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The makings of a man
AS AN ACTOR, Mahershala Ali has always had a knack for changing perceptions. In his Oscar-winning breakthrough role in Moonlight (2016), he plays a tough drug dealer who is unexpectedly kind to a frequently-bullied gay boy, showing the world that machismo and sensitivity can go hand-in-hand.
He followed that triumph with Green Book (2018) where he plays a soulful pianist who holds his head up high, despite facing consistent racial discrimination in the 1960s. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture and a second Oscar for Ali.
For the third and latest season of True Detective (2019), Ali plays an ageing cop who emerges out of retirement to solve a kidnapping case. The role earned him both an Emmy and a Screen Actors Guild nomination.
At a time when the global discourse on race, gender, age and diversity has become polarising – even crippling – Ali’s miraculous mid-career entry into Hollywood’s A-list is taken by some as a hopeful signal that the world is changing, for the better.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the global leader in menswear, Ermenegildo Zegna, chose Ali as the face of its #WHATMAKESAMAN campaign. Having spent 110 years perfecting the look of the modern man, the luxury house wants to take a moment’s pause to ask the question: “What makes a man today?”
In its press release, the company sees masculinity as “a state of mind, one that takes on different meanings and includes many qualities, both expected and not: courtesy, politeness, patience, vulnerability, wisdom, eccentricity. What makes a man is the dignity and openness to accept and embrace the contradictions of life, to evolve day by day, being truthful to oneself, endlessly changing one’s perspective and attitudes.”
Ali – with his off-screen identity as a 46-year-old African-American Muslim father of one – hints at the rich possibilities of masculinity. In the words of Zegna’s artistic director Alessandro Sartori, Ali “embodies the best qualities of a contemporary man and offers a human and emotional perspective on masculinity. Through his unique experiences, viewpoints, and outlets, he shows how masculinity has taken on a range of meanings and includes many different qualities.”
Sartori raves: “We have found an incredible partner in Mahershala, and we’re so proud that he’s on this journey with us.”
In one of #WHATMAKESAMAN campaign videos, Ali, impeccably dressed in a monochromatic Zegna suit, explores an abandoned metal factory – a traditional symbol of masculine industry. His voiceover intones: “It’s easy to be confused… much harder to know what to do.” As he walks up a pile of metal ruins to see the sun rising on the horizon, he asks: “So what’s your path that leads you to the light… where it’s clear and you know what’s in front of you?”
In another campaign video, Ali holds a stone in his hand and crushes it to dust, asking: “Do you use the power in your hands to destroy? Or to care?” The video reflects Zegna’s abiding commitment to sustainability, which has gotten even deeper in recent years. Its #UseTheExisting hashtag underscored Zegna XXX’s Winter 2020 collection which featured clothes made from pre- and post-existing materials rewoven into new fabric. In 2019, Zegna clinched an award in Recognition of Sustainability at Italy’s third Green Carpet Fashion Awards.
Mr Sartori says: “Social responsibility has always been a huge part of who we are as Zegna. We strongly believe that we have the responsibility to use our voice to champion issues that are relevant and important to our customers. Along those lines, giving back has always been a part of our mission.”
In many ways, Zegna’s ethos hark back to that of the brand’s founder Ermenegildo Zegna. The youngest son of a watchmaker, Ermenegildo founded a wool mill with his brothers in Trivero, Italy, in 1910 when he was just 18. He dreamt of creating “the world’s most beautiful fabrics” and exporting them across oceans. And by 1945, Ermenegildo was selling fabrics to 40 countries around the world, as respected tailors and other fashion houses attested to their superior qualities.
But Ermenegildo was not just focused on business success. He was a philanthropist who sought to give back to his community by building a medical centre and a nursery school in Trivero. He was a pioneering environmentalist planting thousands of trees to beautify the landscape. As his son Angelo Zegna once put it: “(My father had) an awareness that natural resources are limited and that we must protect them. He was an ecologist long before the term even existed."
If the question “What makes a man?” was posed in the mid-20th century, Ermenegildo Zegna would have been the embodiment of the answer.