Any visitor to social media early this July cannot have failed to notice the event: to mark Fendi’s 90th birthday, the house had achieved the miracle of making the models of the moment literally “walk on water“, wearing fur creations as light as their steps over the legendary basin of the Trevi Fountain. A very smart move on behalf of the venerable Roman house, proving in one fell swoop its close connection to its roots (Fendi was responsible for the recent renovation of the fountain) while also reminding the world that a business based around a savoir-faire that could be considered somewhat old-school can be as surprising and as relevant today as it was almost a century ago. A few days before the even, Sylvia Venturini Fendi, grand-daughter of founders Edoardo and Adele, reflected on this visionary quality evident at Fendi from the very beginning. “My grandparents were a very open-minded couple for their time. When my grandfather died, another woman than my grandmother would have closed the company – she didn’t need to work. I could see she was a very different character to the traditional Italian nonna that my other friends had. She had that vision which has always been at the heart of Fendi.“ Under the five daughters of the couple, including Sylvia’s mother, the house made a radical decision for the time: in 1965, the Fendi sisters hired a young, almost unknown German designer, Karl Lagerfeld. “Imagine, this was the 1960s, transport was not what it is today, it was very difficult to arrange meetings. Karl used to post boxes of his designs, sometimes the parcels never arrived!“ explains Sylvia Fendi. One of Lagerfeld’s first creations was a new double F logo, standing for “Fun Fur“. A radically light-hearted decision in the luxurious world of fur design, and its connotations of heavy coats and venerable customers…
A visionary house
Karl at the helm, Fendi and its furs flew towards an anticipated future. In the late Sixties, the house created designs for films by Fellini, Visconti, Zeffirelli: “This wasn’t product placement, in fact that didn’t even exist in those days. We simply had a passion for telling stories and the desire to be part of something important, the creation of these amazing films about Italy.“ In 1977, a prêt-à-porter collection was even replaced by a film, directed by Jacques de Bascher. This was the very first “fashion film“, prefiguring a genre that has become a key trend only in the last few years. In 1985, the house celebrated 20 years of collaboration with Karl Lagerfeld though the exhibition Un Percorso di Lavoro at Rome’s Modern art gallery, once again a first for the time: “Intellectuals claimed it was a profanation – to put fashion in a museum! There was even an attempted law to stop the exhibition,“ laughs Sylvia Fendi. “The museum’s director was in a very delicate situation, since some circles were calling for her resignation, but on the other hand, the exhibition was very successful and generated a great deal of income for the museum. She opted to extend the show despite the controversy, and the funds enabled her to keep her job.“ In the 1990s, Sylvia herself was the cause of the drama. Newly named head of accessories, she launched a flirty, ornamented little bag totally at odds with the very minimal style of the time. The Baguette was born, and with it the madness of the fashion bag. “At the time, bags were sold only in the showroom. We decided to put them on the catwalk and it created a revolution. It was a real risk and a statement of our individuality – we weren’t at all prepared for the huge success of the Baguette. Its design meant that all the different ateliers had to provide the embroidered or ornamented elements and each bag to a long time to create."
Ideas and fun
Since 2015, all the exceptional craftsmanship around fur and leather is now housed under one roof at the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, the house’s new HQ (and a controversial choice, since the building dates back to Mussolini’s era). After having rehabilitated the massive building, Fendi transformed its historic palazzo in the elegant centre of Rome into a hybrid location including haute couture salons, private reception rooms, a hotel and a restaurant with an outstanding view of the city. For Fendi would be nothing without Rome: “The city is an open-air museum, linked to the history of man’s creative vision. Here we can see the stratification of civilisations their contrasts. This mix of ideas is evident in our collections, which always feature these very strong clashes.“ As Fendi collections outdo themselves every season with increasing spirit and these eye-catching clashes, it’s almost surprising to remind oneself that this is a record-breaking collaboration between an artistic director and a fashion house: Karl Lagerfeld celebrated 50 years at Fendi in 2015 with a first haute fourrure show, and his collaboration with Sylvia Fendi is now in its twenty-fifth year. The pair still know how to create sparks, highlighting the bestselling Peekaboo bag with those cheeky Bag Bugs or even imagining Karlito, a furry mini-Karl that clips where the fancy takes it. More seriously, this combination of heritage and vision functions because of a very simple formula. Sylvia Fendi points out: “We create very few things, but all of an extremely high quality. Our products are made for life, but despite this idea of timelessness it must appear as if very little effort has been made. This is a lesson we have learned from Karl. He is one of the most intelligent men in the world, and yet he never displays this, he is all about lightness and electric conversation. The history of Fendi is about women, but also about one very remarkable man.“