Today Spoleto acknowledges the contribution Carla Fendi has made to the town and confers honorary citizenship on her. A few days ago I met up with Carla and Silvia Fendi on a beautiful sunny morning at the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds, in the famous restaurant Tric Trac in the same square as the cathedral, which is next to the Teatro Caio Melisso, with the restaurant underneath what was maestro Gian Carlo Menotti’s home.
Who would like to speak first?
In our family, we’ve always called Carla “The Brain”. For many years, she was the President and was in charge of image, communications, and strategy (along with her sisters) for Fendi.
Carla, do you agree with this characterisation?
Working with Karl Lagerfeld was the most wonderful experience of my life. My dream would have been to become his secretary. When all of the sisters met him in 1965, we realised he was “The Man” for us. Having Catherine Deneuve, who was linked to Yves Saint Laurent’s clothing, contributed greatly to the success of the image of Fendi fur. It was Saint Laurent himself who, upon encountering the architect Andrée Putman wearing one of our furs, said admiringly, “This is a Fendi fur. The best in the world!” We were reassured by this and realised there was no conflict of interest with Saint Laurent, considering he didn’t really work much with fur. So we asked Catherine Deneuve to become the face of Fendi fur, and she was excited about it.
Carla, you and your sister, Anna, who is Silvia’s mother, are the ones to have taken the company to the American market, correct?
Yes. My sister Anna and I thought it was the right time to go to America. I had everyone against me except my mother and Anna who had the same ideas I did. Even my journalist girlfriends were saying, “What are you doing? Do you really want to send furs to America when the material comes from there?” And I would say, “But America doesn’t have the quality and the creativity, and I want to give it a try.” What was important for me was to take on the U.S. market with a “pyramid” strategy, going from top to bottom. The top of the pyramid was America, and so I understood that if we were successful in America, that success would trickle down to the rest of the world.
So how did you do it?
We went to the United States in 1969. We had just presented our collection in the Sala Bianca of Palazzo Pitti in Florence, where my mother got an actual standing ovation. At that time, Countess Consuelo Crespi was a correspondent for the magazine Vogue America. She told us, “This collection is for America.” So we went to the United States with the support of ICE, the Italian Institute for Foreign Trade, and we first visited the suburbs of American cities like Philadelphia and Boston where they didn’t get it at all. It was a flop. Also because it was the first time we were presenting the “Maxi” trend, which was not easy to understand. But when we went to New York, Rudy Crespi, who was Consuelo’s husband and who was doing public relations for us in the United States, brought together a group of American buyers to see our pieces. We were terrified. What we discovered was that the large American department stores were still very traditional when it came to selling fur, and the only big department store that could understand us was Henri Bendel.
When the buyers came to see our collection, they must have been saying, “These ladies are crazy.” We felt like crying. Until we met the buyer from Henri Bendel who was wearing Maxi fashions. She looked at our collection, and her eyes sparkled. “Where have you been hiding?” she asked. “This is the collection for us.” So off we went with our suitcases and a model to show the collection to the president of Henri Bendel, Geraldine Stutz. She looked at our work and said, “We need to have these and want to start selling them right away. Even if they are small sizes for the models, that’s fine for us.” She added that she would buy everything we had brought with us and said, “So I’ll make the store windows all about Fendi.”
We found a way to be able to leave the entire collection. And the collection sold out completely. This was our first foray into the American market. I want to add that many things can be copied, but our artisans and our workers are better than all the rest because, in addition to having exceptional manual skills, they are also very creative, and creativity can’t be copied.
When did Silvia start working with you?
I started as a little girl. I was always there. And I was interested in fashion. In the 1970s, I was also a child model for Karl Lagerfeld. It was always fascinating for me. It was interesting to be there in the company. I didn’t like being with friends and playing with dolls. They were boring to me. But being in the atelier was amazing. I was fascinated by Karl, and I knew he was someone who was very important. At age thirteen, I began wrapping Christmas gifts. I helped Vittorio, who was in charge of that department, and he was amazing at it. My aunt Carla convinced my parents to send me to study at a boarding school in London. When I returned to Italy, I told my grandmother that I wanted to work because I was bored with my studies. She put me to work on the switchboard. After thirty minutes, I broke down in tears. Fortunately, I was able to move over to the workshops where I would spend entire afternoons just enthralled. I also liked to stay in the parlour of the boutique because it was very big. This was an exclusive space for our customers who came upon appointment only. This is where the most precious bags were sold. My mother was making the bags at that time, but Fendi had been making them since 1925. My grandmother loved bags and collected them. I really started to work when I was twenty-three or twenty-four. And I began travelling for the trunk shows. Then I did all of the fashion shows abroad with all of the actresses and models. In May, I would go to Japan and then go to the United States in September and October. Then the Milan fashion shows and so on.
Silvia, are you the one to have invented the famous “Baguette”? The most famous of the Fendi bags?
Yes. In 1977. It was a bag that broke a few rules. It was the minimalist era, and this little bag in minimalist black fabric was very successful. But I didn’t like minimalism. We all looked the same. We all dressed the same way. So I presented twenty or so different variations, and it was an enormous change of course. Using the same bag. It was a sign of the end of minimalism. The bags were so elaborate that it took a long time to get one. There was a very long waiting list. You couldn’t find these bags anywhere, and perhaps that contributed to their success.
How many versions did you make?
At least one thousand. And we sold over a million.
In what countries?
Is the Baguette the symbol of Fendi?
Yes. I would say it’s our iconic bag along with another creation called Peekaboo, which is a bag that was first created in a large version but that also exists today in a micro version.
Carla, what is Fendi today?
When my family decided to sell to LVMH in 2000, it was the biggest sacrifice of our lives. But the family realised that the world is going global and that with our resources, we wouldn’t have been able to have flagship stores throughout the world.
So today the family is no longer involved?
Not as shareholders, but Silvia is the creative director for accessories and for the men’s and children’s collections. I [Carla] am Honorary President for life, a title I was truly touched to have been given. Today we’ve become a brand that is truly global, and we have stores throughout the world.
What does your foundation, The Carla Fendi Foundation, do?
Since the time when I was in charge of Fendi’s image, I have always wanted the brand to support culture, the arts, and cinema. Fendi made furs for Visconti, Bolognini, and Zeffirelli. The great costume designers Piero Tosi and Umberto Tirelli designed and made the costumes, and we made the furs. Visconti had us talk to Tosi because he wanted furs for the film Conversation Piece. But he let the actress Silvana Mangano have the final say. After seeing one of our fashion shows, she said, “I want to wear the furs as well as the clothes and accessories.” All Fendi.
Does The Carla Fendi Foundation work with the Spoleto Festival?
Yes. I used to come often to Spoleto with my husband and we became friends with Gian Carlo Menotti. So I started supporting the festival then with the Fendi brand, and that went on for many years. Then when my husband, Candido, and I created The Carla Fendi Foundation, which was after Menotti’s death and after some dark moments for the festival, I started once again to support it under Giorgio Ferrara’s new artistic direction. We worked together to try to bring the festival back, and I worked with great passion at this, becoming a main partner purely as a sponsor, without any financial return. It was in this same spirit that we renovated Spoleto’s Teatro Caio Melisso, a gem that needed a lot of work. In my role as a sponsor, I also support Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and FAI [Fondo Ambiente Italiano – the National Trust] along with many other initiatives. I would like for my work to be an incentive as a form of private patronage. After I’m gone, the foundation will continue on with my niece Maria Teresa Fendi who has been the vice president from the very beginning.
Are the two of you pleased with how things are going at Fendi today?
More than pleased – proud. I must say that with its owner, the LVMH group, Fendi continues to think about art. Actually, it is just finishing the restoration of the Trevi Fountain and the Four Fountains in Rome.
“Fendi is a matriarchy,” says Carla. “Our husbands have always put us out front. My father, Edoardo, always said, ‘Remember that the Fendi name will be famous because it’s short, musical, and can be easily pronounced in all languages around the world.’”
Aside from Silvana Mangano and numerous other actresses with whom you’ve worked, you knew Laura Antonelli as well, didn’t you Carla?
Through Tosi and Visconti. It was wonderful to dress her in our furs in films like “The Innocent”. Then one time we asked Jean Paul Belmondo to come to one of our shows when he was a big star. And he said, “I am coming with Laura.” Having them there was a great success for us.
What happened when animal rights activists started protesting the use of fur?
Silvia responds: “In the 1980s, there were protests demanding that fur should be replaced with ‘eco fur’, but then it was discovered that it was derived from petroleum. So we went back to what we were doing; it’s all about individual choice.”
Silvia, do you still travel?
Yes. I often go to the United States and to Asia. But in my old age, I see myself retiring in a warm country like Brazil or Cuba where, actually, I’ve been going often these last few years.
How many people are in your family today?
Carla responds proudly: “Five sisters with a total of forty-two grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
June 30th, 2015.