The Zegna Sample Collection: weaving tradition and inspiration


Despite what’s often heard said, a sample collection is not enough on its own to constitute a wool mill’s heritage. In actual fact, a lot more is needed to build the archives of a textile manufacturer. But a company’s sample collection is certainly an historical record of its production in remote and recent times. It documents activities, perpetuates technical know-how, instils stylistic sensibility and reflects a capacity to dictate or follow fashion trends over the years.

A sample collection shows character. A sample collection plots the course taken over the years, it contextualizes it in the present and may also show the way to future growth. The very sequence of sample books, season after season, demands continuity.

To this end, Ermenegildo Zegna designed and rigorously maintained his sample collection throughout his life, from 1910 to the early ‘60s. Over half a century of applying an organizational model he’d learned at technical college in Biella (diploma 1909) and then tried and tested in his factory. The technical data alongside the sample, the crisscross sketch of the weave and detailed notes on yarns, dyes and finishes. All secret marks of distinction.

Yet his samples were not only a record of work done but also a workshop of projects he saw happening in the future. This is clear in how the sample collection works and also how the archives themselves have the same forward looking function as the samples.

Ermenegildo Zegna’s children and grandchildren inherited methods that faithfully mirror the original principles and values, duly updated in line with new procedures and technologies of course. It couldn’t be otherwise: the samples are hybrid elements, part document part product, in which the written portion illustrates the woven portion, the latter exemplifying the product, rendering the relevant data tangible. The one explains and supports the other. Only the two in tandem could enable Fabric No. 1 to be conserved in a fully replicable form and be re-produced and updated a century on, for the Centennial in 2010. The Electa too, from the ‘30s down to the present day, the 120 Mila (1961) and many others.

Information in well designed archives doesn’t “age”. It’s always ready to be re-elaborated, re-interpreted, revitalized. A good idea in the ‘50s can still be good today and remain so indefinitely, if the experience acquired receives the respect it deserves. Heritage is a serious and advantageous investment, yet capitalizing corporate memory requires not only “capital” but, even more importantly, an open and versatile mindset. Which we can see at work in the Zegna samples collection.

The Zegna Sample Collection, with all its lace-up volumes, meticulous handwritten notes, its tin boxes full of variants of the finest types of fabric, its records of bolts sold, and its close written notebooks, reflect an intelligence at once theoretical and practical, operating at all levels in that complex system of materials, machines and people that we call a factory.

Dozens of volumes of creativity and know-how, dozens of metal boxes of fantasy and classic pattern fabrics, color swatches, bunches and remnants, from the robust carded yarn fabrics of the beginnings to the first combed ones, from drapes to overcoats, from military cloth to experiments with sophisticated patterns, from all-Italian fabrics to satins and projects never completed. The section relating to Ermenegildo Zegna’s own activities alone has a thousand or so containers of various sorts, meaning hundreds of thousands of “bits” of fabric. But the Zegna Sample Collection has continued to grow and now, well into the 4th generation, there are over 3,000 volumes, ten times as many swatches, millions of individual pieces of fabric, each with its own story. A quick glance at the world of Agnona, or the Heberlein Collection, makes it plain how much the samples section of the archives has been extended in terms of quantity and quality. Not to mention the Claude Frères of course, about whom we’ll be talking next time round.

So the Zegna Samples Collection is not just paper, glue, ink and cloth: it’s head and heart, study and willpower, challenges, achievements and personalities, but also aptitude for evolution, innovation and transformation. The Zegna heritage is a fabric that’s still being designed, so the sampling must go on.

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