Friday morning, the following conversation takes place in Marathi in the tree-lined courtyard of Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum.
Young security guard in khaki uniform to a youth in a blue shirt: “The doctor says his liver is not in good condition.”
Youth in blue shirt: “That’s what happens when you drink.”
Security guard: “Many days, his shit is black.”
The two are amusingly oblivious to the frou-frou profile of the occasion, which is the announcement of ZegnArt Public India, an art collaboration between the Bhau Daji Lad Museum and Ermenegildo Zegna, the famous Italian design label for men.
Such juxtapositions of the abject and the privileged are not new in India. Yet, they always astound. And perhaps such moments are art in themselves. Here were two local men, not very well off, talking about someone’s shit. A few metres away, in a charcoal grey silkwool suit, was Gildo Zegna, scion of a business worth over a billion dollars and whose suits, which start at Rs 100,000, are worn by Wall Street and Hollywood heavyweights. (Gildo is pronounced ‘Jildo’; or ‘Jeeldo’ if you want to sound Italian.)
ZegnArt Public India features the work of artists selected by ZegnArt at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum. The first creation on display is ‘Untitled (Cobweb/ Crossings)’ by Reena Kallat. This is a large web clinging to the façade of the museum. It is made up of several rubber stamps, each bearing the colonial name of city streets that have now been given indigenous names. Kallat is in attendance on this day. Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, managing trustee and honorary director of the museum, is there too. And then there are the Zegnas and their team of coordinators, sipping coffee or iced tea.
Gildo and Anna are slim and energetic. Once seated for the press conference, however, Anna does not move much, except to reach into her light tan purse for a pack of Saila mints or a tissue. The 57-year-old Gildo, on the other hand, is engagingly restless, racing through a range of postures and expressions in the course of the programme. He sits with his left leg crossed over his right, and when speaking about Mehta or Kallat, he delivers entire paragraphs with his torso twisted towards them instead of the audience. His left foot keeps drawing invisible circles in the air. He doesn’t get much sleep, he tells Open later, and this shows when at one point in the conference he shuts his eyes and rubs his creased forehead.
Gildo Zegna is tall and lean with small greenish-grey eyes and thin lips. When he smiles, his gums are visible. He is semi-bald and his hair is slicked back. This arrangement of facial features lends him a stern visage. But when you meet him, he is warm.
“I prefer to sit outside,” he says in his nasal gravelly voice after the media address. “Casual, very casual.” We sit in the aforementioned courtyard, amid an incessant cawing of crows, at the base of a column.
Gildo and Anna are grandchildren of Ermenegildo Zegna, who started the firm in 1910. The founder was a venturesome man always trying to expand his business to new frontiers. Over the years, the brand grew into a powerhouse of expensive but old school men’s clothing, made with methods that were sensitive to environmental and local concerns. Similar enterprise was shown by his family successors. In 1991, before it became fashionable for the West’s elite brands to worry about emerging markets, Zegna moved to China. The result was a wildly rewarding relationship that lasted two decades till the economic slowdown and competition caught up. But with more than 70 stores, China remains Zegna’s top market. Its Indian operations are minuscule in comparison. Zegna made its India debut in 2007 and now has six stores in the country, according to its website.
“For the time being, we have no intention to open more stores. We want to consolidate,” Gildo Zegna says. “The challenge is to stay the course. We have to make sure the brand is known and introduce concepts like ZegnArt, which may seem on the periphery of our core business but are not. Zegna is not just fashion or a product. It is beyond that.”
Gildo Zegna says that in China a customer might visit a store eight times a year, but in India they’d be lucky if he visited once a season. “So a lot happens outside the store. You have to see [the customer]. You have to be proactive. I’m more positive this year than the last two years. There’s a slight improvement [in the economy].”
The economic scenario the world over is not bright, he agrees, but says that business in new markets compensates for the current dip in traditional markets. Besides, with a turnover of over $1 billion, the company is financially strong enough to weather the storm.
“The situation is not ideal,” Gildo Zegna says. “[But] the job of an entrepreneur or a brand is to turn negative into positive and look for opportunities. The challenge is to jump from a crisis country to a no-crisis country. We are doing pretty well in taking advantage of the new wave of luxury in some markets. Like China. We were the first major brand to move into China. We are still growing there. In the old days, it was just the Americans and Japanese who had buying power. Now Brazil, Russia, India, China, they are doing quite well. In America, there is no pace yet. In Europe, some countries have been hit badly. Japan is still trying to come out [of recession]. So most top economies of the world are still struggling. But the counter factors are more than the minuses.”
The interaction moves on to subjects slightly more interesting than financial figures. He is an admirer of America, he says. “I spend a lot of time in the States and am quite Americanised in the way I do business. It is a meritocracy, which is something we miss in Europe.” New York and London are two cities that inspire him. “New York is not America. It is the whole world,” he says. “London is another interesting city. You get a [sense] of history and civilisation. India, whether you like it or not, is still related to Britain in some ways. There are pluses and minuses, but it still owes British civilisation [something].”
If an Indian had to buy just one suit, what colour should it be? He grunts and pauses to think. “Probably not the browns. Not beige. Maybe stick to the greys and blues.”
One cannot resist asking him who he thinks some of the world’s better dressed people are. “I’m discreet and you are not going to get names from me. But I’ll answer your question in a general way. People who have style respect their own personality. And it is the whole look, not just one thing, that makes you stylish.”
Gildo Zegna, free at last of media commitments, heads off for lunch. There is no alcohol on the menu. Which is just as well. Because alcohol is not good for the liver.