• Tempe Nakiska

Interviews with the figureheads of the Italian luxury powerhouse. Welcome to the Fendi universe. Published in HEROINE MAGAZINE.


It takes two of us to push the heavy glass doors open, bracing against the wind whipping in, out, around the arches that frame the Fendi Palazzo’s one of several cavernous terraces. We’re on the seventh floor of the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, the monolithic Mussolini-era building that Fendi calls home. From here, Rome looks small and scorching.
Inside, the original marble floors are being finished to their former glory (the building stood lifeless for 70 years prior to Fendi relocating its HQ here), and staff flit through the top level spaces from where the maison’s three figureheads steer the Fendi ship. That’s Karl Lagerfeld (Women’s Ready To Wear and Fur Director), Silvia Venturini Fendi (Menswear Creative Director and Women’s Accessories Director) and Pietro Beccari (President). Lagerfeld has designed the house’s womenswear since Silvia Venturini Fendi was four years old – which means this year the collaboration hits half a century, the longest relationship between a brand and designer in history. Suffice to say Fendi and Lagerfeld go way back, to when the daughters of the founders – Paola, Anna, Franca, Carla and Alda Fendi, fondly known as the Fendi sisters – brought on the young German designer to help ignite the brand. Lagerfeld came up with a new logo, ‘FF’ standing for ‘Fun Furs’. Next, they detonated a bomb on the outdated notion of fur as a bourgeois status symbol. Beaver, fox, mink, weasel, sable, petit gris – linings were ripped out and this new light fur was to be worn whenever, wherever, however you like. “Loosen up!” the collections cheered. Fur was mashed up with denim, ready-to-wear was designed and promoted as ‘unisex’ as early as 1967 (little Silvia starred in that campaign, Fall/Winter 1967-68), plastic and faux fur became desirable.
But let’s halt the history lesson, if there’s one house that refuses to look backwards it is Fendi. And there’s so much going on right now. Aside from the move and Lagerfeld’s anniversary there’s the house’s new fur atelier, plus its first ever couture show for Fall 2015 (cheekily dubbed Haute Fourrure). There are a new sweep of trainee artisans to be inducted and mentored at the Leather School of Bagno a Ripoli – an internal full-time school where Fendi educates their own artisans on more complex techniques – and finally the ongoing regeneration project, which is seeing Fendi fund the restoration of some of Rome’s most significant architectural landmarks, kicking o with the Trevi Fountain.
Fendi has its sights firmly set on the future. This is a heritage house more comfortable than most in the fast-moving digital age, spearheaded by its own personal power trio. They’re Fendi’s brain, hands and eyes, working as one to forge a prosperous tomorrow for this lighthearted house and the city that birthed it. Welcome to the Fendi Universe, we’ll be your guides for today.


Tempe Nakiska: This is a momentous year for you and Fendi – 50 years. How have you done it?
Karl Lagerfeld: My 50-year collaboration with Fendi is the longest collaboration in fashion. Nowhere, even designers of their own, no one lived long enough to do it for such a long time and I am not tired of it at all. I even think I work better today and have a clearer head. My work is a bigger priority now than when I was younger and it’s a very good thing. I never had the feeling I was married so it was like freelance, an open marriage situation, I kept the passion because there is no exclusivity. I need the fresh air from the outside to see what’s going on, if you put me in the cage I am worthless.
Tempe: Fur has always been such an integral element of the Fendi identity. How does it continue to inspire you and motivate your creativity?
Karl: Once, I was inspired by this strange shell. What I liked was the way it fell with all these bands of fur which were worked in an irregular way and with the sleeves following the same movement. The material was so contrasting that it was quite funny to make it like that, using a shell which is a hard object, to make a fur coat which is something extremely soft. You just have to look at it differently. That’s what I love in my job, ideas come when you look at things. Then, once made in fur, it was covered in gold. This was a dream I have had for a long time, but it wasn’t achievable before. To dip the ends of the fur in gold. I loved that!
Tempe: Can we rewind back to the start for a minute, to when you came on board with Fendi and designed the ‘FF’ logo. What was the feeling there at the time?
Karl: When I met the five sisters they were known in Rome for expensive and beautiful furs, very rich, bourgeois, but heavy, typical of those times. Fur was the first step for social recognition when a wealthy woman received a fur coat as a present from her husband. I had a modern vision and so they asked me to create a small collection with furs worn in a different way. They were modern and fun, Fendi and fun have the same initials that’s why I put the two letters together, in less than five seconds on the table, the double FF, meaning ‘Fun Furs’. The bourgeois furs disappeared. Fendi became a modern fur house that created a revolution and evolution in the way fur was seen, made, handled and worn. And this story still continues today with amazing furs, very modern and incredibly well done, realised always with an eye projected towards the future. Since then quite a long time has passed, the world has changed a lot too in half a century. If we were still in the ‘nostalgia” of when we started we would be nowhere. Since LVMH took over, Fendi further evolves representing beautiful craftsmanship, and becoming more and more modern.
Tempe: How important is it to you that your designs are worn by more than one dimension of woman?
Karl: It is very difficult to identify a specific woman. Our job is to propose collections hoping that many women will appreciate what we do. Saying, “It’s for this kind of woman and not for the other,” is too sharp a remark.
Tempe: It’s multilayered... As is the introduction of Fendi’s new Haute Fourrure collection, it’s ultimately fur couture, yes?
Karl: It means very expensive furs, very beautifully worked treatments, like haute couture for the basic, classic like stable earth, and really the ‘Royal Furs of Furs’. There is no better moment than to show our incredible furs in that period because of the level, I am not talking about the price, but of the style and
the level of couture. It’s for the same women who buy haute couture.
Tempe: With an extra collection to design, has the heavier workload impacted you or your team a lot?
Karl: It’s easy to work with me in terms of fashion because I sketch in a way that people can nearly do the dresses without me coming in for a fitting. You can see every single detail, every proportion, every cut, everything. My sketches are like images of things that already exist. So when I go to see the fittings I can see a very positive result, something near to what I had sketched. That’s why I can do so many. I have a concept and my whole approach is conceptual.
Tempe: Fendi is rooted in its Roman heritage, and you’ve said before it is your Italian version of creativity. What do you love most about Italian culture?
Karl: Rome has been a unique source of inspiration for Fendi and for me since ever, Roma is part of the Fendi DNA. That’s why Fendi decided to give back to Rome being a Maecenas for the restoration of the Trevi Fountain and I think it’s amazing that there are companies like this having the resources to help out the city of Rome. The magnificence of Rome has been well understood. I like the fact that Fendi decided to manage the monument restoration when the fountain was not totally damaged. In this way, Fendi was able to proceed with renovation works without the fountain being completely covered and invisible to the public. I think this is really great. The big thing at Fendi at the moment is the moving of its headquarters in Rome to the new giant and most famous Roman building Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana. It’s a landmark building and from the terrace we can see all over Rome and as far the sea. What inspires me of the architecture of Palazzo Della Civiltà Italiana is the interpretation De Chirico gave with his paintings around 1940-1950. I love the Italian style and the light that you can find in them, reflecting the white marbles. It’s amazing!
Tempe: What does ‘creativity’ mean to you?
Karl: It is very pretentious when I say that I am that creative. Being creative means to have ideas and to work with those ideas together with the right people who can understand and realise them. Creativity with no vision or developed with people who have no talent to build something, it’s worthless. It is a mix of possibility of ideas and the possibility to make them modern, right, beautiful and that’s it. Creativity is like breathing to me. Never-ending inspiration is the most important thing.
Tempe: You’ve seen a lot of change over the years, and the generation now coming of age is incredibly comfortable with the prevalence of technology in their lives. How has technology impacted on your process?
Karl: For example, the crafting techniques, especially for the sheared mink and the organza in the Spring/ Summer collection, the furs are very complicated. It is still crafted by people but crafted with new tools and technologies... This is the modernity of the things. The weightless beauty of sheer organza, the result is a perfectly harmonious featherweight, 500gram fur that is only the average weight of a cashmere sweater.
Tempe: You have seen many changes at Fendi, the most major of which obviously being its acquisition by LVMH. I can imagine Fendi’s heritage, the Italian feeling, has become second nature to you when you’re designing. What keeps it alive for you?
Karl: The main secret of Fendi is the unique craftsmanship of the best Italian artisans. The secret is also that this maison is grounded in Italy from the rst day of its creation... Totally faithful to its roots. After the acquisition from LVMH group, that gives to the brand a unique international dimension and the possibility to be modern and avant-garde at the same time. It gained a global dimension with a strong Italian and Roman unique backbone. Fendi is my Italian version, Chanel my French version and Lagerfeld is my own version, what I always wanted. I never mix it up. I never made something that looked like Chanel at Fendi and never made something that looked like Fendi at Chanel because both have an identity, maybe I have none but at least I have two.
Tempe: It’s been said that a sense of satisfaction with one’s own work may be the end of one’s creativity. What do you derive satisfaction from?
Karl: Motivation, freedom and knowledge. With motivation I mean, ‘doing for doing’, not for having done. If you are not detached, you mess everything up. When I do the shoes, I don’t think about anything else. Freedom as the top of luxury. I like the idea of freelancing because of the word ‘free’. This kind of job position did not exist when I was younger, I have invented a kind of blueprint representing this kind of job. Finally, knowledge as the willingness to know new things. I want to know everything. I go to the bookshop nearly every day. All kinds of books are important to me in some way. Whether they are related to fashion or art or photography. Everything has a purpose.


Tempe Nakiska: This is a phenomenal building. How has being up here impacted your headspace?
Silvia Venturini Fendi: I think that from here you perceive the city in a different way, it’s more surreal, it’s more a dream. You see everything, but you see nothing because from here you really have a total view of the city, from very far. In the centre it was more about the city life, that’s why after we came up here for the first time Karl decided to really change the last collection because he said that it was very much affected by the space, it’s true. It was very clean and more architectural, but it was less Baroque, it was very sharp. You had this floating path, maybe it’s related to the wind [laughs].
Tempe: There’s a sense of strength in the women in the Fendi family and specifically, the sisters coming in and really revolutionising the house, it was very forward thinking. Is that something you got a strong sense of growing up?
Silvia: Well of course, when you have such a mentor in front of you... I was raised with a very open mind and was always attracted by changes, especially in the female domain. It was not so easy because these were women who were not conventional. I remember when I was a little girl where I would wish to have a, let’s say ‘normal’, mother, I was always the one who didn’t have parents during the school play or things like that. It was kind of hard to have working parents, but not just working because this is not an eight hour work, it’s working and really driving a very important company, and building a company that was very demanding, especially at the time when you had to prove that women could really be as good as men, and especially in a country like Italy. But in my family being a woman was always seen as a plus, so it was not easy also to form relationships with men because sometimes they look at you and are totally... blocked. My grandmother was very special for her time because she was a working woman in her twenties, with five daughters, my grandfather died very early so she kept on working and improving. But when her daughters, the Fendi sisters, arrived they really changed everything. They wanted to go against some rules, especially fur that was a symbol of wealth and status and very much related to the wealth of the men who were buying the fur for the women. They made fur that wasn’t so expensive, let’s say, poorer fur. They were the first to mix fur with other materials, and they were also experimenting in new ways to preserve the fur, at the time the fur was very heavy, women couldn’t even drive a car because it was like a mountain on your back. They first had five layers of lining to protect the skin so they took completely out, they got rid of the lining and then started to show the fur reversed, inside out. Really they were perceived as five crazy women, especially in the fur industry – which at the time was dominated by men in the United States.
Tempe: I imagine they would have come up against a lot.
Silvia: They also realised that they couldn’t get to the point they were aiming for by themselves, so they hired a designer. The choice that they made at the time was very risky, Karl was very young but they immediately understood how talented he is. To work with someone who is not in-house was a big deal.
Tempe: What was your grandmother’s view of Karl when he came in?
Silvia: My Grandmother gave a lot of trust to her daughters, so she was watching it and she liked Karl. First of all she didn’t speak English so she was talking to him just by her eyes, very expressive, and you could tell that she liked him because otherwise she would have been sending foul messages. But basically it was a challenge for the daughters because they took this decision but they had a very, very strong sense of fashion and understood that Karl could make the big changes that they wanted.
Tempe: And you were four or five when this happened, what’s your earliest memory of Karl and understanding who he was and what he was doing?
Silvia: Well it was not simple for me at the beginning, I didn’t know what he was doing, the only thing I knew was that he was very important for my mother, she was always on the phone talking about him, “Karl wants that,” “Karl needs this,” “Did you prepare this for Karl?” It was Karl, Karl, Karl. He was part of the family. I was very interested in him, and it’s because I was always there. I look back at archive shoots and there’s always a little girl in the shoot, that was me, I was always where the action was. I wasn’t very good at school, and in the afternoon instead of doing homework I would go to see my mother in the atelier.
Tempe: Playing?
Silvia: Playing and watching and exploring, opening everything. I knew where everything was and could play for hours with the most exquisite evening bags.
Tempe: What a wonderland.
Silvia: It was like playing with dolls, on a big scale. But watching was very interesting. Working with family you are always talking, instead of talking about silly things at dinner they would talk about business and so there was never any kind of separation. I remember waiting for my mother whilst she was working for hours because she had to bring me to buy a pair of shoes and I had to wait for hours, sometimes days. Tempe: Obviously as a child you embraced it and loved it, but when you were a teenager was there any sense of not doing this and not following, was there rebellion?
Silvia: Yes of course, until today [laughs]. And the same thing happens with my children today, they say, “You were never at school” and I’ll say, “I was always at school,” but then I’ll think, “Oh probably they are right,” because then I remember I always told myself that I won’t make the same mistake not to be there for important occasions but then probably I end up doing it. All of my daughters were born in September and October, today the fashion shows are early September, but when they were little the shows were end of September, beginning of October sometimes. So for many years I altered the anniversary party for my daughter, she was born in October but I told her that she was born in November, until she was six and at school so I couldn’t do it anymore. For six years I postponed her birthday! For me it was normal, I had to work and continue to do what I always saw my mother doing and my sisters doing. I could never think of being just a housewife and this apparently is something that has happened also to my children, for instance Del na started working when she was eighteen and had a baby when she was nineteen.
Tempe: I wanted to ask about the relationship between you and Karl and Pietro [Beccari, CEO of Fendi]. Karl has been there fifty years now, and he is notorious for not thinking about marketing at all when he works. Are you on the same page?
Silvia: Pietro gives you the number but in such a light way you end up having fun talking about it. He will never invite Karl or myself to a marketing meeting, maybe he’ll just whisper to me, “Think about that” or, “Take a look at this.” He really knows how to deal with the creative part of the company, which is good because if you just allow the creative people to talk about marketing it wouldn’t work, and vice versa. There’s a lot of humanity in our relationship, we make a strong team. It is something that is a little bit special at Fendi, everything is complicated but at the same time it is simple and light. Sometimes when I talk to designers who work with us they say, “It feels so different working with Fendi, I feel at home.” This family spirit, this positive energy, it stays.
Tempe: You mentioned earlier Fendi’s clashing of different materials, fake fur as opposed to real fur before, in your work on the accessories line you have made plastic look like crocodile... There’s a very strong feeling of subversion and it aligns with the idea of the Fendi spirit, the desire for change.
Silvia: At the time was a female company and was also a part of this need of taking risks and really changing the... Sometimes when you are a woman you have to work harder to achieve your goal. So that’s what they did. You put a lot of time into research and giving stronger messages through fashion.
Tempe: Yes, and there’s so much talk of a new wave of feminism at the moment, but even the messages that are still so standard, the messages that we are told as women, what they did was really revolutionary.
Silvia: Well today it’s different, today sometimes just because you are a woman you want to get there, it’s like a pink cluster, which I hate. I think there’s nothing better than getting there because you’ve fought to get there, whether you are a man or a woman. In my family we have never been feminists, well, we were but without thinking about it, we had no time to think about that.
Tempe: Where do you picture Fendi in twenty years?
Silvia: [laughs] Fendi doesn’t tend to think that far ahead, we usually think in maybe six months ahead. But I think there will always be some rules that will be good today and good in twenty years maybe. People in twenty years will look at what my Grandmother did in the past or my mother or myself and they will act and react to that. It will be interesting to see how what we do today and what they did yesterday affects tomorrow.
Tempe: There is such strong history behind Fendi, and many designers walk into this kind of heritage and have to reinterpret it afresh – or they start out their own from scratch. What do you think is the biggest challenge that the next generations of designers will face?
Silvia: Well, I think yes it’s very difficult for young designers to build new brands, it is going to be a big, big task because of course you have to be compared with companies which have such rich histories. But on the other hand I think it’s going to be fantastic to be a young designer working for an established brand and bringing in a new point of view. I think that what fashion really needs is to be always in touch with the times and very experimental, sometimes that’s why it’s difficult to start from the past because, and I’ve learned this from Karl, it’s important to look to the future. I don’t know what fashion is going to be in twenty years, if you asked me when I was at school in the sixties “What will you be doing in twenty years?” I would have said, “Drinking tea on the moon dressed in plastic.” Who knows? All I know is that Fendi is going to be there.


Tempe Nakiska: You started with Fendi in 2012, what was it like coming in and working with Karl and Silvia?
Pietro Beccari: Yes, Karl first met Silvia when she was four years old. Actually, everything happened very naturally, I’ve been working in Germany for ten years so speak German and also I’m Italian so in a way it was easy for me to speak the same language, not just German or Italian but the language of Fendi about the things we are doing, we found each other very much on the same page, we joke and laugh a lot. As a trio we have a clear idea of the direction we want to take Fendi and there is a clear understanding of what the maison is today. They have not only accepted me as a player but I also very much shape what happens.
Tempe: What were the key things you sought out to change about the company when you arrived?
Pietro: I did a lot of things [laughs]. I have a lot for the past and I think it was a platform to try and take Fendi to a luxury after luxury, or so I call it. Starting from a beautiful base we tried to reach out to a younger customer, I think we added a different dimension to Fendi that it needed in this particular modern world. Changing he logo was a big thing, the other thing was the restoration of the Trevi Fountain, and we worked with Karl on the product line – houses are all about the products and they are the best way to portray your message.
Tempe: How would you describe luxury – from a Fendi perspective?
Pietro: One aspect is Fendi’s capacity to never look back, never to linger on what we have done in the past. The second point is that Fendi for me has a very new positioning especially fitting today’s fashion, people have fun wearing things, they love colourful things and self-ironic things, this period is for people who like a certain type of luxury but like a certain ironic attitude, which I think Fendi has from the beginning. So for me, Fendi’s luxury is a mix of extremely high quality material and finishing, joined with self-irony which is to the point of sometimes laughing at ourselves.
Tempe: You mentioned finishings, there’s the concern that these skills are becoming rarer and rarer. How is Fendi investing in this craftsmanship for future generations?
Pietro: Fendi is very proudly 100 percent made in Italy and intend to stay such. We hire at least five artisans in the fur atelier every year, we produce 70 percent of our fur internally, we have 100 percent control of quality and of the skins we buy at auctions. Because to learn how to cut skin, for example, it takes nine years. It’s like a diamond, you don’t cut a diamond unless you know how to do so. So these people go and stay five to nine years with a more senior one to learn how to cut, every year we try to find the next generation of artisans.
Tempe: It’s also about perception and attitude, with younger people.
Pietro: In Italy, everyone wants a bit of paper, wants to be called an engineer. I think nowadays we should also, in terms of retribution, recognise that [these artisans] are as honourable as people in newer types of professions because they are carrying on an art that is a real treasure.
Tempe: Leading on from that is your staging this year of the Fendi Haute Fourrure show – essentially fur couture. Why did you feel it was necessary to do this now?
Pietro: At this particular moment it was important to send a message saying that lots of people are doing fur, but there is only one house that has a fur atelier, and that is Fendi. The easiest way to do it was to do the haute
couture, to show everyone that we are the best at fur. Tempe: Technology is having a huge impact on the industry and buying into brands through this constant in flux of information. You were the first fashion brand to use drones in a fashion show, for FW15, opening up a traditionally closed event. Why is it important to you to embrace technology?
Pietro: I think all this technology, especially online social networking, has brought something very good for clients and customers worldwide, which is a totally complete transparency, everybody wants to know everything about the brand. So I think we are all forced to be true to ourselves in order to have credibility in the market, which is very good. The drones for me were the centralisation of this transparency that we want to bring to our customer.
Tempe: Many luxury houses in history have been relatively mysterious and that mystery has been signi cant in building the success of their brand. Is there a point where transparency becomes detrimental?
Pietro: No, I don’t think so, I think the brand has to leave the choice to the customer, so it will be up to them to tell us if it’s too much. I think there will be people who use 100 percent and there will be others who don’t go so deep, but I don’t think that a house should try and close itself to the world because that means closing itself to the lives of people today – especially young people.
Tempe: There’s also our growing fascination with the idea of celebrity designers – Karl is a great example. Also, greater transparency means better informed customers, researching online before they shop. Is there a large cross over between online and in store customers?
Pietro: The clients browsing your site are the same clients stepping out and going into our stores, there are benefits to both methods and the customer likes the choice. In the store they can touch the clothes and get a feeling about the brand and then they can go home and order online, it’s the same type of client now, it’s not separate.
Tempe: Customers also understand that when they buy they’re buying into a lifestyle, and a story.
Pietro: Exactly, they don’t just want to buy anymore, they want to know why it exists and the history of the maison. Also the internet gives you a way that is completely unheard of for the marketeers of the past, giving a face, a voice, a music to the maison, it’s a completely immersive world that they can access.
Tempe: I wanted to touch on the Fendi logo, which you changed upon starting your role here. The changes are soft and feminine, is that a conscious thing to target young women?
Pietro: Yes I think so, it’s the freshness and a new wave, we have something for young women too, I think the logo was very sharp and very Germanic in a way. So we looked back to how the logo looked in the early 1950s, then wrote ‘Rome’ underneath because it’s very important for us to be considered a Roman brand.
Tempe: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing luxury houses in the next decade?
Pietro: I think the challenge is always the same, for a luxury maison you have to make the house desirable, it’s difficult to quantify desirability, I think you have to work a long time on this because the desirability of today is your volume of success for tomorrow, in terms of numbers. So at the end of the day I’ll stand in front of the mirror and ask myself what I have done today to make our house more desirable, to make people want to line up and queue to see the clothes, to buy the clothes.

Text and interviews TEMPE NAKISKA
Photography EMMA TEMPEST

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