VINCENZO LA TORRE reports from Milan about the season’s most buzzed-about “non-show” during fashion week, Agnona
NOT MANY BUSINESSES unveil their wares months before they hit the stores, whetting the appetite of consumers and then making them wait half a year until they can get their hands on the merchandise. Yet this is how the fashion industry operates. In an era when digital images of collections are disseminated as soon as they appear on the runways, fashion-hungry customers still have to wait six months before they can actually buy those covetable must-haves.
This business model, which has been in place since the advent of ready-to-wear, is probably in need of a rethink, especially given the onslaught of digital media and the rise of fast fashion, when brands such as Zara and H&M are able to copy runway looks in a matter of weeks, often delivering the goods before the original creators. Add to that the “see it now, buy it now” mentality of young shoppers, who lack the patience to wait until collections are shipped into stores after ogling them online, and you see how fashion councils from New York to Paris should start reworking the calendar.
In recent years, some have challenged this seemingly outmoded system: Burberry, for one, makes available key pieces from its shows right after they’re shown on its London runways, while Tamara Mellon has launched her eponymous “seasonless” brand, which releases new collections throughout the year without, however, compromising on quality or top-notch service.
The latest luxury house to come up with a similar concept comes from Milan, a city that leans towards the conservative, being known more for large conglomerates than innovative labels. Although you may not be familiar with Agnona, a purveyor of extremely expensive knitwear based around classic and slightly matronly twin sets and cardigans, you certainly know Ermenegildo Zegna, the Italian menswear powerhouse that’s behind it. Perceived as the female counterpart to Zegna, and with only a handful of stores around the world, Agnona was recently given a much-needed boost with the arrival of Stefano Pilati at its helm. As the first creative director of Ermenegildo Zegna, Pilati is now responsible for the image of the entire company.
After leaving the top job at Yves Saint Laurent, the Italian designer, whose tenure at the French label was well received by critics but marred by constant rumours about tensions with the executive team, decided to take a break and move to Berlin. It didn’t take long for the big honchos at Zegna to approach the dapper Italian, who was intrigued by the opportunity of revitalising the menswear giant and of bringing back to life the sleeping beauty that Agnona had become.
Although his principal task at Zegna is to add fun to the principal menswear line and make it edgier, the challenge is more daunting at Agnona, a label that has almost no presence in the many countries where Zegna has become synonymous with CEO power dressing. “Revitalising Agnona is going to be a super challenge, because we’re starting from a microcosm,” says Gildo Zegna, the CEO and family scion who appointed Pilati.
Instead of going the typical route and relaunching Agnona with a huge runway show during Milan Fashion Week, Pilati decided to do things his own way, opting for a week-long presentation in the city’s swanky Via Sant’Andrea. Unlike other events that fill the calendar during fashion week, this one was open to the public. In fact, not only did shoppers have the chance to take a look at the pieces displayed in the no-frills showroom – raw concrete floor, exposed brick walls, plain clothing racks – but they could also place orders for some of the items right there on the spot instead of waiting for them to reach stores in half a year.
In spite of the risky proposition, this low-key unveiling was quite congenial to a brand that is more about timeless quality than bold statements. “Stefano had this idea of a seasonless collection, which is something we’ll be testing in our stores because it’s never been done before. It’s a very small niche, so we want to make it the jewel of our women’s ready-to-wear,” says Zegna. Comparing the house to a gem is not such a stretch, especially when you look at the jewellery-like prices that put Agnona pieces on par with rarefied demi-couture creations.
As Pilati explains, “For Agnona it’s really about starting from zero, a new beginning for the house.” The idea of starting from scratch is clearly dear to the designer, who named his first effort Collection Zero, a reference not only to the blank slate he had in front of him in his studio but also to the European art movement Zero that dates back to the late 1950s, when Agnona also had its beginnings (it was founded in ’53).
Featuring tailored separates and feminine knit dresses in materials such as double-faced cashmere and kid mohair, the collection really needs tactile as well as visual exposure to be appreciated. Hence the pop-up store in Milan, in which editors and shoppers alike could feel the fine texture of – or even try on – pieces such as an oversized jacket in a specially created palaka motif (a check pattern inspired by 19th-century Hawaiian labourers’ attire), or the intricate construction of a fabulous bodycon knit dress in pink that would steal the limelight at any party – a clear departure from the boardroom-friendly creations of yore.
It’s a time of change for Pilati and the houses he helms. Even his decision to abandon Paris – or for that matter, Milan – for the gritty urban sprawl of Berlin speaks to his willingness to begin a new chapter. “I decided to move to Berlin because it’s a city that, unlike Paris, doesn’t have that ancient heritage all around you. It’s more modern and that helps me in the design process because it’s almost like starting anew, without all that baggage,” he says. There’s nothing like a fresh start to resurrect a moribund label, and if there’s a man cut out for the job, Pilati seems to be at the right point in his career to be the one that makes it happen.
+Prestige Hong Kong