture or other disciplines. In fashion, you see it a lot in sportswear, but it’s kind of lacking in contemporary tailoring. We’ve really embraced the technology and manufacturing side lately—heat-sealing, giving things a permanence and durability, almost like a protective element.”

[The man himself: Z Zegna Creative Director, Mr. Paul Surridge.]

How much does your own personal style affect your design process?
“I find that it becomes stale when you design with only yourself in mind. For me, the personal side is really the sensibility of the color, and the manipulation of the fabric. Taking classic matter, and putting a new spin on it. And I don’t think it’s classic with a twist—it’s more concept than that. It’s more like taking wool, and then taking the yarn from the knitwear to create pinstripes. Doing the textures. Using different forms of technology to create an entirely new product. It’s something I’ve done throughout my career, but at this show in particular, it surfaced in a way that felt very personal… I think that’s what made this collection special.”



[First image: Front row at the show, photo by our Men’s Designer Buyer, Jorge Valls. Backstage and runway images: Courtesy of Z Zegna. Caravaggio paintings: via Wikipedia. Landscape photographs by Olaf Unverzart.]