“I want to direct”. Isn’t that the ultimate showbiz ambition? The invitation to Ermenegildo Zegna’s Winter 2021 collection arrived in the form of a script for a movie called “The Re(Set)”. And Alessandro Sartori got to direct it. He edited into the night on Thursday, and screened the finished product to a virtual audience on Friday afternoon.
Faced by the chaos and uncertainty of a global pandemic, fashion designers, deprived of the clear direction of a catwalk, have found various ways to assert their authority. Movie directors are famous — notorious, even — for exerting total control, so there was a logic to Sartori’s directorial debut. Reset…that’s a word that’s been bandied around a lot over the last year as the world adjusts to a new reality, and Sartori was keen to emphasise “(re)sponse to changing times”. But “re(set)” had other resonances. His film took place in a seamless series of rooms, where his models enacted banal daily activities: cooking, eating, watching tv, dancing, slumping in ennui. The final reveal was that these rooms were stacked like the “Hollywood Squares” set. This was pure fashion-as-performance, but in a skewed way, it also underlined that fact is stranger than fiction. Isn’t that the year we’ve all just had?
In other words, for all the staginess of the presentation, the collection itself was rooted in the daily routines that have reshaped our lives, or “(re)defined our style” as the script would have it. Not exactly the cliché of trackpants and sweatshirts (this was Zegna, after all) but an extemporisation of the idea. And you know what? It was kind of fabulous, full of clothes that were seductively simple, and sumptuous with it.
We have a little more perspective now on this viral nightmare that has enveloped humankind. The last time Sartori staged a show, we were still caught up in the perverse novelty of a global lockdown. Streets were empty, nature was exultant. The sun shone, the birds sang to a newly appreciative audience. People turned to baking and gardening. And the virtual presentation that Sartori staged at that time in the Oasi Zegna gloried in nature along with the rest of us. Now, the tenor of the times is considerably darker: virus ascendant, economies collapsing, nature in hibernation. Yes, there’s a vaccine, but for most it’s a dangled hope, and we’ve moved indoors to wait (well, most of us have).
This was the new reality that Sartori reflected. No more trees and flowers and chirping birds. Now his models hurried through a concrete jungle to incarcerate themselves in their boxy little apartments. In this environment, clothing needed to be consolation, enveloping, soft, something to take the edges off. At least 40 percent of the collection was jersey, different weights for a coat, a jacket, a pair of trousers, or the knitwear that replaced shirts. Even the shoes were jersey, rubber-soled. In lockdown, Sartori questioned his closet, what he needed, what he actually wore, or didn’t wear. The result was “The (Re)Set”’s theme: (Re)Tailoring the Modern Man.
It was most literal in a suit edge-cut from pure cashmere jersey, not knitted but woven on a jersey loom, and felted afterwards for a tweed effect. No construction, no padding, with a top (it reminded me of a Cossack shirt) constructed from two layers of cashmere. The whole look was rendered in a serene grey. I felt better just looking at it, even if it was only on a screen. That monochrome may have been the collection’s secret weapon. It was certainly more calming than the glitchy jacquards.
The other big plus was the volumes, the very opposite of whatever sartorial formality you might have in your mind when someone says Zegna to you. The influence of life-locked-down-indoors-style was obvious in the pajama/dressing gown slouch of loose polos, trousers as easy as trackpants (but no elasticated hems) and shawl-collared, tie-belted coats, almost kimono-like in their volume. Sartori thought of it as bringing the indoors outdoors (and vice versa, I guess).
Although the script destined his new designs for “the modern man”, Sartori also showed his clothes on women for the first time. He claimed Zegna has always had a female customer for its made-to-measure , but his new patterns will be much easier to adapt. The women in “The (Re)Set” wore exactly the same clothes as the men. For the finale, they all stood stock still in socially distanced shadow like a new model army in front of their stacked living cubes. Then they whipped out their (Re)Set manifestos in a bit of stagy choreography. Meanwhile, Sartori was off to one side, the auteur in his solo spotlight, also concentrating on his manifesto.
Actually, it wasn’t so much model as modular. The monochrome genderless dressing and the living cubes suggested a possible future, purer, simpler, untroubled by the chaos of the present. When I mentioned this to Sartori, he was reminded of a movie that made a big impression on him when one of his tutors screened it at school. Now, “Logan’s Run” gets some kudos for sitting conceptually somewhere between “2001:A Space Odyssey” and “Star Wars”. Then, Sartori was simply struck by the outfits. He told his tutor how much he liked their purity. The aesthetic looked new to him. “You’re right,” the man replied. “And it’s not a question of how, it’s just a question of when.” Sartori never forgot that. “There are stages in fashion when things are changing drastically,” he mused. “This is one.”