Zegna Gives Fashion an Anatomy Lesson

MILAN — If some designers amass vintage clothes to form a personal collection, Alessandro Sartori does so for an entirely different reason: to perform dissections.

“Shhhh!,” he said backstage, hours before his Ermenegildo Zegna show held in an underground hall of the Neo-Brutalist Rontgen building at Milan’s prestigious Bocconi University. “I buy vintage clothes and take them apart.”

His purpose in anatomizing old duds is to find in them methods of stitching and construction that have largely passed out of existence. Here and at factories and workshops throughout Italy, centuries-old craft traditions have dwindled and with them the know-how to produce garments worthy of being labeled Made in Italy.

Before coming to Milan for the round of men’s wear shows here, a reporter paid a visit to the factory campus of the design house Ermanno Scervino just outside central Florence. Over the last decade, Ermanno Daelli and his partner, Toni Scervino — they are best known, perhaps, for having dressed Kim Kardashian — have bought up a series of faltering local specialty manufacturers, hired their employees and installed them in a series of linked workshops devoted to the kind of precise small-scale production that remains a hallmark of Italian design.

An ambient hum filled the factory on a rainy day as white-coated women — and they were mainly women — laboriously hand-cut lace, sewed the infinitesimal stitches required to create micro-pleating, wove sweater sleeves on a tubular manual knitting machine and gathered the most gossamer cashmere into the springy geometric pattern called nido d’ape, or honeycomb.

“This is the kind of person that made Italy great in the world,” Mr. Scervino said of Franca Bonechi, a woman with the look of a Scorsese extra and a tough attitude at odds with the refinement she brings to her profession as a seamstress.

In terms of industrial scale, Ermanno Scervino is a mom-and-pop shop relative to the might of Ermenegildo Zegna, among the largest textile companies in Italy and certainly the only one with the capacity to sell its own hydroelectric power to the Italian state.

Yet embedded with the culture of each company is a stubborn pride of creation, an ethos inadequately characterized by the inevitable reference to what Gildo Zegna, Zegna’s chief executive, called “our DNA.”

The corp-speak version of biological determinism has, let’s face it, gotten a little stale. Yet there is a case to be made for its cultural…

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