Silvia Venturini Fendi: ‘I create monsters!’

Silvia Venturini Fendi interview Jan Tomes

Although she often finds herself in the shadow of her “elder brother” Karl Lagerfeld – with whom she forms one of the most prolific duos in the world – Silvia Venturini Fendi is one of the leaders and innovators of the fashion industry. We talked to her a few hours before she unveiled the men’s Fall/Winter 2016 collection in Milan.

After so many years in this industry, do you still feel nervous?

Oh yes, I do. Every time it’s like the first time, more or less. I also feel very nervous right after the show, because you can’t be sure of the reaction. I’m always high on adrenaline – my god, all that work, all that commitment! But just a few hours later, I start thinking about the next show.

That’s something Karl taught me – after each show he always says: “Okay, let’s do the next one.” He says it the second he comes up from the bow. So really I don’t have much time to be nervous.

Being a daughter of Anna Fendi, one of the famous Fendi sisters, you entered the family business at a very early age. Were you always attracted to fashion?

Very much so! When I was a little child, I was always in the ateliers, always in the middle of the action, and always attentive. You can actually see me in so many things from that era; I even modelled for one of Karl’s collections.

Things happened very naturally. I was there, and so somebody would say; “Maybe you could do it. Come here!” So I soon became involved in many incredible things and immediately realised that fashion was what really excited me – much more than being at home, playing with dolls or with friends, or even being at school.

All that was so boring compared to what was happening at Fendi.

Can you remember when you first met Karl Lagerfeld?

No, I can’t, because he was always there. He is part of my memories. When I think of Fendi, I think of Karl. I’m thinking of my mother, her sisters, my grandmother and Karl. He really is part of the family.

What I remember is that he would wear this long hair and a large white shirt so that he looked rather like a painter, and I would look at him with great curiosity. Because when he was there, there was always a lot of energy and excitement in the room. I also remember listening to my mum when she was on the phone, and she would say things like: “Oh no, tomorrow is impossible, Karl is coming.” Nobody could ask for anything. When Karl was in Rome, the world stood still.

What is it like to work with him now?

I work with him in the same way I watched my mother working with him. We sit at a round table, everything is quite casual, he presents his ideas and talks about what he likes, he then sketches or sends scans via e-mail.

In the past, we would get boxes full of his sketches in the post, and when you opened them, it truly was a magical moment! Today, everything is much faster than before, but working with Karl is still very interesting and fun.

You celebrated Karl’s 50th anniversary at Fendi last year, together with the 90th anniversary of the brand. Both occasions were celebrated together in Paris, during haute couture week, where you presented the haute fourrure collection. Who came up with that idea?

I have to say it was Pietro Beccari, our CEO. You know, Karl doesn’t like anniversaries. So when we were thinking about ways of marking the fiftieth or the ninetieth, Pietro came up with this idea of doing something we had never done before, of starting a new chapter for Fendi. So the new collection was not related to past ideas, but actually about what Fendi is today and what the future could be.

What is the future of fur? Because it always arouses so much passion.

I don’t know, I really don’t know. In the 90s, everybody thought that faux fur would be the solution, but now we know that it isn’t – it is actually a significant pollutant because the production process involves various chemicals and leaves a lot of waste.

Personally, I like to think about fur as both the past and the future. Because when you think about it, fur is the most primitive yet also most organic material. I ask myself these same questions very often, it really is a complicated issue, mainly ethically, but also because there is a large industry at stake.

Perhaps one day the entire world will become vegan, and we won’t do fur anymore. But when people still eat meat and wear leather and shearling? Maybe one day we will change our habits. Why not?

I think that the issue many people have with fur is that, unlike eating meat and wearing leather, fur is also a status symbol. Would you agree?

It used to be, yes, but not anymore. And especially thanks to Fendi. We revolutionised the fur industry. We brought fashion into it – high fashion – and we let it evolve. Even in the new men’s collection, there is mink, because it is Fendi, but it is really based on shearling. We even mixed the fake fur with the real one! So in the future, we’ll see.

Last year the Fendi story was celebrated in Paris, but it was really more about Rome. You moved to new headquarters in the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana and financed the restoration of the Trevi Fountain.

Well, Fendi is and always has been a Roman fashion house, and I think we’re the oldest one still in business. My grandparents opened the first shop in 1925, and since then we have always been inspired by the city.

Rome and its culture are in our DNA, and we are proud to be Romans. These are difficult times in Italy and Rome, so we really wanted to give something back to the city. We are now part of the story of a legendary Roman fountain and work and produce our collections inside a monument. That, I think, is a very modern thing.

When you say modern, the thing that instantly comes to my mind is the Baguette – the iconic handbag that you created in the late 1990s, which ignited the whole “IT bag” craze. Did you know back then that the Baguette would be so successful?

It is a question that people keep asking me, and I really don’t know what to say. You know, I’m a different person now, but then I also wanted to do something different, which is what I’m always trying to do. I wanted something personal, but at that time, fashion was all about minimalism, everything was very functional, everybody wore black and black nylon bags – especially the fashionable people. And to me, that was not inspiring. I was looking for something else, so I took a very clean shape, basically like a white canvas, and I started treating it in many different ways to create a sort of manifesto of personality, to express individuality. And I probably came up with the right idea at the right time!

Timing was also important to the success of some of your later creations. You redefined the industry with products such as the pompons, the Karlito…

Well, I create monsters! But for this men’s collection, for instance, I did a new thing – Fendi Faces. The inspiration came from Saul Steinberg, a famous illustrator who worked for The New Yorker, and a project he undertook with the Austrian photographer Inge Morath.

They took photos of men and women in their houses, in their private spaces, in dining rooms, having coffee or chatting, but they were all masked. And I liked this element of magic in everyday life very much.

Most people know you as the head designer of accessories and menswear at Fendi, but you are also a successful film producer. You produced “I Am Love” with Tilda Swinton and “Antonia”. Are there more movies in the pipeline?

It was a fascinating experience, but I’m not sure if I’m going to continue. You know, I’m used to the fast pace of fashion and making a movie is a long and drawn out process. The film industry is a little bit too slow for me. You start to form the idea for a film, but it takes so long that I lose concentration and eventually interest. I honestly don’t see my future in movies.

How do you see the future of fashion?

I don’t know. I can’t foresee. We live in tough times, so I think many people are attracted to the past rather than looking to the future. I would say the future scares us now. You can see it even in this collection, in which I tried to invigorate the future by injecting it with bits of fantasy, almost magic. And I was also working with the idea of interiors, of domestic lives.

People are going out less and less; you work a lot from home because we are always so connected. You can order food from your favourite restaurant, and they bring it to you, you can shop online in your favourite boutique or visit virtual museums all over the world.

Despite everything you have achieved, are there things that you never quite realised that you now look back on with regret?

Oh yes, many things. Especially in my private life. When you work so hard – and I have three children and a big family – you always subtract from your private life. I had to make choices, and there were moments in my life when I maybe should have done things differently, yes. But in my working life, I must say that I’ve been incredibly lucky always to be able to do what I want.

The interview took place in January 2016 and was published in the Luxury Guide Spring 2016 issue.