IT TAKES at least a month to wash, comb, spin and otherwise prepare fine mohair to become cloth that is stitched into suits by Ermenegildo Zegna, a 107-year-old Italian brand. In Trivero, an Alpine village west of Milan, 150 artisans in an elegant factory work at carding, dying, weaving and warping. As looms rattle, bespectacled women stretch cloth over illuminated screens and check for imperfections. Others use a rack crammed with dried Spanish thistles to remove excess hair from fabric.

Zegna, run by its fourth generation of family owners, is distinctive in many ways. Big corporate successes are rare in Italy, which tends to nurture smaller firms. Sales from Zegna’s 500-odd shops worldwide, plus earnings from selling to other producers, amount to an annual €1.2bn ($1.3bn) or so. It controls its entire supply chain, which is unusual even in an industry that cherishes raw materials. Three years ago it bought a 6,300-acre farm with 10,000 sheep in Australia. A spokeswoman brags that vertical integration at Zegna runs “from sheep to shop”.

The company is also unusual because it has stayed independent of the few swaggering giants that bestride the luxury-goods…Continue reading