This month, a new Assouline book celebrates 90 years of luxury fashion house Fendi. Luxury London traces the brand’s legacy through fashion, family and female empowerment
It seems somewhat ironic that one of the most matriarchal fashion houses in the world has a name that derives from ‘effendi’, which means lord. Established in 1925 by Edoardo Fendi (the son of a lady in waiting to Queen Margherita of Savoy) and his wife Adele Casagrande, the maison has been steered by and designed for powerful, intelligent and glamorous women for 90 years. With its family motto “nothing is impossible”, the impact of the luxury fashion house on Italian life is observed and admired through a number of windows in new coffee table book Fendi Roma, from theatre, film and opera, to art and architecture, as well, of course, as the international fashion stage.
From the outset, it was Adele who enlisted the help of Rome’s master saddlers to create the quality of leather goods she desired. After opening their boutique in 1926, it was six years before the husband and wife team presented their first collection of luxurious leather handbags – named Selleria, modern designs of which are available today. After passing the baton to their five daughters (Paola, Anna, Franca, Carla and Alda) in the late 1940s, it was these determined and talented women who made the brand synonymous with fur, and garnered a following that permeated all cultural avenues in Italy. At a time when even the thought of a woman working was contentious, the Fendi sisters were making waves.
As the book highlights, from one generation to the next, the Fendi women have successfully “invented and reinvented” the house’s narrative “without ever losing the original thread”.
At a time when even the thought of a woman working was contentious, the Fendi sisters were making waves
Among the sisters, it was Paola who really had the eye for fur. Not only was she responsible for revolutionising the tanning process, she infiltrated a once fusty area of the market with young and chic designs. In 1950, Fendi presented its first fur capsule collection at the Grand Hotel in Rome.
In 1965 the sisters approached a then up-and-coming designer named Karl Lagerfeld. “We met in Via Borgognona,” Lagerfeld recalls, “in a former cinema that had been converted into a boutique and fur atelier. It looked like a Luchino Visconti set. When I saw them I thought they were a good mix of personalities. I love being surrounded by women when I work!”
In the same year, Lagerfeld’s emblematic double F logo (which signified ‘Fun Fur’) became a defining fashion moment for the decade, making fur more accessible for the fast-changing ready-to-wear market. As the authors surmise, Fendi “diametrically changed the history of the material, altering the very idea of it”.
The legend that is Lagerfeld has been a constant presence ever since. “My 50-year collaboration with Fendi may be the longest in the history of fashion,” he says. “And it might seem strange, but I’ve never become tired of it. Actually, I think my work is better now, because my vision is clearer and more focused. My relationship with Fendi has developed independently, like an open marriage.”
Adele, who died in 1978, is remembered fondly as an industrious and glamorous matriarch, characterised by a string of pearls around her neck and a walking stick. “She was definitely not your typical Italian grandmother who stayed at home and cooked,” recalls her granddaughter Silvia Venturini Fendi. “She didn’t need to impose her authority. She was the authority.”
Although Silvia’s career first began with an appearance as a model in an advertising campaign for the A/W67 unisex collection, shot by Lagerfeld, she didn’t officially join the family company until 1992, becoming director of leather goods and accessories two years later. Most notably she designed the wardrobe-defining baguette, and more recently the Peekaboo bag, both of which sparked an instant cult following.
There’s a handy timeline at the back of the weighty illustrated compendium, which takes you through the brand’s history (1985 marks its first fragrance; 1987 the launch of Fendi Casa; 1988 luxury timepieces; and 2001 its joining with LVMH). It’s the more in-detail stories at the end of the book which make for a better read, under the A Family Affair chapter. Many pages are also given to the brand’s involvement with the cultural fabric of the country, specifically its love affair with Rome.
Committed to the restoration and conservation of the city’s artistic heritage, Fendi for Fountains remains the brand’s most well-known funding initiative. The foundation’s venture has transformed Rome’s Trevi Fountain. Responding to the city council’s plea, Fendi pledged €2.18m to restore the marble sculptures within it to their former glory. Other film and theatrical involvements are relatively vast, illustrating the extent to which the Fendi name is entwined with Italian history and nostalgia.
While today fashion films and fashion-as-art exhibitions are still seen as cutting edge and ‘new’, Fendi paved the way decades before its contemporaries. The first fashion house to stage an entire collection (Lagerfeld’s ready-to-wear debut) in a film named Histoire d’Eau, it was described in the December 1977 edition of Vogue Italia as “the new idea-capsule for choosing a mink or… a swimsuit”. The 15-minute film also featured a cameo by the then 17-year-old Silvia. She says: “Karl is never banal, and with him, nothing is ever the same as the last time. He is crazy about new technology, which he consumes avidly. He is extremely serious but also knows when to be lighthearted, when to be ironic and poke fun at himself. He has such a strong sense of humour, and he’s a master of the quick-fire response, the perfectly timed punch line. To us, he’s just Karl.”
Silver screen collaborations are endless (many Italian, but also international), but British audiences will recall the more trite cultural reference of Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) in Sex and the City correcting a mugger while held at gunpoint screaming, “It’s not a bag, it’s a baguette!”
Silvia Venturini Fendi may be referring to living outside the old-school style capitals of Paris and Milan when she says “we feel like – and want to be – outsiders” but it is also a philosophy for the brand’s legacy, and, perhaps, its future with the fairly recent addition of the word Roma to the brand name. Fendi is a celebration of more than just clothes, shoes and handbags. Current chairman and CEO, Pietro Beccari, summarises it succinctly: “People do not want to just buy products. They want to hear beautiful stories… and Fendi has plenty to tell.”