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The new Zegna FW2019 ADV campaign #WHATMAKESAMAN features two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali and Chinese artist Nicholas Tse as protagonists. The campaign is a platform of discussion – and perhaps of provocation –, recognizing that it takes courage to express a new type of masculinity, perhaps different from the idealized versions that have existed for so long.

The interventions of the six writers are reported below.

Emanuele Altissimo (1988), Italy, publishing with Bompiani

When I was nine, I was afraid of my father. At fifteen I envied him and at twenty I wondered how I could take his place. At thirty I no longer knew who he was.  I dealt with his violence as a child and with his mental illness as a teenager.  With what he called being strong, his warrior’s morality.  Until one day he left home and disappeared for a year. What had made him a man, what he had never seen in me, that strength, turned against him and led him to increasingly isolate himself. At that point I was free to be the man I was. In those months of uncertainty, in the days without phone calls, in the hours when I was always thinking of him, I was happy. The man who kept me from being a man was gone – and with him his manly pills. Hide your problems. Other people are worth nothing. No one is a friend. Crying is weak. You are weak. I don’t know if his way of being a man was old, right, modern or wrong. It was the way of a man who had chosen to be alone. If I met him today, I would tell him that I have half-disappointed him: I hide my problems, but I know how to cry, I know the value of others, but also my weakness. I know little about people. Most of the time they scare me and I wonder if they see me as an enemy. But I became myself when I allowed them to hurt me and to come back and hurt me again. When I chose not to turn away when my mother cried, not to think she was weak. When I chose not to be alone. At nine I feared my father because he hated my sensitivity. At fifteen I envied his charisma and at twenty I wondered who I was and what my fate would be. If I met you today, I would say that you can love me without being afraid of me. Yes, I’m that kind of man. This is my strength.

Adrien Gygax (1989), France, author of Aux noces de nos Petites vertus

What makes a man today? The real man of today is found in the details. He lets perceptive souls have a glimpse of him, for a moment, in some corners of the world. But  he’s not there, before us, erect, strong, eternal and imposing, man. Unflinching! Oh no. Today’s man is subtle and refined. He eludes hasty, clear-cut definitions. He is much more than what he seems, man. He is in the honest radiance of a silly young man who laughs at himself. He is in the helplessness and irrelevance of a man who holds the hand of his partner as she gives birth. He is in this tenderness, this face full of light, the caring way a father looks at a child. He is in this total fascination he feels before a woman, the conviction that she is the most beautiful creature in the world. He is in the group of friends, drunk and happy, who promise to do it all again soon. He is in the door held open by a teenager, hoping for feminine smiles and scents. He is in the sartorial obsession of this elderly Italian who asks his tailor friend for a spalla camicia  and a lined jacket. He is in the physical power deployed in the defence of his land. He is in this naïveté that drives him to want to change the world, in this fierce craving for life; and also in the mad fear of death, tears held back and eyes turned up at the sky. Man is dissimulated behind all these things that life is made of. He is fragmented, blown up, tortured, but he’s there, he’s not hiding. He is well visible for all those who wish to see him. You just need a bit of intelligence to perceive these thousands of admirable men and love them. You just need to give them one thing for their radiant beauty to manifest itself: tenderness. Today’s man, as always, needs tenderness. Because that’s all that man seeks, the only thing whose absence is a tragedy. Everything else, man can live without.

Mikkel Rosengaard (1987), Denmrk, novelist based in New York City

To the ancients, what made a man was order. A man stood up against chaos. A man was culture, he wrestled for control. His struggle was doomed. One day, the hound howls, fetters burst. The wolf swallows the sun; the ship of nails set sails. A wind-age, a wolf-age—before the world falls. Nature is stronger than man. Unsowed fields growing. The life-giving destructive force of the sun. Maidens, from Jötunn’s world, all-powerful. Still, he holds his ground. This is what makes a man. He fights on when all hope is lost. A woman breeds life from flesh, gives birth through nature’s force. A man is like a craftsman. He transforms matter that already exists. Sculpts new figures from the clay of the old. The gifted craftsman lets his hands be guided by the divine. Through their force, he breathes life into art. No one is born a man, a woman—they are forces we carry, sides of the same coin. The old, the new. The male, the female. Life, art—they are a process, a churning wheel. What makes a man strong is to be like Loki—a Jötunn, an Æsir all at once. A man in falcon’s skin; formed into a salmon; a mare breeding an eight-legged foal. A man who is male and female; a man who dreams up new shapes for himself.  What he conjures up are not delusions. For those who control imagination, will shape tomorrow’s world.

Màrius Serra (1963), Spain, manages a trilingual site dedicated to word games. Ramon Llull Award in 2006

The first answer, today and always, is a woman. A woman makes a man. It’s a biological fact that has been repeated throughout the history of our species, because each and every man was born from a woman, and this self-evident truth underlines the fact that identity is as diverse as the colors of the rainbow. Also in terms of gender. If anything characterizes modern man, it has been his venture into exploring the opposites of the attributes that have been assigned to him in the past, discovering that the moon has a hidden face that completes the atmosphere. We live in a new realm of exploration. Just as yesterday’s man set out to explore the corners of the globe to map our world, modern man has put a camera in front of his eyes, selfie-style, to be able to explore internally. In the digital age, there is so much outside information that our mind is constantly focused on external stimuli, and therefore it’s time to activate the self-GPS. This is the only way modern man can discover, among other opposites, that the other side of toughness is fragility, of strength, tenderness, and leadership, empathy. All these landscapes are not unknown, but are often associated only with infancy and femininity, often considered charming like a child’s name but lacking the real importance of serious issues. Now man realizes the error of his ways. Modern man is recovering the verbs of childhood: play, cry, pretend, hug. In his rediscovery of play, he realizes that the rules vary, and in the awareness of the variability of these rules lies the pleasure of playing. Modern man has reached a major conclusion: wisdom is flexibility, not rigidity. If the human species has made it this far without everything shattering into a thousand pieces, it’s because flexibility has overcome rigidity. Modern man is discovering that listening is as important as speaking. The true Homo Sapiens is the Homo Ludens.

Philip Warkander (1977), Svezia, Assistant Professor of Fashion Studies at Lund University

Being a man is about being a person. Being a person is about being part of a context; something much bigger than ourselves. Individuals are joined to one another by invisible threads. We give each other energy and support like the roots of a tree. We are all drops in the same ocean. We have an individual form for a limited period of time before we return to join the eternal waves of an infinite ocean. However the links connecting people are invisible to the naked eye. You can perceive them but only if you concentrate hard; this is why many of us view the journey of life as a solitary and difficult one.  Fashion gives us the tools to enhance what is unique about us. We all wear clothes but our individuality is underscored by our relationship with fashion. The trousers you wear, the place on your shoulders where your pullover rests, the way you wrap a silk scarf around your neck: these are ways we can explore who we are and who we want to be. Fashion is also a tool for gaining a mutual understanding of one another: what we wear acts like a signal to help us locate other individuals who have similar thoughts, ideas and interests to us. Consequently, fashion has a two-fold social purpose: on the one hand, it stimulates our independence, but on the other hand it makes us fit in with a larger group. Masculinity is a highly-debated concept at the moment. For some, it’s a sign of power and strategy. For others it’s an outdated ideal, something to be sent to the history rubbish tip and be replaced with more intricate ways of understanding gender differences. What’s important is acknowledging that there are different ways to be a man and that we all have the right to get to know and express our masculine side. The central issue in being a man – and a person – today is to allow yourself to be guided by your own curiosity, keeping an open mind towards things that are unfamiliar. Allowing curiosity to be the driving force in your life. Stopping thinking of old truths as the only truth. Being humble with regard to things you already know, but also as regards things you still have to learn. Using fashion not just to comply with current trends but to mold your personal sensitivity to style.

Steve Yarbrough (1956), USA, Writing, Literature and Publishing Professor at Emerson College, Boston. Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction for The Unmade World in 2019

In 1977, my second year in college, I quit playing American football, in which enormous helmeted creatures try to bash each other to bits. Eighteen months later, a senior English major living in a cheap motel, I found myself sitting on my bed with Dr. C. She was my favorite professor, the first female literature instructor at the University of Mississippi. She’d phoned earlier to ask if she could come over, because she needed to tell me something. I had a powerful crush on her. She was charismatic and outspoken, and I went to her office hours every week. Dare I hope she’d fallen in love with me too? In fact, she had come to tell me she was a lesbian and that she and a female graduate student, whom I also knew, were lovers. They had talked it over and wanted me to know about their relationship, even though—this being Mississippi, the most Bible-drenched state in the country—she would probably lose her job if the department found out. “I’m telling you,” she said, “because you’re special to me, and I trust you. You’re a fine man, Steve.” Before that day, I had not considered myself a man but a huge lost boy, one who had found pleasure slamming into the bodies of other young males, trying to impose his will on them in the most brutal, militaristic game ever devised. American football is a sport boys usually begin to play in the throes of puberty, that cruel Limbo which, for some tortured individuals, stretches on forever.  For me, manhood began the afternoon Dr. C paid me her visit, and being a man requires listening to the voices of women, especially when they are telling me what I may not want to hear. This matters now more than ever, when so many women’s previously hidden hurts have come to light and when my country is being led by a narcissist who boasts about his ability to impose his will on their bodies.

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