-  Born again: the renaissance of Pal Zileri / Sunday Telegraph Men / April 2016  -

PZPhotography: Rick Pushinsky

As the Veneto menswear brand Pal Zileri is revamped for today’s market, Sam Rowe meets the men behind the makeover

Thursday morning in Quinto Vicentino, 40 miles inland from the splendour of Venice, and inside a plain building on a quiet street, Pal Zileri’s factory floor is a hive of activity. Tinny 1990s Europop cheeps from a battered stereo, barely registering above the looped crunch of machinery, the whir of fans and row upon row of rattling sewing machines – the jam session of an industrial orchestra.

It’s business as usual for the tailor’s tabard-wearing workers: eyes down, lips pursed, no time for chat. These skilled artisans produce up to 400 suits a day and are as precise in their work as the technology with which they share their space. Some have an assortment of personal photographs fixed to their faded, slightly antiquated workstations, or a chosen pincushion; some opt for flowers, others for frilled hearts. There are 532 operators split between two factories, most of them women. They need expertise, for 180 separate manufacturing steps go into making some pieces, many of them manual. Seams are bound, sleeves attached, buttonholes meticulously sewn. A fleet of women inspect reams of fabric for faults; another team of 50 simply iron out wrinkles.

Pal Zileri launched in 1980, a high-end extension of Forall Confezioni Spa, known for its traditional home­grown casual and formalwear “for all”. In the combative world of luxury tailoring, Pal Zileri has become famous for its handmade heritage, its Italian spirit and its steadfast refusal to outsource to cheap labour. That and its cloth – there are 500km of it on site. Since its inception, the label has built a reputation that unites authenticity and design excellence.

“There are some brands that are just brands,” says CEO Paolo Roviera, over the din of machines. “Maybe they’re very strong in design but they don’t produce anything in-house. The know-how of the people working in this factory is our real asset. It’s not easy to have people with that kind of skill, capable of doing the things that they can do.” In turn, Pal Zileri’s expert workforce, every one of whom receives up to two years’ training, is treated like family: the company has invested in housing, transport and a crèche for working mothers; in the canteen a seamstress eats her penne arrabbiata with a suit-clad executive.

Yet, for all its history, sense of family and tradition, Pal Zileri is undergoing a radical makeover. In 2014 Mayhoola – a Qatar-based company whose name translates as “Unknown” in Arabic – took a majority stake. (Understood to be a vehicle for fashion-savvy Sheikha Moza, mother of the current emir, the company bought Valentino in 2012.) An Egyptian firm, Arafa Holding, owns the remaining 35 per cent. There followed a spate of store openings across the globe (there are now 37 shops and more than 500 further outlets worldwide), and a new creative team came in – and with it, a fresh, innovative ethos.

Paolo Roviera is not your average style executive. Born in 1970, he grew up at the foot of the Alps in Piedmont in northern Italy, a self-professed “redneck” with a love of motorcycles and tattoos. He had no plans for a career in fashion. “How many kids want to become a top manager?” he asks rhetorically, reclining on a chair in his office. “I’m a big rock fan. I would have died to be able to play guitar properly but I had no talent. I knew that if I tried that type of career, I’d end up starving.” An immaculate Pal Zileri blazer hangs on a peg behind his desk, but his black shirt and jeans, and various silver bones and skulls (a ring, cufflinks, wallet chain, glinting belt buckle) hint at this old rebellious dream.

Following a master’s degree in architecture, Roviera started as a Pal Zileri intern in 2000. Charting all facets of production – “I bothered these ladies for hours and hours” – he learnt his trade as an apprentice before later taking up management roles at rival Italian brand Ermenegildo Zegna. But when the Qatari investors pumped funds into the brand in 2014, it was the fashion nonconformist Roviera they wanted to lead the revolution. “We didn’t want to present ourselves as another Italian tailoring company,” says Roviera of the rebrand. “We had to be a little more innovative, a little more… sexy and cool, compared with some of the competition. You have to be special.”

The final piece of Pal Zileri’s new-era puzzle is the suave 49-year-old Mauro Ravizza Krieger, who came in alongside Roviera, to head up Pal Zileri’s new creative direction. A lover of travel, fine art and smart suits, he is the yin to Roviera’s rough-edged yang. His father was a chemist but his mother worked in child­ren’s textiles, and he became fixated on fashion from an early age, his Montgomery duffel coat standing out among the sports jackets in the playground. An industry stalwart, he has worked all over the world, first as a tailor, then as a stylist, and latterly as a brand con­­sultant for luxury labels including Loro Piana, Herno, Allegri and Caruso.

The morning after my factory tour, I meet Ravizza Krieger in a boutique hotel – all ceramic animals, mismatched armchairs and red plastic chandeliers – in Vicenza. He is keen to map out the ethos of Pal Zileri’s new line, Avant Craft, his personal brainchild. “It’s a philosophy,” he explains. “Avant Craft is our ability to look forward and be modern, but in the right way. We are using the old to be rich – to have something inside that’s impossible to teach – yet looking forward: new silhouette, new attitude, new way of wearing. Avant Craft means to know the past, but to create the future.”

What at first might appear contradictory actually coalesces in a rather spectacular way. The autumn/winter 2016 men’s runway show in Milan flaunted geometric quilting; 3D jacquard patterns on wool; bonded leather biker jackets over slouchy suits; and turtlenecks with tracksuit trousers. These seemingly opposing forces of old and new, buttoned-up formal and laid-back sportswear, are examples of where Pal Zileri 2.0 is headed.

It’s clear that the label is targeting a new, younger audience. “The most important thing for me is to have the opportunity to change the approach of a traditional company with a new vision,” says Ravizza Krieger. “It’s a challenge but it’s interesting to translate one of the biggest Italian companies for a new generation. I’m not talking about age, it’s a mentality.”

Another innovation of Pal Zileri’s renaissance is unfolding at store level. Instead of trying to tot up some quick e-commerce bucks (which would be understand­able, given that 75 per cent of men used the internet for purchases in 2015, and 48 per cent prefer doing so to shopping in person), it has focused its attention on revamping flagship branches. Roviera points out that, for all our sartorial curiosity, men still tend to shop in times of necessity, not leisure. To lure us out into the rejuvenated stores, they now offer more than just clothes. In the updated Bond Street store there’s a vintage record player for customer use, shelves brimming with books on art, fashion and cars, and a fully stocked (and free) bar.

It’s an approach that won’t trump the web in terms of convenience, but it does square with the label’s air of opulence – and it is a hell of a lot more fun. “When you buy on the internet,” Roviera says, “how do you measure how good your shopping experience is? In the delivery timing? This is fine for a book or a CD, but if you want to dedicate some time to yourself, you can go to our store and have some pampering.” He laughs. “It’s not a club but it’s very good.”

Back in the Quinto Vicentino factory, the clock ticks towards lunchtime but the workers haven’t looked up since morning. And while Pal Zileri may have reinvented itself, it is these masters of cut and fit who, 36 years on, remain its greatest asset. Roviera knows this. For all his rockstar styling, disruptive business moves and zeal for reinvention, he admits that his greatest fear when taking the job was letting down the fiercely talented women who once schooled him. “The sense of responsibility is very high,” he says, suddenly serious. “I’m not scared of the shareholders.”

Roviera’s duty to provide for his fashion family is hard-wired. But, then, he is Italian. As for his own family, Roviera’s wide smile returns when I ask if they’re proud of his surprising ascent in fashion. “Of course,” he says, beaming. “They see me in the newspaper and are very proud but at the end of the day, I’m still their son. If I do something wrong, they tell me.” He laughs. “You can become the president but if you are a son, you are always a son.”

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