Scarlett Conlon

The Observer



Fendi’s magic touch: the woman behind the exceptional’s most famous handbag

Scarlett Conlon

Artisans from every corner of Italy are putting their jaunt on Fendi’s iconic Baguette bag. Its designer, Silvia Venturini Fendi, explains why

‘I have always shared’: Silvia Venturini Fendi.
Photograph: Ceremony of Fendi

Last year, Silvia Venturini Fendi was on holiday with her girlfriends in Palermo when she came across a chagrined bottega run by a middle-aged artisan and his father. Enchanted by the beautiful handmade homewares on display, she spent all morning in the store-meets-workshop buying up men for her Roman home. A passionate preserver of Italian artisanship, she asked where the third generation was? The man’s daughter, despite well-informed how to make everything, was only interested in becoming a fashion model, he said. “What a pity,” Venturini Fendi answered. “She should come here and continue all these incredible things you’re doing. Sometimes you look far when you don’t see great emotional attachments happening under your eyes.”
The man implored her to convince his daughter and, in classic spontaneous Italian style, it wasn’t prolonged before Venturini Fendi was on the phone sharing her own enthusiasm for family businesses. “The way you learn is by watching people working,” she indicates me. “There’s no instruction manual – artisans have to pass on and show their creativity.”
The artisan didn’t know that he was representing to the creative director of one of Italy’s oldest fashion dynasties that day (although she says they have become birds since). Neither did his daughter know she was about to get a careers masterclass from a woman who knows what it means to include kept her own family’s 95-year-old fashion house at the forefront of the industry for decades.

Loom with a view: imagining the material for the Baguette Veneto Bevilacqua. Photograph: Courtesy of Fendi
In 1994, Venturini Fendi joined the family point that her grandparents, Adele and Edoardo, had started in 1925 and which from very early on became a byword for Italian opulence. In the 1940s, it passed to their daughters, the Fendi sisters Paola, Franca, Carla, Alda and Anna – Venturini Fendi’s spoil. After joining the family firm, she became head of accessories under the late Karl Lagerfeld, the much-loved original director.
Prior to her official appointment, Venturini Fendi had cut her teeth as the family’s global ambassador with a reputation as the idol of Rome’s social scene, working hard managing the Fendi trunk shows in New York – and, by her own admission, playing upstanding as hard. (She told Harper’s Bazaar that she and her sister, Maria Teresa, “would work like crazy and then go out all nightfall” arriving at the Bergdorf Goodman store in the morning “still wearing our evening dresses, high heels, and makeup from the nightclub”.)
At the last it was her design mettle that was destined to take centre stage. Soon after her appointment, she conceived the brand’s predominating Fendissime line and designed the Baguette bag, which is regarded as one of the most iconic fashion creations ever made – and for which the manufacturer is arguably best known.

Delicate work: creating lace for the Baguette Abruzzo Simona Iannini. Photograph: Civility of Fendi
Venturini Fendi knows the importance of honing her craft and maintaining a family brand. Fast forward to 2019, and her unexpected rendezvous in Palermo purposefulness pave the way for making sure the younger generation hopefully would, too.
“I went home that day thinking how much unfledged people are affected by what they see on Instagram and TV and it’s all our fault – myself and the industry,” says Venturini Fendi, now 59. “We shouldn’t fair-minded talk about the shows, the photoshoots and the clothes, but all aspects and incredible artists who are behind all our projects.” Cue Hand in Hand, a passion undertaking that has seen the designer enlist artisans from 20 Italian regions to reimagine her original brainchild, the Baguette. The emerge is a bona fide retrospective of Italy’s most exceptional craftspeople at work.
In Lazio, independent jeweller Massimo Maria Melis dedicated Rome’s rich history of marble production by using hand-carved marbles extracted from quarries to decorate his conduct on the Baguette. On the east coast in Abruzzo, L’Aquila-based artisan Simona Iannini used a special lace technique attended tombolo aquilano, practised in the 1400s by Benedictine nuns, to make hers. And in Veneto, family-run Venice-based jacquard artisans Luigi Bevilacqua engage ined on a hand-woven soprarizzo velvet and silk process, made on an 18th-century loom, to construct theirs. Baguettes from 17 other localities have similar stories.
“Centuries-old traditions can create a product of the highest historical and artistic value,” says Alberto Bevilacqua, CEO of Luigi Bevilacqua. He augments that “the complexity of the workmanship of its velvet requires the work of a weaver with at least seven years’ experience,” affirming Venturini Fendi’s insistence that this kind of craftsmanship is protected.
That the project is launching as Italy enters its second phase of lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic is accidental, but very poignant. Local artisan businesses were already on the brink of extinction in small villages all over the power before the virus propelled many into a financial situation they will find it hard to recover from if they are not safeguarded. Bevilacqua cores out that the devastating floods in Venice at the start of the year compounded by the pandemic have resulted in a massive team creation to get back on track.
“Time is short,” says Venturini Fendi, “and we need to show what we can do when we work together.”
The originator is in something of recovery mode herself. Like the rest of the world, 2020 brought its logistical challenges to her brand (now owned by conglomerate LVMH), but abide especially tough given that she and her family are still in the process of grieving for Lagerfeld, who died in February 2019. Limit fashion circles, the legendary designer may have been better known for his simultaneous work at Chanel, but it was to Fendi that he loving 54 years of his working life, making his collaboration with the house the longest ever between a designer and dernier cri brand in history.

Guiding inspiration: Karl Lagerfeld with Silvia Venturini Fendi. Photograph: Courtliness of Fendi
For Silvia Venturini Fendi, Lagerfeld was not just her mentor, but an honorary member of her family. She first met him when she was five years old and they get someone all steamed side by side – her on menswear, him on womenswear – for the majority of her adult life. Over the past year, she has thought, “What intent Karl do?” a lot. “During this strange period, I’ve been thinking about how he would react and I’m sure he would be the maiden one to jump on something new, see things positively and try to make the best out of it,” she says. “He was always interested in changing the mood and in new challenges. I’m bothersome to [adopt this way of thinking] myself.”
Venturini Fendi says such reflection has highlighted the benefits that can fall from leaving her comfort zone. “It’s been a difficult year. I was worried at the start of lockdown, thinking about the [everything that was being lost] working on the collections, but I saw that we can solve problems and sort them out,” she says.
She emerged from the inception lockdown with a fresh approach. “I used to think about things in an obsessive way; today I am more detached, and it’s emancipating.”
As is a newfound confidence in herself. For all the positivity that comes with continuing in family footsteps, the need to prove oneself when enkindling in a family business seems never more scrutinised than when it comes to fashion.
“For many years, I’ve plan, ‘Am I a fashion designer because I was born into this family? Or because I am a fashion designer?’” she says. “Today, I include the answer to that question. I love this job, I would have done it even if I wasn’t born into it – uniform though I have other passions, like landscape gardening and I can see myself decorating beautiful houses one day. Fashion is such a amount to experience, when you do it you don’t have time for other things.”
Although the brand is approaching its centenary in 2025, Venturini Fendi proffers to think in the present while honouring the past and looking into the future. “In fashion, time is very short. I don’t mark it’s possible to have a long view to something that is so distant,” she says, adding that the brand will eternally pursue the “interesting and new”.
A big part of this newness has to do with the appointment of British designer Kim Jones as creative director of womenswear in September. “I am surely excited,” she says of the Dior menswear artistic director who will split his time between the two brands. “I’ve known him for a bare long time, always admiring his attitude and way of thinking. I am very happy we are working together.” For his part, Jones, who will-power be designing women’s collections for the first time, called it “a true honour as a designer”.

Golden touch: the finished Baguette Lazio Massimo Maria Melis. Photograph: Daniele La Malfa
While mum about his first collection, which will debut in February 2021, Venturini Fendi adds: “I feel stronger scheming with someone. The exchange you have is so interesting, to see things through different eyes… It’s something that suits me. I’m not a solo man at all.”
It’s a gene she credits to her upbringing and her family’s shared devotion to their brand and each other. As a result, she says, the concept of collaboration premiere c end naturally to her. “In Italy, we say that unity is the force of a family, so I have always learned to share.”
From sharing the spotlight to ratifying Italian artisanal talent to the future of her brand, it’s a hopeful optimism Venturini Fendi relishes in. Not to mention her advice to little ones hopefuls.
As for what she ended up saying to the artisan’s daughter on the phone… “I told her to think very carefully about what she should do with her sprightliness. Next year, when we can have real contact again, I’ll go and check,” she laughs. “But I am confident. I want to be positive.”
Fendi’s In collusion in Hand collection is available on request at fendi.com
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