‘The smallest things are always the most precious,’ says Marco Zanini. He is used to thinking big, engineering a string of successful brand relaunches, but in late 2016, Zanini downsized to design for artisanal shoemaker Santoni.

On a sunless winter day, he arrives at Milan’s Casa degli Atellani – a Renaissance-era city landmark where Leonardo lived while painting The Last Supper – and opens the door to the whimsically deco apartment of the late architect Piero Portaluppi, which served as the inspiration for Zanini’s newest collection. Portaluppi was a key figure of early 20th-century Milan, and his style became part of the city’s fabric in buildings such as Palazzo Crespi, Villa Necchi and the Liberty-influenced renovation of Casa degli Atellani.

Zanini, a remarkably tall man, passes through Portaluppi’s foyer, a room frescoed like an arboretum with fan palms, laurel, ivy and cactus, and takes a seat in the living room. ‘Small means precise. Small means agile,’ he continues, bending his knees sharply to perch on a petite ivory couch. ‘Small was the very idea that gave birth to this project.’

The Milan-born designer, formerly creative director of Halston, Rochas and Schiaparelli, and an alumnus of Versace and Dolce & Gabbana, turned his back on Paris and New York for a home-town brand.

At Santoni, Zanini’s purview has been the introduction of a carefully considered handful of designs – the top tier of the company’s footwear offerings, but also its first lines of men’s and women’s apparel, a pared-down capsule collection of timeless wardrobe essentials he calls Edited.

‘The beauty of this project is its reduced dimensions. Being limited in scale makes the work more dynamic and autonomous than at giant corporations,’ he says, rolling his eyes skyward at the thought of past frustrations. ‘Now I’m free of certain deadlines. And I’m not contending with 500 cooks in the kitchen.’

The architect’s home inspired the latest edition of Edited. Photography: Giulio Ghirardi

‘Less is better,’ agrees Angelo Flaccavento, fashion journalist and Zanini’s collaborator on the Edited project. ‘This project is different,’ he says. At a time when designers complain of the fashion industry’s cyclical strictures and a ceaseless pressure to produce, the limited scale of the Edited collection allows the pair time to contemplate and experiment.

At Santoni, Zanini kicks off each collection not with sketches but with a visual and verbal concept, that becomes a book when the clothing collection is complete. ‘Recounting a collection this way reveals Marco’s ideas in designing it, with his universe of references condensed into a jacket or a dress,’ says Flaccavento. ‘I could never design clothes,’ he continues, ‘but it’s important to have not just a visual person but a verbal person. And to be a curator, or to be a journalist, is the same mindset because the starting point is analysis.’ For Edited Trip, the duo also collaborated wth Marco Cendron, creative director and founder of the Milan-based studio Pomo, who art directed the publication. ‘Today we’re drowning in products that are mostly pointless,’ Flaccavento adds. ‘This project is different.’

The latest outing of Edited has drawn on Portaluppi’s home, and the book features images of his kaleidoscopic marble collection that still lines wood shelves in the living room (the 1,500 little marble slabs, all cut to the same size, were assembled by a young geologist in Rome in the mid-19th century, who trawled the city’s archaeological sites). Architecture lasts. Marble lasts. To relay the story of the clothes with these images is a rejection of today’s over-evanescent fashion world, Zanini argues. The hardbound volume is filled with quasi-psychedelic close-ups of stones: the blood-red veins of a rosy marble and the painterly amber rings of a fossilised wood, interspersed with very occasional coolly moody images of the collection.

It’s understatement as a communication tool, but then Zanini is motivated by rejection as much as creation, having traded glitzier opportunities for the chance to create exactly what he wants: ‘an edit of things that don’t change every six months, designed to accompany the wearer in the long term’, as he explains. There are no extraneous details, no wild cards in this soft-spoken, cerebral collection; only finely wrought basics rendered in his signature subdued palette. In an industry shackled by fast-paced production and almost instant irrelevance, it’s the brave designer who abandons the limelight to create what can endure.

As originally featured in the March 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*228)