During Shanghai’s Villa Zegna event, the pair sit down with Editor-in-Chief Nick Vogelson to talk about fashion’s role in the cultural and natural worlds

Italian brand Zegna is known not only for producing some of the finest fabrics known in the luxury world, but also its attention to the natural world, as seen in its mission to plant half a million trees and in its woodland-inspired Salone del Mobile takeover for the launch of the book Born in Oasi Zegna, a volume dedicated to their Oasi Zegna project, an initiative that has been in progress for 75 years. The 224-page tome celebrated the brand’s long heritage around Oasi Zegna, a 100-square-kilometer territory in northern Italy’s Piedmont region that’s sprouted around founder Ermenegildo Zegna’s home. Oasi Zegna functions as a reforestation project encouraging biodiversity in the mountains of the Italian alps, as well as “a remarkable model for the harmony that can be achieved between humankind and the natural world when social and environmental consciousness meet,” as reported in a press release. Or, as Artistic Director Alessandro Sartori puts it, “The second best thing we do is clothing. The first is Oasi Zegna.”

Established 114 years ago, Zegna is intent on not just producing great garments, but leaving a lasting impact. With Oasi Lino, the brand hopes to reach 100% traceability—a fashion sustainability term referring to tracing the impact of the manufacturing process from raw materials to production and sale—by the end of this year.

On May 23rd, Zegna brought the Oasi ethos to Shanghai. With Villa Zegna, the brand reinterpreted its founder’s initial goals to build a bridge between fashion and nature as a week-long event. Villa Zegna spanned three floors in a house in Middle Huaihai Road, a neighborhood known for its linen. Inspired by the brand’s Spring/Summer 2024 runway show, Villa Zegna combined dedicated spaces for tailor-made shopping sessions, how-it’s-made-style glimpses behind the garments, and a cafe. Global ambassadors and Spring/Summer 2024 Oasi Lino campaign stars Wu Lei and Mads Mikkelsen were among the exclusive guests alongside innovators, celebrities, and friends to the brand invited to celebrate the expansion of the Zegna world as well as this season’s new collection.

Amid Shanghai’s Villa Zegna experience, Document’s Editor-in-Chief Nick Vogelson sits down with Artistic Director Alessandro Sartori and global brand ambassador Mads Mikkelsen to discuss the state of the creative world today, the role fashion plays in shaping it, and their mutual love of bicycles.

Nick Vogelson: You both saw your creative path at a very early age, whether it was through gymnastics for you Mads, or through fashion, Alessandro. What do you think are the pros and cons of having such a strong direction early on?

Mads Mikkelsen: Mine has taken turns in the sense that I never dreamed of being an actor, I never dreamt of being a dancer. We had a teacher in school that would take the kids who were spending too much time on the street, and have us do gymnastics instead. It was different than playing football because it was you alone, and you had to do a performance. But I didn’t think about it, and then it happened by chance that I became a dancer, and from there on, I got inspired to become an actor. It was never anything I dreamt of. My life has just gone like this, taken me places.

Nick: Did becoming an actor feel innate to you?

Mads: I always had a choice to do other things. As a kid, it’s always a choice. But I was drawn to it without knowing why. There was something magical about creating stories, and doing it with different means. Every time you meet a new director, they have a different way of doing it, which is always interesting. And trying to keep that light still shining. I’m trying to keep the openness of being a child because that’s what made me start.

Nick: Alessandro, given your last name and growing up in Trivero, Italy where the Lanificio Zegna wool mill is, did you ever feel like you had a choice to be a fashion designer, or was it clear very early on?

Alessandro Sartori: It was very clear. I grew up in that region. My first memory was when I was four or five, on my little bicycle passing by the walls of the factory. When I was 15 we moved to another place, but I remember the factory, always on my little bicycle. My mom was a tailor and it was very natural for me to get into this job—I didn’t know what else to do. Probably, if not for a big brand, maybe just as a tailor because what I liked from the beginning was to take a flat fabric and create something to dress people, transform the 2D to the 3D. But when I was 20, 25, 30, I was a little worried that I didn’t have any other…

Mads: Passion.

Alessandro: Passion, yes. But that was my only job possible for me at the time, and I was living in a moment where, of course, I didn’t have this job [at Zegna]. I was a little worried and said, ‘Oh, but if I don’t have this, what do I do?’ But lately, I think it was a gift to be already so focused on something. I see a lot of young talents today who have, like, six ideas from styling to sketching to becoming a chef and inventor, and I think it’s a problem. Because yes, being open at a certain point of your age is good. But if you don’t concentrate on something and do it in one way or another, where do you end?

Nick: When did you feel like you became a master of your craft?

Alessandro: I don’t know if I ever became a master.

Nick: I think we would all agree that it’s always good to feel like the student and not the teacher and always be learning, but what was the first moment where you felt you were the master? Even if you were still learning?

Alessandro: I don’t know, I’ll answer you in a different way. After the first show in 2007 in New York, I saw all my things in magazines and stores. One day, I saw someone leaving my store in the Monte Napoleone wearing my jacket and pants. And I said, ‘Wow, is this happening?’ So that was a moment for me.

“Fashion today, mostly for brands like Zegna, are like many chapters of the same book… I don’t want them to throw away what they wore last season, I want the story to get longer.”

Mads: It’s the same kind of answer for me. I don’t feel like I’m a master in my craft because I’m still learning, there’s still something more. In my world, I’m not the cap di tutti capi. There’s somebody called the director, somebody who’s the boss. So I can always lean into their vision and bring that to life. I’m not going to be the puppet master, I’m going to be good at my job.

But, when did it happen? It’s not such a similar story because during summer vacation before my last year in drama school, I did a Danish film, which I was not allowed to do, and they kicked me out of school because of that. They took me back later. But the film became a very big hit in Copenhagen. It was with Nicholas [Winding] Refn, called Pusher, and I was bald and had tattoos everywhere. One day I was in a video shop renting movies, and my film was there. So it’s that same idea. That’s our film, it’s right there, people are watching it. It’s a really nice feeling.

Nick: When you’re working on a film project or a stage project, how involved do you get with the costume design? Do you help develop that? Do you give them ideas?

Mads: I get very involved. It depends on what the genre is. There are certain things that fit genre films or can be in a period piece. But if it’s a modern film, it’s very based on who the character is. Is he very casual? Does he not care at all? Does he have vanity? And what kind of vanity? So I do get involved, not in the exact design, but we talk about costume as a part in creating my character—we are creating it together.

Nick: And Alessandro, when you’re designing for Zegna or when you’re working on a film project or a theater project, in your mind, how are they different?

Alessandro: I did Tilda [Swinton] in Suspiria by Guadagnino. It was a very interesting project, but in the end, costuming is special, but it’s just a tiny part of it. The theater, on the other hand, is just fantastic. I did some work for l’Opéra de Paris, I did some work for Benjamin Millepied. When you enter in that dimension, it’s just about creativity, and you collaborate from steps A to Z. You are in the music, you go to the rehearsal, you need to fit every dancer according to the ballet they do. It’s so intense.

Fashion is different because it’s a longer story. And fashion today, mostly for brands like Zegna, are like many chapters of the same book. In the past, brands were doing things that, after one season, were old. Today, we prefer to have our customers and friends that embody the brand to keep going in the direction to be the bigger world. I don’t want them to throw away what they wore last season, I want the story to get longer.

Mads: When you’re dealing with realism in my world, that’s different because when it comes to what we are wearing, it’s very much on our behalf how we see the character and they will have to adapt. But sometimes, in theater and also in film, when it’s an adapted universe, we listen more to them because they have already created an image together with the concept. The concept put together with the set designers as well, it has a certain look. And this is where we also can just go, ‘Sounds interesting, throw it at me.’

So, it’s a different approach. For instance, wearing this in Italy and in Sweden doesn’t say as much as it would in Denmark. In Denmark, we haven’t developed as much of a sensibility of fashion or style. In Italy or Sweden, there could be many different characters wearing this. In Denmark, you would have to be very into fashion if you wore this. It would tell us a different story, depending on where you come from.

Alessandro: I haven’t thought about that. It’s interesting to do a combined interview, because you understand things I didn’t.

Nick: There’s so many founding principles to Zegna, the Oasi, the heritage, and I think so much about the brand is about the roots and coming home and where you find inspiration. And I wanted to ask what your version of the Oasi Zegna is. Is it a town? Is it your house in Mallorca, Mads? Where do you find respite? Where do you nourish your soul?

Mads: I can do it in many spots in my life. Obviously, when you have children, that’s one place. It can also be in Mallorca. But I love building stuff. I can go in a zen mode when I build in my a garage. But the best place is on my bicycle. I have quite a few racing bicycles and sitting on them for two hours, everything’s just gone and I’m in a different place. It’s fantastic. I’m not always enjoying it, because it’s tough when I go uphill. But there is a zen period there where everything else is gone.

Nick: Where do you call home, physically or mentally? Is it a place, is it a person? Is it a memory of a bicycle?

Alessandro: Beside home—which is very peculiar for me, I work a lot at home—the studio, where we do the fittings for the collection of the show, is an oasis for me. And the reason is that we are from two to six people, and we are working together. You understand how—probably like doing a script—each person is influencing one another. The more you hear from someone else, the more creative you become. What is happening is very fluid and very special.

If you don’t have a craft, there is no price with any meaning. So I think the real luxury in fashion is to protect the artisans.”

Nick: I want to ask you both a question about luxury. I think luxury is a term that’s both very easy to define and also can be difficult to define. I wanted to ask Alessandro, what is a new luxury for you with Zegna? If that’s a quiet place in the woods, an afternoon with a book. If it’s about luxurious clothing, if it’s about the story behind something…

Alessandro: Oh, so many things, but I need to go narrow to give a precise answer. For example, I can’t go to bed before 1:00 AM. For two reasons: I sleep very little, so if I go early, I wake up at 3:00. And second reason, I need my time. It’s very precious. And if I don’t have two, three hours before going to bed, I feel my day isn’t over. That part of the night, reading mostly, and writing, is very important. Second reason: I need to go to work. Every day, it’s more difficult to find the right craftspeople, so to be able to save the artisans as Zegna does, I mean… If you don’t have a craft, there is no price with any meaning. So I think the real luxury in fashion is to protect the artisans.

Mads: We could answer the questions in many ways. We all know that it’s a luxury to have a roof over your head, compared to many other places in the world, and get food on the table, which is luxury. But I’ve been lucky enough since I was a little boy to have that. Something that has changed is that I’m a grandfather now, that in itself is a luxury, but also the luxury that we can buy the little stroller, the one that we wanted 30 years ago for our kids, but we couldn’t buy it. Now we can do it.

Nick: Alessandro, what made you choose Mads as a global ambassador? Mads, what made you say yes? I’m curious what an ambassador means in today’s day and age.

Alessandro: I love real people who have real opinions, and who have a story. I’d always followed your work even before we knew each other. Since I met him and we spoke, we understood that we share a very similar vision. We want to keep understanding, working, pushing… That’s why we’re here, to do that.

Mads: People who are close to me would not consider me to be a man who’s into fashion, to be honest. I’ve always been running around in something so that I can play basketball anytime. Getting more and more into it and then being dressed by Zegna, I saw myself in a different light as well. So it feels like me. It doesn’t feel as if I change that much in these clothes, I can play a basketball game in these pants. The most important thing was obviously to come to the house and meet Alessandro, and see what they created with a vision.

Many people are talking the talk. Very few people are doing what the Zegna family did and what they’re continuing to do with Oasi Zegna: there’s a hospital there, a school there, 500,000 trees there. And they kept it within the embrace of the community, which is unique. It’s just a beautiful story. As a customer, you get to watch the story unfold, and then when you wear Zegna, you realize how crazy soft everything is.

Digital Tech Jiang Yuhang. Production Director Lisa Olsson Hjerpe at CHAPEL Productions. Local Photo Producer Peggy Liu. Local Production Assistant Wenbo.