Opposites attract
Where does the finest wool in the world come from? The Ermenegildo Zegna family finally reveals its best kept secret, Achill farm

At Achill, a chairman and a farmer have more in common than you think
Paolo Zegna is wearing an Akubra.
Paolo Zegna is wearing an Akubra, while seated on a bale of hay.
Paolo Zegna is wearing an Akubra, while seated on a bale of hay, inside a wool shed in rural Australia, and kicking up his Chelsea boots in raucous laughter.

Not exactly the image (or place) you'd imagine the chairman of Ermenegildo Zegna; the world's largest luxury men's brand. But, this mise en scène starts to make sense when you consider that Zegna has entered into a joint venture with Charles Coventry and his family since 2014 to manage and run Achill—the 2500-hectare property in New South Wales that specialises in rearing merino sheep.

"Our relationship is built on mutual trust," shares Paolo, brushing off the hay from his Zegna chinos as he hops off the hay bale. "And the fact that we are both driven by innovation," he adds. "I respect that."

In a rustic wooden shed—with wool filaments drifting through the air and catching the late afternoon sun seeping through shuttered windows—Paolo shares why the Achill project is important to Zegna, the vertical integration of the wool process form 'sheep to shop', and why, like Charles with his farm, decisiveness is fundamental to good leadership.
Why did you decide to buy a wool farm?
Buying a wool farm was something my father and my uncle always talked about. At our 50th anniversary, we thought it was time. Victoria and New South Wales in Australia to be more specific. There are other states in countries that are Victoria and NSW too.

And then you found Achill farm.
Achill was obviously superior to others but what led us to ultimately decide on Achill was Charles Coventry and his family. When we saw that he was proactive, young and possessed the desire to move his entire family back to Achill, back to the farm, we thought, 'This is a man we can trust.'

Was it an equally easy decision for the Coventry family?
Charles' father was frank. He said, "In my opinion, my son is not interested, but have a talk." So I went to see Charles, and you know, it was a progressive talk. Immediately, something clicked between us two. It was not easy to convince him to sell the majority of the farm; the rules of the company is to have the majority share. But then we came to a conclusion and four months later, we signed the contract. We work, we talk once a week, we'll have a chat on the phone, we have regular board meetings with independent members who come with the experience. As you've seen, it's working well.
Paolo Zegna and Charlie Coventry
There seems to be a real synergy.
Coventry provides all the know-how of a wool grower. We know about wool and what we can do it with, but he knows how to grow wool and how to handle the farm — a business we're not familiar with. He likes statistics, he likes precision. He has an attitude to try to anticipate things and he is also really quick at reacting. To give you an example, it was a month and a half ago, when he said, "Listen, my calculations lead me to believe that we are not going to have enough food for the coming winter. We have to to react." He follows what is happening and knows what the consequences can be and immediately poses the solution. The capacity to have his eyes and ears open and be so reactive was what made us understand and connect with each other.

It's easy to see how Achill farm is contributing to the Zegna business. What does Zegna bring to the table?
I'd like to think we provided Coventry with a different perspective; we gave Achill a new purpose, which is to bring it into a new generation. We came in with the financial assets but also a future he can believe in. Normally, the growers take things one day at a time because there's always something to tend to. 'This is happening, this is what I have to do; this is not happening, this is what I have to stop doing.' With our joint venture, Coventry can also dream about what may be in five, 10 years' time.

What type of wool does Zegna buy from Achill?
We want to specialise in the source of our major consumption, in what we believe our major consumption in the future will be, which is in between the 16 and 17 microns. It's not the top of the fibres — the finest wool is an incredible world record of 9.8 microns.

How many skews of garment can you make from the quantity of wool you've bought?
5000 kilograms of wool makes about 3000 suits. Ermenegildo Zegna's spring/summer 2018 collection is the first featuring Achill's wool and is now available the world over.

Do you have plans to buy more wool farms, whether in Australia or elsewhere?
No. Fostering close relationships with Achill and our other farms allow us have the consistency in supply from the best farms in Australia. So it is to create more of a commercial relationship through the best ones to be in a way supported by us, and us supported by them so that the two rings close together.

Text: Norman Tan
Photography: Vanessa Caitlin