Quest for the golden fleece
The Ermenegildo Zegna Group has acquired a 60 per cent stake in Achill Farm, a 2,565-hectare property in New England, New South Wales. It is home to some 10,000 Merino sheep, the producers of the foremost ingredient in Zegna’s recipe for success.
“When you have to learn something, it is our modesty that brings us to say: ‘Can we do this on our own or should we tie ourselves to people we can learn faster and more deeply from?’" says Paolo Zegna, the chairman and grandson of the group’s founder, Ermenegildo. “Australia isn’t exactly round the corner from Italy. We saw a number of properties that were 100 per cent for sale but something didn’t feel right. Then we met Charlie Coventry of Achill – a young man with not only the skills but the goal and ambition to create something more meaningful – and we knew that together, we have extremely strong pillars on which to build a future upon."
The New England pastures where Achill is situated are ideal for the production of superfine merino. The sheep are known for their exceptional wool quality with high tensile strength and low vegetal matter. Australia has long been the finest producer of superfine merino wool (fibres must be no thicker than 19.5 microns to be considered superfine), with its rural landscape and mild climate being remarkably suited for merino breeding. But every farmer is subject to the rule and whims of Mother Nature and for the past three years, the property has been hit by a drought with the lowest recorded rainfall in 130 years. “The production of wool is an investment which cannot be hurried," says Paolo. “We simply have to adapt and manage the situation."
Ermenegildo Zegna has been buying Australian superfine wool since the 1920s and the company remains a passionate supporter of its growers and the industry. Together with the Australian Superfine Woolgrower Association, Zegna established the Ermenegildo Zegna Extrafine Wool Trophy in 1963 – a mark of recognition to reward the Australian wool growers’ commitment to quality and to encourage constant betterment of their product. The Italian house’s relationship with wool goes beyond simply meeting a bottom line. With the acquisition of Achill, the family is now involved in every step of the process – from producing its own wool that is turned into the finest fabrics in its mills, which are then used in its garments.
Every step of Zegna’s process has been carefully measured and considered, but being a familyowned business is certainly one of its strongest advantages. “We have the opportunity to be more flexible," explains Paolo. “Decisions are easier. Change is quicker. Large conglomerates have big shoulders, but we have faster legs." But how does the company intend to cope with and adapt to the breakneck speed of the digital age?
Paolo says, “Our products are based on time, research and effort along every step of the way. There are so many things we have built our credibility upon and we hold ourselves to the highest standards. Selling things quickly for the sake of money goes against the very concept of creativity. Creativity is going after something you truly believe in, believing in the vision and hoping the consumers believe in it too. It is a process that requires time."
“You can’t move nature through these channels but I do think that part of adapting is being able to cope with both sides of the coin," he continues. “On the one hand, you have to take note of how the digital sphere influences the world. On the other, I don’t think you have to give up everything that doesn’t operate according to the same rhythm or speed. Nature simply won’t let it happen."
Achill Farm may only produce a fraction of the wool the Zegna Group actually requires to produce its garments, but its acquisition is one of the many steps the company is taking not just to further improve the industry, but also to build and ensure its longevity. This is no mere passion project but a commitment to excellence and a way of life, and it is with a fierce look of pride and a smile on his face that Paolo says, “Now we know everything: from the name of the sheep to the name of the customer who walks out our doors."