Glass interviews Silvia Venturini Fendi – creative director of Fendi

Fendi – A Design for life: Silvia Venturini Fendi talks Glass through the inimitable experience of growing up in one of the ultimate Italian success stories

On hearing the name Fendi, one immediately conjures visions of a glittering, luxury brand worn by the rich and famous – a monolithic corporation whose presence spans the breadth of the globe. And while this picture is accurate, it also belies a certain truth. On meeting Silvia Venturini Fendi, the third generation of Fendi women, it becomes clear that despite having achieved stratospheric success, Fendi is the result of a small family’s love dedication and of unrelenting hard work.

The house of Fendi was founded by Adele and Edoardo Fendi in 1925 in a modest building in Via del Plebiscito in Rome. The establishment sold furs and leathers: bags, accessories and coats. Their fine wares and attention to detail soon attracted a loyal clientele but it was their pioneering ideas, particularly Adele’s, which really set the small maison apart.

The original Fendi store

For example, the shop was set in an area through which nobility would ride on their way to excursions by the sea, and Adele, watching the passing carriages, was inspired by the horse’s beautiful saddles and bridles to create a line of handbags using those same techniques.

“My grandmother,” Silvia explains, “used the expertise of the master saddlers to develop the Selleria line – beautifully constructed handbags in Roman leather, completely hand-cut and hand-stitched by artisans. The Selleria line celebrates Fendi’s values such as savoir faire, craftsmanship and elegance, and our mission to preserve and disseminate the strong skills of manual work.” The Selleria line, then, is a fitting analogy for Fendi as a company; that of strong artisanal ideals elevated by a rigorous and contemporary vision.

Fendi founder, Adele Fendi

Before long the house of Fendi became highly successful and the family one of the most well known in Italy, but it is the characters within the family and the nuances of their exceptional circumstance that make Fendi so fascinating. For example, Adele, the entrepreneurial matriarch, could not bear to part with her beloved Fiat 500 even when she could well afford a more expensive car, so she simply hired a chauffeur to drive her around in it instead. “She was very convinced of her taste and had no need of status symbols,” recalls Silvia. “She absolutely loved that little car; it was ideal for getting to places fast and she never had problems finding a parking space.”

And Silvia remembers the first and only time her incredibly glamorous mother, Anna, took her and her sister to the cinema. She wore a champagne Persian lamb tunic and matching fur trousers. “Our jaws dropped,” says Silvia. “This was how she dressed for the movies. Everyone stopped and was wondering who she was.”

Silvia’s own childhood wardrobe was just as carefully prescribed: “We were dressed in a different way, in black and brown and navy, maybe grey. Everyone else was in pink, but I would never ask for it as I knew I couldn’t have it. And my mother always used to send me from Rome to Milan to get my hair cut, because that’s where the best hairdresser was. When you are seven, that’s strange. No?”

The five Fendi sisters

Silvia and Edoardo’s offspring were all utterly devoted to the brand from very early on and Edoardo had to take to listening to opera on his headphones “as a respite from all the women around him – because his five daughters talked about nothing but fashion all day long,” Adele had once told Silvia.

On Sundays the family would convene at Adele’s house for lunch, which meant Silvia and her sister had to be on their best behaviour and impeccably dressed. Adele had very exacting standards: “I knew we had to be like she wanted us to be”.

But their grandmother also liked to have fun and from time to time would turn her house into a home cinema and serve chocolate cake and a dish of ice cream with nuts and hot chocolate with ‘frutta cotta’ (steamed fruit) “because we had to eat healthy food”. The movie was never a surprise, though; without fail it was always Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, Adele’s favourite.

“We have always been a close family. It was incredible to grow up amongst such strong and creative women,” says Silvia. “My mother and aunts all worked for the business – whether in the atelier or meeting for huge family gatherings at the weekend, it was all Fendi. That was normal for us.”

Karl Lagerfeld with the five Fendi sisters

When Silvia’s mother and four aunts, the Fendi sisters as they became known, assumed management of the company in the 1950s, they turned the world of fur on its head. They pioneered new techniques, made the coats lighter (“previously, fur coats came with up to five layers of fabric to protect the material,” Sylvia explains). And it was they who made the prophetic decision of hiring would-be fashion god Karl Lagerfeld as a design collaborator in 1965 – a phenomenally successful partnership which still continues 49 years later, the longest collaboration in fashion history.

Sikvia Venturini Fendi with Karl Lagerfeld and Pietro Beccari, FENDI Chairman and CEOSikvia Venturini Fendi with Karl Lagerfeld and Pietro Beccari, Fendi Chairman and CEO

Silvia remembers his joining the company well. “I was only four years old when I met him. His appearance and figure, wearing a white gown, made me think of him as a painter. I would always look up to him, even as a small child, and he had a powerful influence on my aesthetic philosophy.”

In 1977, the house launched its first prêt-à-porter collection, also overseen by Lagerfeld. “He brought new energy to the company and has maintained it to this day,” says Silvia. “I think Karl saw my mother and her sisters as allies. They never rejected any of his ideas – not even when he proposed chopping up luxury furs into little pieces. At Fendi, the aesthetic concept has always been absolutely independent of the materials and their value.

Grace Jones, 1968 in FENDI fursGrace Jones, 1986 in Fendi furs

“We like to experiment with new ideas and techniques. With Karl we always treated fur like any other material. Fendi changed the idea of how fur was traditionally used. We used faux-fur, but also treated leather to resemble fur, for instance. For Spring/Summer 2014 we introduced fur for the Summer, a previously unheard-of idea: fur that has been shaved very thin and then heat pressed onto organza.”

Silvia herself was nursed on fashion and practically grew up in the Fendi atelier. By the age of six she had already walked in a catwalk show and modelled for a campaign. Having lived and breathed Fendi from such a young age, it was understandable that going to university and getting a normal job was never going to be very appealing. “As a very young child I used to sit in the atelier watching my mother and her sisters, or doing my homework. For as long as I can remember I always wanted to be there, where the action was, more interested in playing with handbags rather than with dolls.”

After appealing to her grandmother for a position at the atelier, Adele gave her a job as an operator for the day. She managed about half an hour, she recalls: “It was very difficult, like 100 phone calls. And people were screaming. It made me say to myself, I want to be the boss.” After entreating her grandmother, Silvia was given a position on the design floor and began working for the company full-time at age 18.

Working wasn’t the only thing Silvia did though. Since the age of 15 she had already been a fixture of Rome’s elite social scene and loved to party. “Rather than going out, I liked to receive, so that I could select a crowd that I liked,” she recalls. “At that time I was really superficial, and my superficiality was, let’s say, legendary. But, you know, I liked to be under the spotlight.” Silvia was even invited by the Editor of Italian Cosmopolitan to a casting for a cover shoot.

“When I arrived, Iman was looking at me going, ‘Who is this?’ I felt badly, like I was stealing the models’ job,” says Silvia, after the photographer chose her over the professional models. “They wanted to kill me!”

During the wholesale selling season Silvia and her sister would decamp to New York, where they would sell by day and party by night. “Maria Teresa and I would work like crazy and then go out all night. In the morning we’d show up back to work at Bergdorf Goodman, in the back with the security guards, still wearing our evening dresses, high heels and make-up from the night before.”

FENDI Boutique_Avenue Montaigne51_Baguette Wall_closeupFendi Boutique Avenue Montaigne 51 – Baguette wall

In the late ‘80s, Silvia witnessed the difficulties the brand faced in the wake of the anti-fur movement and as part of their endeavour to appeal to a wider audience she was tasked with her first major project, to create the Fendissime range – a mid-price Fendi diffusion line. Fendissime proved highly popular, as was Silvia’s move to reintroduce her grandmother’s beloved Selleria line. But it was Silvia’s own design of original bags, when she had been promoted to Creative Director of Accessories in 1994, which really brought the international spotlight back to Fendi.

04_FENDI_SS14_Backstage ImagesBackstage at a Fendi show

“I was asked to come up with a particularly easy and functional handbag,” she recalls. “It had to be technological and minimal, just like the times. My response was the ‘Baguette’ – the exact opposite of what was requested of me. I named it the Baguette as it was worn just tucked under the arm, like the bread. It was an unprecedented success. When Madonna went into a Fendi store and bought a Baguette bag I was surprised by how the Baguette was immediately sought after, and at that time we were a family-run company, so we were not prepared for such a success from a production point of view.”

Soon everyone from Sarah Jessica Parker to Sophia Loren were carrying the Baguette and it became the ‘it’ bag of the decade. Today there are more than 1000 versions in existence and there is even a coffee table book dedicated to them, in addition to Silvia’s other cult classics; Spy, Peekaboo and B Fendi.

FENDI handmade 1A Fendi garment in production using handmade techniques

In 2000 the French luxury fashion group LVMH acquired majority shares of Fendi, along with Prada – who subsequently sold its share to LVMH. LVMH then acquired the family’s remaining shares of Fendi over the next few years, ending with Carla’s, Silvia’s aunt. “Since we’ve been owned by a French corporation, we’ve actually become more Italian than ever before,” says Silvia. “Everything is made in Italy; we’ve doubled the size of our production facility in Florence and opened a new shoe factory in the Marche region.”

A sketch  for the Fendi SS14 collection

Today the number of Fendi shops around the world stands at 130 and the Fendi family are now in their fourth generation of designers. “It amuses Karl to deal with all these women. Even my elder daughter is now designing jewellery for us,” says Silvia. “At Fendi we are always incredibly creative with our designs, experimenting with new techniques and materials and always looking forward. I think this forward vision has contributed to making Fendi what it is today.”

A Fendi catwalk on the Great Wall of China

Having conquered the world, as it were, you would think that Silvia might be ready to allow herself a little downtime but her evolution as a designer, mother and woman is clearly still in full swing. “Once you start to feel more secure in what you do,” she says, “you can start expressing yourself more. But my transformation is still not complete even today. I’m finding it easier to explore my more fragile side, and I’m opening up more.” And as the house prepares for its 90th anniversary in 2015, we can only wait to see what this power woman’s continued transformation has in store.

by Nicola Kavanagh

First published in Glass Issue 19

All images courtesy of Fendi