The path from initial idea to the physical actuality of a fashion show has seldom been as extraordinary as it was with today's presentation of the new Ermenegildo Zegna collection for men. When Stefano Pilati was trying to pin down the essence of the label as a prelude to his sophomore season for the label, two words came to him: city (Zegna's traditional suit-iness) and nature (the fibers that have made Zegna the world's most successful producer of fine fabrics). Somehow, that microcosm/macrocosm situation triggered Pilati's memory of a talk he'd heard by the director of the planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan when, he says, "I understood what science was all about." The absolutism of nature struck him as an analogy for the absolutism of a designer: total control of worlds within worlds.
When we walked in today, our eyeballs were greeted by a giant screen dominated by a shimmering cosmic puffball, and our eardrums were massaged by the hum of deep space, a sound collated by astrophysicist and "acoustic astronomer" Fiorella Terenzi. If there truly is a god somewhere in that space, Gravity will clean up during this awards season, so Pilati's showman instincts were on the button. But when the puffball exploded and whooshed us to the end of the universe, it was actually the stunning opening sequence of Jodie Foster's Contact that came to mind. Then Johan Söderberg's movie zoomed us back down through the cosmos—down, down to the roof of the Fiera, the Milanese exhibition hall where the Zegna show took place. It was like Google Multiverse in full effect. And, with the insignificance of human beings in the grand order well and truly established, the first model appeared.
It was an audacious conceit on Pilati's part. Later, Söderberg zoomed in and out of New York and Shanghai, business centers where Zegna's suits might expect to find a receptive audience. After the show, Pilati rationalized the pell-mell journey thus: "It's like the perspective of fashion—sometimes close, sometimes far, but always present. Everything is relative." In other words, one man's importance is another man's mere bagatelle. Which was a rather sharp definition of the way Pilati has always married the dressed-up and the dressed-down. He likes the word "contamination": You quilt a sporty parka with cashmere, or you double-face it with vicuna. You infect a suit and matching coat in a fine gray wool with a "galaxy effect" that makes it sparkle like moon dust. You take a perfectly fine belted cardigan and run a cartoon stegosaurus spine up its arms. And you amplify the pre-human reptilian by raising the toe on a pair of crocodile shoes (likely to be post-human bank-breakingly expensive). All of which Pilati did today.
Throughout his career, Pilati has applied this principle of contamination to elements as fundamental as silhouette and proportion. The subtly unexpected is a signature: the long, fluid topcoat; the modernism of a vest closing diagonally under a suit; the flowing scarf attached to the collar of a coat or jacket. Zegna's resources have allowed Pilati to hone his wayward appetites and exercise a degree of control, which is new for him. "This is where I am now," he said afterward. There was a time when surfing was his key to the cosmos. But the picture has gotten much, much bigger.