Anna Fendi, a life dedicated to fashion and the meeting with Karl Lagerfeld
Our interview with the well-known fashion designer and entrepreneur
Stepping into Villa Laetitia means entering the world of Anna Fendi who, by renovating this unique family residence overlooking the Lungotevere designed by Armando Brasini in 1911, has put all her unmistakable style into it. It is here that one of the most iconic figures in the fashion world (who has worked together with her four sisters to making the Fendi name everlasting) continues to bask in her innate creativity.
What is your first fashion-related memory?
My mother’s perserverance. She was a relentless woman who made her work a mission. She is definitely the main character in our family. She had made her mind up that us five daughters should continue her work and she educated us and brought us up, striving to give us the foundations so that this could happen. She also started working at a very young age because her father died during the Spanish flu epidemic. So, being the enterprising woman she was, knowing how to embroider, she began making children’s trousseaus and selling them at an extremely stylish boutique in Piazza di Spagna called ‘Bellini’. Her aunt, an owner of several boutiques in Florence including Ciocca on Via de’ Tornabuoni, took her on, teaching her how to become an entrepreneur by personally selecting leather accessories using the best craftsmen. Back in Rome, she opened her own business, a small boutique in Via del Plebiscito.
What was your childhood like?
I was fortunate to be born into beauty because my mother had already decided what we should do and she was committed to making the best of our lives. We had a very nice house near Piazza delle Muse and attended the Adorazione School, an school of nuns from all over the world. My father, who was very sweet, was the intellectual of the family. I learnt a lot from him. On Sundays he would take us to see museums or to the countryside to admire nature. Since I was a very petite girl, my mother enrolled me at the Jia Ruskaja dance school. I remember always wearing pointed shoes as a child: I would leave school and not eat so that I could run to dance class.
As a young woman entering the world of fashion, what do you remember about that period?
I was 17 when my mother brought me into the family business. The large boutique on Piazza Fiume was very elegant and it had a very loyal clientele. Upstairs there was a small furrier’s atelier with a workshop with a very good premiere, a cutter and several workers. My sisters and I jumped enthusiastically into this world but we did it in our own way, changing it, transforming a fashion that was too anchored in the past.
Furs had status in those years, but they were very heavy. We revolutionised them: no lining, no superstructure, they had to be light, reversible and removable.
For the first fashion show, I remember that we ‘borrowed’ the city’s most beautiful salon in the Grand Hotel (today’s The St. Regis, ed.), and presented our first collection to our customers. It was a real success! From then on, customers began to come from all over Italy, from Sicily to Lombardy, intrigued by these five sisters who not only made furs but also wonderful accessories, always playing on softness and lightness.
The headquarters in Via Borgognona was another big step towards success...
In 1958 my mother managed to rent the first shop in the centre, a small space on Via Borgognona where Polidori Uomo’s shop used to be. It was a small but very refined shop and my mother put me in charge of it, shortly afterwards entrusting me with another boutique in Corso Trieste.
Then they put the Bernini cinema up for sale and I convinced my mother and my sisters to buy it: it was the ideal space for our headquarters. The negotiation with the seller was by no means easy but I managed to close the deal. We finally had our large shop windows on Via Borgognona with the luggage, leather goods and accessories on display, the gallery became the atelier salon and we moved production upstairs. We soon bought a factory in Tuscany, and with the help of master craftsmen we put the accessories we designed into production. My sister Carla also had the brilliant idea of involving the publisher Franco Maria Ricci and the entrance was decorated with his beautiful books.
Five sisters that are so different but so close on this great adventure...
My mother always told us that we had to be joined together like the five fingers of one hand. None of us were more important than the other and we all worked together for one goal: for our work to be a success. And then we were so busy, each in our own role, that there wasn’t much time to argue.
Then came high fashion. How did the meeting with Karl Lagerfeld come about?
It was a fortunate circumstance. In the early 1960s, our entry into haute couture seemed a natural thing, but we also realised that we needed a creative director to help us in that new venture. Karl was working in Rome with an American tailor, and our PR and friend Franco Savorelli, an extraordinary man who followed us throughout our journey, introduced him to us. We realised at the first meeting that he was a genius, indeed we feared that having such an avant-garde vision would be lost on our audience. So we decided to give it a try and in ‘65 we presented the first collection in the Sala Bianca in Florence during the Pitti: it was an incredible success!
Karl was very demanding with us. At that time I managed the design office in Palazzo Ruspoli and I remember that when he would come over from Paris he would ask us to make the most unthinkable things but we always amazed him by developing more prototypes based on his ideas.
The parade in Piazza di Spagna was memorable when we first presented the reversible furs in oxygenated mink, a divine blonde colour. They had a suede leather trim in the same colour. Imagine six models walking down the steps of Trinità dei Monti in a cutting-edge tricot knit tracksuit and a soft bag slung over their shoulder. They stop, open their bag and pull out these blonde, boot-length furs that were as light as a feather. The whole square erupted into a thunderous applause. Finally, we reached the global stage with the invaluable help of our PR Rudy Crespi, when we presented the ready-to-wear and haute couture collections to buyers in a large New York hotel.
Can you tell me about the Rome of that time as well as the Rome of today?
They are two different Romes. I lived through the golden years of cinema and we were very lucky because we worked with the most famous directors. We had the ability to grow up in cinema and to work with cinema. Tirelli would come to me and say, ‘Anna we have to make Ludwig, Visconti’s next film’, and you want us to say no? We made ourselves available.
What about Anna nowadays?
She is a young woman in her 90s, full of enthusiasm, with many ideas and many things still to do, surrounded by so many loved ones; three daughters all equipped with great creativity, 12 grandchildren and a wonderful partner who works with me on Italian wines with a collection signed by Anna Fendi.