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The Lion and the Lamb

With independent thinking and fierce determination, Stefano Pilati is shaking up Agnona, Zegna's 60-year-old cashmere brand

Published November 04, 2013
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The huge image that greeted guests at Agnona's showroom in Milan this September was the very picture of innocence. Matthew, a lamb of purest white, winsomely stretched back his throat in a gesture of…was it submission? Or was the fact that the photograph was taken by husband-and-wife provocateurs Vinoodh Matadin and Inez van Lamsweerde a cue to some other, more ambiguous response on the part of onlookers? Was Matthew actually a new icon of off-kilter glamour?

Stefano Pilati, making his debut as Agnona's creative director, couldn't have wished for anything more. "Inez and Vinoodh shot Matthew for the advertising campaign with my concept and direction, and I loved the idea of their precise style applied to lamb's wool, which is part of the brand's tradition. But I also loved the idea of a fashion brand with such a heritage promoting itself for the first time with the portrait of a lamb. It struck me as subversive."

It's a response Pilati grew attuned to during ten years in France, most of them as the designer for Yves Saint Laurent. His tenure was marked by controversy and garlands of praise, followed by bouquets of brickbats. "I cannot express myself more than to say that the French are French and Italians are Italians," is the only comment he'll make on his time in Paris. "No affinities whatsoever." But Pilati certainly sounds happy to find himself working in Italy once again. (He regularly visits Zegna's headquarters in Milan but makes his home and keeps his studio in Berlin.) "Italy feels more logical, and the process progresses faster. People are more passionate, with a taste that is grounded rather than purely imaginative."

That sounds a little odd coming from Pilati, given that some of his strongest moments at YSL were imaginative-bordering-on-perverse, like the flights of high Catholic fancy, the languid evocation of Paul Bowles' Tangier, or the toxic underworld of Robert Mapplethorpe's X-rated photographs. Maybe what comes across strongest at Agnona is an attitude that blends a little of both tastes, the grounded and the fanciful. There's plenty of double-face cashmere for old-school Agnonettes, then there's a soft, almost kimono-like coat that Pilati could have lifted straight off his own back, or a coat with a trompe l'oeil shirttail, or, most fanciful of all, a crocodile shirt jacket printed with a folksy checkered pattern that renders the extreme luxury of the material all but invisible.

"I didn't want to use crocodile for the sake of it," Pilati explains. "To use it is a gesture of luxury, and Agnona is a luxury brand. I'm also working on a seasonless concept, to give some [primarily] wintry fabrics a summer feeling. So I wanted to snub the conventional luxury of crocodile and use it in a summer look that the Agnona woman would wear to ride her scooter or drive her convertible to the village to buy suntan lotion or groceries or whatever. Luxury, for me, must have that over-the-top attitude but be effortless at the same time. That's what feels chic to me."

Photo: Courtesy of Agnona

To make his point even clearer, you need to know exactly what that folksy check was all about. It's called palaka, a fabric imported to Hawaii by Japanese settlers in the late 19th century. It was originally used for workers' clothing, before surfers adopted it. For a long time, Hawaii was Pilati's own private nirvana and surfing his release (there was always a board propped in the corner of his office at YSL). It made sense that palaka lived somewhere in his consciousness. "I've been waiting for the right time to introduce it into the textile fashion vocabulary," he agrees. So here is just about the most casual, beach-friendly pattern you could possibly imagine printed all over—or woven into—some of the most extraordinary fabrics you'll ever feel.

The contrariness of that contrast is quintessential Pilati. It's also another indication of just how successfully he has imprinted himself on his new positions, first at Ermenegildo Zegna, now at Agnona. In the past, he could come across as wayward, maverick, decadent, but there was so much of all that in Saint Laurent himself that something kindred flowered. Zegna and Agnona, on the other hand, come from a very different place: classicism, not controversy. But such tradition was, in fact, what appealed to the designer: "A heritage based mostly on fabrics, rather than fashion, was the perfect platform to project and express my sensibility and taste."

Pilati insists the experience has actually been liberating. "The culture of Agnona perfectly lends itself to the manipulation of classic shapes and cuts," he says. That helps explain why he's called this collection ZERO, which is his tip of the cap to a conglomerate of artistic avant-gardists who came together in Düsseldorf around the time Agnona came into being sixty years ago. It may sound willfully obscure, but Pilati has always been fascinated by the margins of the art world. And the ZERO group's manifesto, which called for a rejection of tradition in favor of innovation, actually hints at possible futures for Pilati at Agnona.

"luxury must have that over-the-top attitude but be effortless at the same time," pilati says. "that's what feels chic to me."

Asked for one word to define the fashion industry as it now stands, he answers, "Tired." He seems to be developing Agnona as a way of shaking things up. One of the ways he's doing so is by launching the collection as seasonless. To underscore that, it debuted not on a catwalk but in a pop-up shop in Milan, where customers could order the items on the spot. Scattered among the clothes on the racks were upcoming pieces labeled "prototypes," to emphasize the ongoing seasonless concept. "An infinite work in progress" was Pilati's own label for his Agnona debut. He himself was absent from the event, convinced that the designer's presence would distract from the clothes, rather than enhance them.

So, yes, he's doing things differently with his new role. Nevertheless, Agnona exists in a design realm that is distinctly Pilati's. Years ago, he insisted that any collection he labeled with his own name would be very different from anything anyone had seen him do. Which kind of begs this question: How much closer are we to that point?

Comes the cryptic reply, "I am at the starting point." Matthew's no innocent little lamb, he's a sphinx!

Photo: Courtesy of Agnona
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