Kean Etro: ‘We basically turned paper into trees’
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My personal style signifier is what I call my “24-hour” jacket. It’s a formal jacket but made from jersey fabric – something you can wear as a tux but also exercise in. It’s a special piece I made for myself years ago and I wear it every couple of days, often with denim. I even wear it to sleep in my tent when I’m up in the mountains.
The last thing I bought and loved was Patterns that Connect: Social Symbolism in Ancient and Tribal Art, by the US art historian Carl Schuster and anthropologist Edmund Carpenter. It was published after Schuster’s death. He studied ancient design motifs to make connections between patterns and to posit a collective human instinct. For example, paisley – we assume it comes from Kashmir, but he believed it comes from anywhere where palm trees grow, such as Australia and New Zealand.
And on my wishlist is an Olmec head sculpture, a bald, androgynous figure. My wife is from Argentina and I have always admired Latin American culture – you have great civilisations such as the Aztecs and the Toltecs, and the Olmecs especially fascinate me. They had a very clean, almost modern approach to design – timeless, really. I love natural and primitive art because there is no signature, no ego involved, which I believe is the best kind of art.
The place I can’t wait to go back to is Beigua Park, a Unesco Global Geopark in Liguria. I would love to go back and sleep out at night in the woods there. It’s one of the most beautiful parks in Europe but not many people know about it.
The best souvenir I’ve brought home is a holed stone with a root going into its cavity that looks like a penis, with a bit of a The Sword in the Stone vibe. I found it while I was trying to liberate some trees from ivy, and I keep it in my bathroom. I worked on it with a knife to get the shape out and polish it.
Recently I have relied on red wine. We have an amazing cellar in our place in rural Piedmont. I particularly love Nebbiolo, but we also make our own wine for family and friends – it’s called Keancon, combining my name and that of Constanza, my wife. The label has a picture of a big gorilla holding a blonde. There’s also a cellar that we visited in Puglia, called Cantine San Marzano, and they make this strong Primitivo di Manduria called Anniversario 62, a special reserve.
A recent “find” is our golden retriever, Chilly, who joined the family last year. She’s been living with us in the countryside so she’s a bit spoiled. Now if she stands up she is as tall as our nine-year-old daughter, Sofia, and they dance together and give each other kisses.
I’m listening to LPs, which my son Joyce helped me rediscover. We went to buy records together in New York, where he lives. I’ve been buying CDs as well, but vinyl is interesting for the sound you get – it says “slow down” – so I prefer to listen to an LP. Joyce and my son Gerolamo love the old Italian songwriters I used to listen to, like Lucio Battisti and Franco Battiato. The last album I bought was by Rickie Lee Jones, who started out singing in bars and coffee houses, and always sounds so sophisticated. And I love jazz and experimental music – every time I put on Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert from 1975, I cry. It’s genius, an amazing piece of art.
I have a collection of about 30 didgeridoos – I bought some in Paris, some in Carrara, some in Milan. Occasionally at the Etro HQ we will walk around the office playing the didgeridoo with the tubes from our fabric rolls. I used to buy first-edition books as an investment, but then the day came when I was sick of cleaning them and keeping them safe, so I sold everything – all my watches too – and with that money we bought trulli [traditional drystone huts] in Puglia and planted olive trees. We basically turned paper into trees and watches into trulli. And that was it, I’d had enough of collecting.
In my fridge you’ll always find Delfanti black garlic. I love garlic because it’s a natural antibiotic. We also have the jams we make with figs and strawberries, and usually we have miso to make ramen. We also have a tomato sauce we make when we’re in Puglia – we make about 200 bottles – and next to the fridge we have about 200kg of potatoes. I try to get my kids involved but they say, “Dad, I’m not coming to pick potatoes at 6am.”
The beauty staples I’m never without are old fragrances. You should never throw away an old perfume. I’ve been doing perfumery since 1989, after developing my nose. I had to stop smoking to do that, and every evening from seven to nine, with my dad, I began to learn how to really smell things, such as a sherry before dinner. Perfumery is like winemaking, especially if there is a natural element, so the colour and smell change over time. There’s an eau de cologne called Messe de Minuit I did long ago – now out of production – that has the scent of incense you get in the stone of a church where it has been burning for centuries. The midnight mass is a naughty thought too. What are you doing at midnight in a church?
With time on my hands, I like to learn how to fix things. But you need to be patient and try different approaches, like a doctor doing a diagnosis of exclusion until you get to the answer – and for this, you need time. But I like the idea of being a little more autonomous. I managed to fix three things over the past six months: the lawnmower, the grass trimmer and – for this one I was quite nervous – the chainsaw.
The last items of clothing I added to my wardrobe were vintage shirts. My dad Gerolamo, who turned 80 this year, is a roaring lion, such a character. He passes me shirts he is getting rid of. They are about three sizes too big for me, but they are special: oversized, simple. One or two are Etro, but most are by old Milanese tailors – one is Tincati, two others are Truzzi, then some from M Bardelli. I don’t even know if these tailors still exist as the shirts are so old.
An indulgence I would never forgo is going to Enoteca Cotti. Since our days in Mexico, it’s been a tradition to have wine, tequila and mescal at home, which I share with my elder children when they come over once a week. And this enoteca, about 40m from my house, with art nouveau interiors, has the best tequila and mescal from Oaxaca.
My favourite room in my house is my library, but I have books everywhere. I don’t know where to put them any more. In my house, if you go to the loo looking for toilet paper, you find books! There are still little book kiosks here in Milan; one of the best is in front of the courthouse in Piazza Cinque Giornate.
I’ve recently rediscovered the ability to prune, something I used to do when I was a kid at school in Switzerland.
My grooming guru is my hairdresser Mimmo, on Via Solferino in Milan. I don’t pay him, I give him a shirt for four haircuts a year – he loves my shirts and I love the way he cuts my hair. Whenever I can I try to barter, because then a friendship starts. I’ve known Mimmo for 10 years. Barbers are like confessors. You’re there and you have a lot of time, so you end up having deep conversations – it’s a warm, feminine world.
If I didn’t live in Milan, I would live in Puglia, where we have trulli and a little masseria – 20 hectares of woodland in the middle of nowhere. When Constanza and I got married, I didn’t know how she would like Milan, coming from Argentina where everything is so warm and sunny, including the people. So I thought I’d take her down to Puglia. In the nearest town, Ceglie Messapica, there is an amazing Michelin “Bib Gourmand” restaurant called Cibus, where they keep the cheeses in an underground formaggeria and serve only local produce.
The gadget I couldn’t do without is my flint. I told myself I’d learn how to make fire myself and I’ve managed to master it in the past two years. I find it fulfilling, like making your own soap or candles. I play with my kids to see who can start a fire first. Sofia was seven the first time I showed her how it works and she thought it was like magic.
The best book I’ve read in the past year is I Am That, by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. He says that if we manage to focus on our breathing and become conscious of it, we will realise that breathing, like everything that comes from nature, is a gift. It’s a book that asks some of the big questions: “What do we have? What is ours?”
If I had to pick one neighbourhood for shopping in one city, it would be Brera in Milan, where I live. I love Moroni Gomma in Corso Garibaldi. I used to go there when I was a kid. They have rain gear and high-quality gadgets in rubber, all quite smart. There is an interesting interiors store, Cargo, run by an architectural practice called High Tech. Mercatino Penelope is a small antiques shop specialising in mid-century interiors. Another lovely one is Al Mercatino Tra Noi e Voi – everything there is quite radical chic, but it’s very Milanese. You can find excellent pieces by Fontana Arte, Fluxus, Sarfatti, Cassina – the whole shebang. I love Rossignoli, where I have been buying bikes since I was a kid. As well as the Patagonia shop, which I love for prioritising sustainability, there’s another outdoor shop, Salewa, opened by an Italian company from the Bolzano area. I wear the colourful mountaineering shoes I bought there to the office.
My style icon is singer-songwriter James Taylor. I have always looked up to him – his simplicity, handsome in his corduroy suits. I just bought an album featuring him and Janis Joplin in concert in Paris. They also spoke and read poetry, and Taylor cracks jokes. For me, having a sense of humour is part of being a style icon.
The best gift I’ve given recently was the birthday cake I made for my wife’s birthday. I love cooking but I’m not so good with desserts, so I said, “OK, I’ll study up.” I followed the recipe a little bit then I started flowing and making associations between colours and taste. After six hours of work I got this amazing sponge with fresh strawberries, crème fraîche, crème chantilly, custard, crumble and meringues, something quite rich and outstanding. Very light! She wanted a simpler cake but I added things that I liked, so we met in between.
And the best gift I’ve received recently is a Bokashi machine, which is a Japanese compost bin. You sprinkle on a mix containing good bacteria, which then transform the waste into a sort of primordial broth to use as fertiliser. It has an amazing odour.
My favourite app is PlantNet, which identifies plants, flowers and herbs. I used it a lot during lockdown. The other app I use is called CLZ Book. It catalogues my books and identifies second or third editions so I can avoid buying them.
If I weren’t doing what I do, I would be a bard of the pastoral. I would be playing music in front of the setting sun – our god in so many cultures. You can see this on trulli, where many have a spherical sun on the roof and doors often face east, towards the sun.