As the revolutionary Baguette celebrates its 10th anniversary, Verve frontlines the achievements of Silvia Venturini Fendi
In May 2005, Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH, the Paris-based luxury conglomerate, gave Fendi, the Italian jewel in his fast expanding empire, an 80th birthday gift — a brand new, seven-story headquarters and flagship store in the heart of Rome’s chic Via Condotti sho pping district. Palazzo Fendi, as it is called, is a splendidly restored 19th century palace overlooking the famous Spanish Steps. Six years earlier, when the French billionaire had teamed up with the Milanese luxury house Prada to outwit rival luxury giant Gucci in a bidding war to gain control over the family-owned Fendi, the company had no centralised office building to talk about – at least nothing that matched its worldwide veneration. Arnault, who restructured the company management and recast its retail strategy after the takeover, saw enough potential in the brand in 2004 to buy out both Prada and rest of the Fendi family to make it a fully LVMH owned company, spending upwards of $1 billion in the process. “Fendi is a symbol of Italian craftsmanship, Roman construction and it is full of history,” he said then, “Fendi was once the number one Italian brand and I think one day it could be back to that position and it could be very successful.”
Arnault commissioned the highly regarded American architect Peter Marino, who had built his reputation designing retail spaces for luxury brands like Chanel, Valentino, Louis Vuitton and Armani, to build the $25 million headquarters. Marino went about creating a neo-classical masterpiece, clad in travertine, the same stone that was used to build much of Rome’s magnificent antiquities including the Coliseum. Palazzo Fendi is a monument to Fendi’s Roman roots with a sophisticated modern finish — arched windows, cobbled inter–nal courtyard, long spiralling gunmetal grey neo-classical staircase, hand painted ceiling, silk panels, parquet flooring, 25 feet chandelier, glass flooring and Murano glass lighting.
An 8,000 square feet flagship boutique, the largest Fendi store in the world, occupies the first two floors, while the top floors are occupied by design studios and the atelier, a concept that harks back to the days when family-owned furriers and leather makers in European cities hand stitched their products on the upper floors and sold them in their street front shop below. The magnificent facade has over the last three years become the symbol of Fendi’s resurgence worldwide, its image making frequent appearances on the company’s products including some of the iconic bags and the Herve Van der Straeten designed Fendi Palazzo perfume bottle.
If the Palazzo houses the creative soul of Fendi, its keeper is Silvia Venturini Fendi, the 47-year-old granddaughter of the founders, Adele and Edoardo Fendi. While Karl Lagerfeld, the legendary German-born French couturier and Fendi’s creative director for fur and women’s prêt-a-porter collection, works mostly from Paris, Venturini presides over the Palazzo from her fourth floor studio as its creative director for accessories and men’s wear collection. Arnault’s decision to retain Fendi’s headquarters in Rome despite the brand being French owned now, and considering that the centre of gravity of world fashion had shifted to Milan and Paris, she says, has been crucial for the brand’s future. “Some people did say Fendi would be run out of Paris when LVMH took over, but instead Michael Burke moved to Rome. Fendi is a Roman company and Rome is important for Fendi.” Burke is the American CEO who has been running the company operations since the Arnault take-over, the man primarily responsible for making Fendi a luxury powerhouse over the last few years with a presence in over 25 countries spread across 110 boutiques.
“As compared to Milan or Paris, Rome gives me a realistic perspective of what women want,” Venturini says. “In Milan and Paris, the talk is only about fashion, but here fashion is only one of the many things we discuss, like politics and cinema.” Rome is the capital of Italian cinema and the likes of Fellini and Visconti were regulars at the Fendi household. And it is not surprising the Fendi furs have been worn by actors in dozens of Italian and Hollywood films including the likes of The Godfather, Evita, Die Another Day, The Age of Innocence and most recently, Marie Antoinette. Equally important for Venturini is the Palazzo’s location within Rome — Via del Corso, famous for its high street brands and young shoppers, and Via Fontanella Borghese known for its luxury boutiques. “As I look from my window I can see the energy of the high street. We can learn a lot from what the youngsters are buying,” she says.
A small, shy, soft-spoken woman, Venturini is the only member of the extended Fendi family who continues to have a big say in the company’s operations. In fact, among the many venerable European family-owned luxury brands that sold out to large conglomerates like LVMH and PRR over the last two decades, she is among the few family members who has made a lasting impact on the luxury world. Venturini follows the long line of Fendi women who helped create and grow the brand over the last 90 years. Fendi’s origins lie in her grandmother Adele Casagrande opening a leather and fur shop in 1918 at Via del Plebiscito in central Rome. She married Edoardo Fendi in 1925 and the store was renamed Fendi. They made a mark for their quality almost immediately. For the Roman bourgeoisie between the two wars, a visit to the ‘Fendi at the Plebiscito’ was a sign of their status in society. Starting 1946, the couple’s five daughters Paola, Carla, Anna, Franca and Alda began taking an active part in the business. Edoardo died in 1954, and the sisters came into their own, infusing Fendi with much needed youthfulness. “They were very strong women,” Venturini says, “At a time when women hardly worked in Italy they were even travelling to Leningrad for fur auctions.” They helped launch the famous bags of the 1950s like the X Ray and the Pergamena.