Ermenegildo Zegna and Achill farm
Paolo Zegna is striding purposefully through a tall thatch of grass, growing by a billabong, shaded by willow trees, when Charles Coventry calls out to him. “Paolo, Paolo! You might want to walk up this way.”
Coventry steers the chairman of Ermenegildo Zegna, the Italian €1.2 billion fine textiles and menswear luxury brand, to higher ground and lower grass. A snake has just been spotted in the thicket. We’d been warned earlier in the day that “the snakes are on the move at the moment”.
Coventry is meticulous about safety. Like all farms, the property he’s showing us around has its share of rough ground and poisonous animals. But unlike most, this slice of bucolic idyll will ultimately play host to hundreds of people for whom wombat holes, serpents and living, breathing, bleating sheep are still a novelty.
We’re at Achill farm, a 2500-hectare property 30 minutes east of Armidale, New South Wales, bordered to the east by the Wollomombi River. The property has been in Coventry’s family for four generations, and his kin were sheep farmers two generations before that. Paolo Zegna is newer to both. In 2014, Ermenegildo Zegna purchased a 60 per cent stake in Achill. Having started as a textile factory in 1910, before moving into ready-to-wear in the 1960s and retailing in the 1980s, the Zegna brand is no stranger to vertical integration, but a major Milanese luxury brand buying farmland in Australia is hitherto unheard of.
The luxury brand’s relationship to Australia’s superfine wool industry has deep roots. The night before the farm visit, Paolo presented the 53rd annual Ermenegildo Zegna Wool Awards in Sydney. When Ed Hundy, who has been entering fleeces in the awards for more than 30 years, won the “Extrafine Wool Trophy” with his wife, Jill, the woolgrower’s eyes filled with tears.
For his part, Paolo Zegna has been visiting Australia since he was 23 years old, first with his father, then for work, and even love. His long-time partner is a Tasmanian sheep farmer’s daughter, and the pair live between Melbourne and Milan.
Zegna is a family-owned business and, for them, buying the farm was “closing a circle” and progressing the family tradition of adding a new element of the production cycle to the Zegna business with every new generation.
Achill will never produce a significant proportion of Zegna’s wool – right now the farm is capable of delivering 25,000 kilograms a year, and Zegna’s business requires 500,000 – instead, it’s a model farm in the truest sense of the word. An exercise in R&D and marketing that will help inform the company’s future decision-making. “We want this farm to be transparent … to tell the story of a beautiful product. This is what people demand nowadays – to know all elements of the story,” says Zegna.
For Coventry, the prospect of running a farm in the spotlight is both daunting and exciting. “When we started looking at a joint venture, we didn’t feel like we were presentable enough. As a farm, the standard was good, and we were proud of it, but it’s another gear higher to get to the standard we need to be achieving.” Recruiting people with “the character and the personality to engage with the likes of media, and with a wider audience” was a particular, though not insurmountable challenge.
At 43, Coventry is decades younger than most of the farmers decorated in the wool awards. He was living in Sydney with his wife and their three young children, and working in marketing for GrainCorp, when his family was approached by a specialist agent to sell their property to the Italian fashion house. Coventry, who was “looking for a reason” to return to Armidale, asked if Ermenegildo Zegna corporation might be interested in a joint venture instead. For the Zegnas, who have no farming experience, it was the perfect solution.
“We’d talked to too many farms that were very willing to get rid of their business,” Zegna says. “They’d said, ‘I’ve had enough, I need to cash in, I need to liquidate for my daughters and my sons.’ There was very little future. One of the things which struck us about Charlie was that he was looking at this as an opportunity to develop. And in that sense, he could become an example to those that say, ‘There’s no future for my property, there’s no future for my children.’”
The alignment with Zegna has insulated Achill from some of the traditional vagaries of farming. When The Saturday Paper visited the farm, there was no trace of the rolling green hills that earned New England its moniker. Instead, the farm ranged from crispy gold to arid brown. “Right now we see the pinnacle of the risk of farming,” says Coventry. “You have to have a plan and strategise, but because you’re determined by nature, you have to be very nimble. The strategy one week might be formed, and then you have to completely reshape it.”
When Zegna acquired its stake in Achill, the property ran 12,500 sheep. Because a three-year drought has caused food shortages, they chose to downsize, and now that number is closer to 11,000. Dealing with the fluctuations of the market is one thing, but wrestling with nature is quite another. “I’m still on a learning curve, and getting into the drought is teaching me how to react in an entirely new situation,” says Zegna. “Through this process, when Charlie asks my opinion I try to maintain logical thinking. I cannot give technical solutions, but I can give logical ones.”
The drought has waylaid many of Zegna’s plans for the farm, and for Coventry. For instance, an upgrade of the farm’s 1880s-era woolshed with an addition designed by Australian Institute of Architects gold medal winner Peter Stutchbury has been put on hold, in favour of changes to ensure the flock is adequately fed and watered.
Coventry visiting Italy has also been delayed, though Zegna enthusiastically says “Charlie has to go to Milan.”
“It’s an important step in my education, but it’s just time. We have a lot to do, and we have a drought. We’ve got to put the animals first,” Coventry says.
Zegna’s investment has allowed Achill to change its flock’s grazing patterns by digging troughs and putting up solar-powered, flexible electric fences that use best-practice fibreglass technology. These changes have happened faster than would otherwise have been possible. “Coming out of droughts, if you’re too capital-constrained, you’ve got to compromise on your decisions,” Coventry says. This can create a vicious cycle for owner-operated farms, where the lag effect of the bad years makes it harder to make money in the good years.
Coventry sees his joint venture, and the growing interest in the origin stories of produce and raw material generally, as an optimistic sign for Australian agriculture. “It’s the combination of younger and older minds that really advances agriculture ... Young people leaving doesn’t mean that they will leave forever. Some will go and come back. And that’s healthy. That’s broadening their experience, and we want people in agriculture to have broad experience, outside and within agriculture.
“It’s good for them to fly their wings, but it’s important that they return.”
Ermenegildo Zegna also has to work to retain talented personnel. “Once they get their independence, it’s not a given that they will join you,” Zegna says of his family’s next generation. “You have to make sure you’ve created the right environment, and right space, for them to join you.”
The maintenance of historic ties and generational experience, as well as the search for innovation, make Italian luxury fashion and Australian agriculture more similar than they might at first appear.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 30, 2016 as "Chic shearers". Subscribe here.