With the finest cashmeres in the industry and the elegant designs of Stefano Pilati behind the brand, Agnona is now the insider’s favourite and a bastion of cult cool.
This isn’t the story of a young designer who revamped a forgotten, age-old house. Nor is it the tale of a fashion rock star left in the cold by a major label, only to re-emerge at an even more coveted one. This is the account of an artist and creative director who held court in Paris for over 12 years, then turned his back on the fashion pack to re-explore luxury on his own terms.
When Stefano Pilati took his final bow for Yves Saint Laurent in March 2012, fashion editors and fans didn’t just stand – they stomped their ovation. Following this, the Milanese designer, known for his impeccable cuts and always being two steps ahead of the pack, took nine months off.
He all but fell off the radar: He wasn’t pictured at parties, gave no interviews and was barely seen about town. Eighteen months later, however, he popped up at Agnona.
The brand has been a runaway hit since Pilati’s debut collection, which was revealed in September 2013. It speaks to the industry’s most discerning critics. Tim Blanks, the influential voice of Style.com, effusively described the casual extravagance of its double-faced cashmere pieces as a “reinvention”. Suzy Menkes lauded the intricate cuts and shapes that appear so simple. And Tank magazine publisher and street style darling Caroline Issa wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph, breaking down exactly why she loves the label: “Like a person with an affliction who suddenly comes across a complete cure, Pilati managed to touch a nerve that I wasn’t even aware I had. His version of femininity and power in one complete package is an ideal I’d previously aspired to, but never found the tools to make happen.”
The brand, which debuted at Club 21 in September 2014, may be over 60 years old, but pre-Pilati, it was virtually unknown. It was established in 1953 by the Ermenegildo Zegna Group as an exclusive textile label, recognised for producing the best cashmere in the world. It had heritage and unparalleled craft behind it. Until Pilati came on board, however, it lacked a visionary with the design eye and strategy to make it desirable. Over a private dinner, chief executive officer Gildo Zegna convinced Pilati to join. “He is revolutionising the whole machine,” he told Vogue.com. “We had finished a kind of circle in terms of innovation and innovating the cloth, but it wasn’t enough. We needed a serious creative director in order to be more attractive to new emerging clients and the younger generation.”
So what about Agnona appealed to Pilati – a man who had been a key member of the design teams of Giorgio Armani, Tom Ford and Miuccia Prada, and who spearheaded Yves Saint Laurent for close to a decade? “Fabrics talk to me,” explains Pilati. He has at his disposal some of the most extraordinary alpaca, cashmere and silks one could ever feel, farmed by the brand itself. Only the rarest fibres are brought back from places such as Inner Mongolia and South America, and woven in Italy, marrying high technology with expert craftsmanship.
Beyond material gains, the brand also offered a break from the codes and constraints that choke the fashion world today. The most notorious of these is the pressure to produce endless looks for Spring followed by Pre-fall, Fall and Resort. With Agnona, Pilati has stepped off the treadmill.
At the core of his collections is the concept of clothes that defy seasons. By this, he means outfits that, quite simply, don’t date. Light, subtle and timeless, the wearer looks elegant and effortlessly appropriate, whether it’s February or September. Now into his third collection, one showcase transitions seamlessly into the next. There is always the beautiful overcoat in cocooning volumes, the pencil slim skirts with a subtle but defining detail, be it fringing or a double-layered slit, and the languorous column gowns – all in the most luxurious fabrics. Cashmere, silk, linen and even the cotton are all double-faced.
To underscore his commitment to playing by his own rules, Pilati dispensed with the hoopla of a runway show. Instead, he debuted in a pop-up shop in Milan, where customers could place orders on the spot. While the designer’s hand has been unmistakably evident, he himself has been notably absent from the brand’s presentations, preferring to focus the attention on where it should be: the clothes.
The final cherry on top of the Agnona offer was that there was no obligation to move back to Italy. Even though Pilati frequents its HQ in Milan, he is based in Berlin. Opening up on this to Vogue.com, he said: “The fact that I stepped away is very refreshing; I live out of my own vibe. So whatever I want to do, I do it. And I’m much more clear about where I want to go, what I want to do, and respecting my timing with my pace.”
In September 2013, the brand debuted its print advertising – a close-up of Matthew, a lamb of purest white – shot by Vinoodh Matadin and Inez van Lamsweerde. It stood out among the pages of glossies saturated with models brandishing the season’s latest looks. “I loved the idea of a fashion brand with such a heritage promoting itself for the first time with a portrait of a lamb. It struck me as subversive,” Pilati said.
An independent thinker, Pilati’s attitude encapsulates the Agnona brand. Its approach to clothes is at once sensual and straightforward, and gets back to the basics. It’s taken Agnona 60 years to get here, and Pilati over 20. But they are both finally exactly where they, and contemporary women, want them to be.
This feature first appeared in the September 2014 issue of Female magazine