LIKE IT OR NOT, the phenomenon of the It bag has been the most profound change that fashion has witnessed over the last two decades. As houses came to realise the potential of such “arm candy” , an industry founded on the savoir-faire of skilled tailors and seamstresses began to focus its resources on leather goods, completely upending the way things had been in the past.
Silvia Venturini Fendi, of the eponymous Italian house, admits that we’ve reached saturation point, though she’s also aware that it was one of her creations, the Baguette, that started it all. That symbol of the noughties, which recently celebrated its 15th anniversary, has become a fashion signifier unto itself, spawning an infinite series of copycats that, as Venturini Fendi bluntly puts it, “are now vomited out day after day.”
A descendant of the Fendi clan, which founded the house in Rome in 1925 (it’s now owned by LVMH), Venturini Fendi is also aware – and proud – that there’s much more to Fendi than its iconic Baguette and the other runaway hits that followed, such as the roomy Spy and the chic Peekaboo. The working relationship between Venturini Fendi, who designs accessories, and Karl Lagerfeld, in charge of ready-to-wear, has kept the Roman maison in the top echelons of Italian fashion and in a position it has now occupied for almost a century: the ultimate purveyor of opulent and luxurious furs known for their intricate construction and superb workmanship.
Raised in the house’s Rome ateliers amid stray pins, cowhides and precious skins, Venturini Fendi calls herself a “walking archive”, the repository of the many stories that have contributed to creating the legend behind what started as a small furrier helmed by her grandparents. Although she’s the only family member still working for the company, Venturini Fendi is the poster child for the fashion dynasties that are still the best advertisements for what Italy excels at: high-quality, artisan-made luxury apparel and leather goods.
Much like Ferragamo, Prada or Missoni, the Fendi brand is still associated with the family who founded it, and particularly the five sisters–including Anna, Venturini Fendi’s mother–who helmed the company before it became a global empire.
In spite of her privileged pedigree and glamorous past – she spent her early days jet-setting from Rio to New York and was a regular at Studio 54 – Venturini Fendi is one of the most unassuming designers you’re likely to meet. Softly spoken, discreet, always clad in monochrome shift dresses or pencil skirts with a slightly jarring touch provided by a skull-shaped ring from her daughter Delfina Delettrez’s jewellery line, Venturini Fendi is not a fan of the cooler-than-thou attitude prevalent in fashion. She’d rather spend her free time in her country house outside Rome or her summer villa on the island of Ponza than hobnob with high-wattage celebrities.
Meeting her the day after the vibrant autumn/winter 2013 show, a madcap mix of patchwork accessories with fur accents and colourful patterned pelts with a slightly punk edge, one realises that in spite of her calm and subdued demeanour, Venturini Fendi is a true creative force, the perfect heir to the house that, much like the city it calls home, definitely wasn’t built in a day.
What do you usually do after the show?
I always feel empty and I can’t wait to get out from it all. Last night, for instance, I had a quiet dinner with my daughter Delfina. I never party–I’m never in the mood.
How did you come up with those surreal furry creatures for this season’s accessories?
Everyone sees what he wants in the animals. Karl brought me a book of prehistoric marine creatures and starting from that we worked on geometric shapes, but with the features of a face and a crest. It’s a hybrid, not a real animal. We started from prehistory. I worked with zebra prints on the bags but with synthetic colours to create animals that don’t exist in nature. Even the furs are like that, with their vibrant colours, recalling animals of the future or that never existed.
How does it feel to be the only member of the Fendi family still at the company?
It’s a huge responsibility but also a great satisfaction. I sometimes feel that I’m like a walking archive; everyone always asks me stuff. I know what was behind every famous piece, how long it took to get there. There are also things that only Karl and I know. We understand each other without even talking–he saw me grow up–and sometimes we make references to collections, techniques and stories that no one else knows about.
What was it like growing up surrounded by all these strong women?
When I was a child, if I wanted to see my mum it had to be at work. Back then there was no manager and she had to do everything, from helping a client with her fur to taking care of people’s wages. It was a real mom-and-pop business. They worked 20 hours a day and we young children didn’t have the typical Italian mother, always at the ready, so we had to see her work, because otherwise I would have been in bed by the time she got home. My mother went from the atelier straight to the hospital to give birth, and back. Other kids played with dolls but for me it was bags and pins.
Fendi is inextricably linked to Rome. What role does the city play in its identity?
Rome is ideal for creative people. It’s full of stimuli, ideas, references, things to see. Every day as I drive to the office, I look outside and I always discover something new, something that surprises me. It’s like in the 19th century, when Rome was the centre of the Grand Tour with all the artists coming to its academies, which was the apotheosis of an artist’s career. Also, think about this: during Milan Fashion Week the whole team has to come to Milan for about a month and we once thought that it might be more viable to move the studio to Milan because it’s a huge expense to come here, but then we realised that we’re first and foremost Roman and could never leave our city. It’s such a privilege to be in Rome. The Romans are quite special–they’ve done and seen everything. They’re very snobbish in a way because when you wake up in the morning and see those views or when you go up to a terrace to have a smoke and see those cupolas, those roofs, you feel you’re in paradise. You realise what humanity is capable of.
Tell us more about Fendi’s project of restoration of the Trevi Fountain.
In many other countries it’s normal for a private entity to support the arts. Whenever I walk in Central Park, I always notice the names of the donors on the benches. Here in Italy we don’t have this culture of philanthropy but it’s slowly changing because, given the lack of resources from the government and the incredible concentration of works of art, there’s no other way to preserve them. It’s a responsibility for us Italians and companies as well to help preserve this heritage. It all began with Pietro [Beccari, CEO of Fendi], who heard that a piece from the fountain had fallen off, but there’s actually a link between Fendi and Rome’s fountains. In the ’80s the Fendi sisters published a book about the various fountains in Rome, like those in Piazza Navona, Piazza Farnese…Also, in the ’70s when we launched our first ready-to-wear collection, instead of a show in Milan we decided to release a short film (the first short in the history of fashion), Histoire d’Eau. It’s the story of a tourist who arrives in Rome and takes a bath in every fountain and collects an ampoule of water from each fountain. So it was kind of destiny that we would go back to our fountains.
Let’s now turn to bags. Why do you think women are so obsessed with them?
Accessories always work. You can put on weight or lose it and they still work on you. Bags are very democratic: they tend to always look good on you and make you less of a victim of seasonal trends. When you’re sick of it, you can just hide it in your closet or put it on your mantelpiece as a work of art, almost like a sculpture. It can become the container of something else. There’s a real attachment, an emotional connection to bags. I have old trunks that I don’t use any more to travel and I keep them in my house to keep stuff–they’re like furniture. Let me tell you a story. A friend of mine who was going over to stay at a friends holiday home wanted to bring her a Baguette. So he came to ask for some advice and I helped him choose one. After the holidays, I asked him whether she liked it or not and he revealed that he ended up not giving it to her because he liked it so much that he decided to keep it himself and use it as a pen holder on his office desk. This story made me realise how bags represent different things for different people, though I don’t know how the holiday ended up for him [laughs].
Do you test your bags yourself before releasing them?
Not always. My team is always ready to try them–there’s a line out the door–whereas I’m always condemned to carry around the prototypes with all the imperfections. It’s like the proverbial doctor who doesn’t take care of himself. I carry the broken bags, the wrong ones. It’s my destiny, almost like a running joke.
You’ve been working with Karl for decades. How is the creative process?
There are no set procedures. It’s quite fluid. Sometimes I’m inspired by his furs or he is by my bags. It’s quite spontaneous; it’s never mine or his. It’s Fendi.
What do you make of the way fashion has changed in the last decade?
There’s so much more fashion, much more options, so there’s not a diktat like in the past. Nowadays, you can pick and choose what you like and you can create your own look after digesting what’s available. Some people are like artists at that, almost living performers. It’s a lot of fun to look at these people and see them wearing my bags with their own points of views. I like their personal input.
What about technology? Are you interested in it?
I suffer from insomnia because of my iPad. I wake up in the middle of the night and think, “Since I’m awake, why not turn it on?” and one thing leads to another and another and before you know it, it’s 6am. It’s a never-ending thing.
You seem to shun the spotlight and instead prefer to live a quiet life.
To be honest, I’d rather spend time at home. If I travel it’s always to the sea. A country I visit often is Brazil; I feel happy and peaceful there. Otherwise, I like solitude and calm. Because of my job, I’m always surrounded by people and I have to share a lot of ideas so it’s great to be at peace and to have time to think. I need to be with my own self. I need solitude because I need to recharge and understand what I like, what I desire, what really matters to me.