It will not surprise you to learn that I had never walked into Zilli before, the store on Bond Street with a startling amount of coloured crocodile in the window. But it turns out there is a serious craft story there, behind the reptiles and chinchilla fur.
It was James Massey that convinced me to give it a go: a good friend and now a man with his own luxury goods PR as part of The Massey Partnership. Zilli is a new client and one keen to spread its appeal beyond the classic Russian and Middle East clients, who it’s fair to say often prefer slightly demonstrative clothing. A French company with a commitment to small-scale, quality production, Zilli is hoping to appeal to mainstream luxury clients more interested in craft than colour.
Part of this new approach is some very fine shirting, made bespoke by a Zilli-owned factory in Bergamo. As you might expect the focus is on the quality of the cottons, Zilli being a house obsessed with materials whether vegetable or animal. And there are all the trappings of luxury shirts – mother of pearl buttons, French side seams, unfused collars and cuffs.
But I was most interested in the factory that makes the shirts. Based in Bergamo, it was established by the Burini Brothers in 1954 and bought by Zilli in 2008. It employs 48 people, just making shirts, just for Zilli. Like the Italian luxury companies most focused on craft, Zilli has systematically established small teams of specialists that are entirely under its control and focus on specific products.
This has all happened in the last few years. The original factory, in Lyon, was set up in 1970 and today has 165 people making belts and other leather goods, as well as some outerwear. In 2007 Zilli bought a small factory in Argenta, Italy where 20 craftsmen make small leather goods and work exotic skins. In 2008 it bought the shirt factory in Bergamo. And in 2009 it acquired a factory in Rioz, France that makes metallic pieces such as zips and belt buckles. It has nine staff.
The acquisitions are part of a plan to remain independent wherever possible, something Zilli has focused on since it was founded 40 years ago. As you might expect, it is also family owned and family run. Alain Schimel is the founder and chairman, his son is managing director, his wife fashion director and the generation below look after duty free, shoes and cufflinks.
Zilli is most famous for launching luxury sportswear at a time when no other brands carried it. I’m not about to start wearing sportswear. But there is more to the pink-stone store than animal skins.