1 marzo 2023
by Alessandro Galiani

Fendi, The Fab Five


This is the story of Anna and her sisters. The story of five young upper-middle-class girls from Rome who rowed against the tide and became successful entrepreneurs and creators of fashion in the Italy of the immediate post-war period, in which women were essentially asked to stay at home and have children. How did they do it? I asked Anna Fendi, who is now a 91-year-old 'matriarch', content with her role as grandmother and even a great-grandmother, with 3 daughters, 12 grandchildren (6 boys and 6 girls) and even a great-granddaughter who fill her life. 

I met Anna Fendi and spoke to her on the two or three Sundays of the Carnival period, days on which she usually goes to her house in Ronciglione, which once belonged to her husband's family and which she has transformed into a guest house. It is here, right under her house, that the traditional float parade starts, which has been held every year since 1800. Ronciglione is a small town a few kilometers from Rome, which during Carnevale is transformed into a little Rio de Janeiro, with women dressed in costume and men dressed as women. One of them is dressed as a fairy, pulling his son in a pram.

 I ask him: "Will you be back to normal tomorrow?” “Yes, I'll be back driving my truck,” he says, heading off into the crowd of costumes. On the float created by Enzo Paolo Turci, the dancer and choreographer who became famous for dancing the Tuca Tuca with Raffella Carrà as a boy, in large letters: ‘Raffaella’. And all around, guys and girls dancing about in platinum-blonde bobbed wigs, the iconic hairstyle of the legendary Carrà. Carnival time is crazy in Ronciglione, but Anna does not venture out into the madness; her life continues to follow a well-regulated rhythm: at midday, she goes to mass in her private chapel and then presides over the buffet lunch, together with a hundred or so selected, paying guests. Lunch is organized by her staff, one of the tablecloths stands out with the typical bright colors of Fendi clothes, surrounded by photos of her beloved dogs, none of which, however, is there among the guests.

She is authoritative and kind, wandering around the tables, willingly answering questions about her life and her past. She is still very active, as demonstrated by the trip she is preparing to make to Jordan, to attend the wedding of the daughter of King Abdullah and Queen Rania, family friends. Anna loves to talk about herself and her life, about her three daughters and her grandchildren she is so proud of. And she doesn’t hold back on the details when you ask her about the story of Fendi's double F, which has become an icon of Italian luxury, an all – or almost all – female success story, which has lasted for over a century.

The story of the company began in 1918, when Adele Casagrande, mother of the 5 Fendi sisters, opened a leather and fur shop with an attached workshop in Va del Plebiscito, in the center of Rome. In 1925, after her marriage to Edoardo Fendi, it became the Fendi boutique and established itself in the capital above all thanks to Adele's pioneering ideas, such as the invention of the Selleria line of leather bags and suitcases inspired by horse bridles, each cut and sewn entirely by hand. “My mother sold leather goods,” recalls Anna, but in reality, the boutique was more than that. The rich Roman upper classes were won over by the fine-quality suitcases and Fendi furs and in the 1930s the company opened branches in Via Borgognona and Via Piave, becoming famous all over Italy.

Fendi established a reputation for producing luxury bags and suitcases of the finest workmanship intended to be timeless and durable classics. The 'turning point’ – or rather the first turning point – came when, after Edoardo's death, in the early years after the Second World War, the management of the business was passed on to his five daughters: Paola, Franca, Carla, Anna and Alda, who shared the duties between them. Paola supervised the processes in the fur department, with dyes and tanning; Franca, more inclined towards external customer relations, was the purchasing manager; Carla, on the other hand, took care of the sales department and the press office; Anna managed the most creative area: the design and licensing department; finally, Alda was responsible for managing the fur atelier and workshop. From 1947 onwards, it was the 5 sisters who left their mark on the company, and created the Fendi epic.

They were happy but not easy years. “With my father's death,” recalls Anna, “I worked out of necessity, I wasn’t even 18 years old.  The early days were terrible.” “In the beginning.” she adds, “we jumped from one thing to another. Then, over time, we each took on different tasks according to our natural inclinations. Right from my earliest work experiences, my vocation was geared towards the creative aspects of the company. When it came to the collections, however, we were all united, like the five fingers of one hand: different but complementary.” During this period, Anna married a landowner from Ronciglione. She could have just played the lady of the manor, but instead she preferred to roll up her sleeves and work for the company. She's now 91, in enviably good form, is involved in lots of activities and is still incredibly careful with the books. “She has always been a brilliant shopkeeper,” says a friend who knows her well with affectionate humor. For almost thirty years, Anna was the direct manager and coordinator of the design of all the Fendi collections, the prêt-à-porter line and the brand licenses.

In 1960, she was behind the decision to concentrate everything in a single location with ateliers, showrooms, internal workshops and stores in a former theater in Via Borgognona, and for making it the historic headquarters of Fendi. “Back then, fur was a status,” says Anna, “but there was nothing fashionable. We revolutionized this concept: no lining, light reversible fur, no superstructure. But the truly great courage – including financially – was to buy the headquarters in the center of Rome in Via Borgognona: the old multistory Bernini cinema, where we opened a store, the atelier and the workshops. It was the 1960s. All the greats have passed through: Fellini, Visconti, Scorsese, Mangano...” In short, thanks to the work of these 5 young women, who are somewhat reminiscent of the seamstresses in Luciano Emmer's 1952 film Three Girls from Rome, Fendi grew and expanded. Adele's stores were transformed into the Fendi brand, which was something totally different from a normal commercial company.

Fendi became a brand, a business in which creativity, that is, something immaterial, prevailed over the traditional 'physical' company. In 1965, the company took even greater strides when it engaged the German designer Karl Lagerfeld as creative director. “He was a friend to me and I still miss his company,” says Anna. “Our PR (Count Savorelli di Lauriano, ed) introduced us to Karl, who at the time was young and less famous. With him, we found the courage to go beyond the local clientele in Rome and to present a prêt-à-porter collection at Palazzo Pitti. We took on Milan, and then America.” Lagerfeld triggered a mini revolution within this all-female business. Kaiser Karl was a creative 'dictator', and a whimsical and meticulous manager, who answered to the 5 sisters, who were both the owners and directly involved in the management of the company. The 'liaison' between Lagerfeld and the 5 sisters became one of the longest lasting partnerships in the history of fashion: 54 years full of experimentation, risks and innovation. In 1966, the year in which the Beatles became baronets, the craze of the miniskirt, the excitement of swinging London, the brilliant Karl invented that double F logo, also known as Zucca (Pumpkin), which stands for Fun Furs.

The double F was initially used as a pattern on the inner lining for suitcases, but it gradually became an integral part of the aesthetics of the entire brand. The theme of the logo would prove to be crucial in the development and processing of the fine-quality materials with which Fendi products are made. But the fiery Lagerfeld had much more to give; he was a fountain of ideas and created some 70,000 designs for Fendi. Under his guidance, Fendi continued to evolve, expanding its offering, inventing, causing a sensation. In 1970, the Fendi collection was presented for the first time at Palazzo Pitti in Florence and then in Milan, arousing great interest and admiration in the US and Japanese markets. This attention became a physical reality in 1975 with the opening of the Fendi boutique in the famous New York department store Bergdorf&Goodman, with direct access from 5th Avenue. Since then, Fendi's success has been marked by the strengthening of international distribution and the opening of franchised and direct flagship stores. Anna looks back to those years when

the Fendi group achieved global fame: “It was in 1976 that we conquered the US market and then the global market. It was then that my sisters and I started getting chased by photographers in the street. I remember that when I saw the first flash of the cameras pointed at us, I thought of my mother, who was already very ill, and my husband, who died prematurely. How much I would have loved to share that moment with them, who had been instrumental in the achievement of such hard-won success! In any case, I understood then that we really had become famous.”

Since then, the bright lights of fame have never dimmed. In 1977, there was another 'turning point': the debut of the first collection of ready-to-wear clothing, or prêt-à-porter in French, the language of fashion, a bit like Italian is the language of opera. Prêt-à-porter marked the transition from high fashion, from exclusive atelier garments, to more consumer-based lines intended for a wider target, but always high-quality. Fendi took on the high street but remained a brand known for its fine craftsmanship, an astonishing one-off, in which innovation became an everyday event; but it did so without presumption, producing high fashion in pieces that were often simple, sparse, almost ordinary, but always with the utmost attention to detail, carefully studied, new and captivating. In 1987, Anna's daughter Silvia Venturini Fendi joined the company, having grown up watching her mother, aunts and Lagerfeld change the history of fashion. Silvia joined Lagerfeld and her mother in the creative direction and in 1997 became part of the designer elite when she invented the Fendi bag par excellence: the Baguette. A soft, rectangular handbag with a short handle, designed to be worn on the shoulder, and a buckle with the double F: a legendary item that has become one of the milestones of the Fendi maison.

The Baguette – named in homage to the French habit of carrying the stick of bread under the arm when carrying the shopping – generated a waiting list and led to the inventions of the term 'it bag' in the late 1990s. In 2008, Silvia Venturini Fendi did it again with the Peekaboo bag, fun and flirty, which totally distorted the traditional shape of the handbag, allowing you to get a sneaky look at what’s inside. But, beyond the individual products, the fundamental and eternal ingredient in the history of Fendi is the 'wow' effect. Every single Fendi event, fashion show and celebration is a bit like the Ronciglione carnival: it aims to amaze. Karl Lagerfeld's unstoppable creativity certainly convinced and taught the team to think big. For example, no bureaucratic obstacle could prevent the brand from presenting (with over a year of preparation) a fashion show on the ancient stones of the Great Wall of China, one of the seven wonders of the world: 88 models, special guests and an 80-meter long catwalk. In China, 8 is considered the lucky number par excellence because it contains 2 circles, symbol of good fortune. Legend has it that, on the night, the show could even be seen from the moon.

And then there's the movies, Fendi has a close ties with this industry, which is popular entertainment but also a 'grand illusion': stardust. Federico Fellini loved to call the five Fendi sisters the fendine. From Luchino Visconti to Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese and Giuseppe Tornatore, Fendi has collaborated on, designed and delivered for over 50 films and TV series. Sumptuous furs and reworked outerwear have played starring roles in big movies. The ‘double coat’ worn by Silvana Mangano in Conversation Piece is by Fendi. Madonna wears Fendi in the role of Evita Peron in the film Evita by Alan Parker (1996) and Barbara Carrera in the 1983 Bond movie Never Say Never Again. However, even the story of the Fendi group at a certain point comes to the 'end of the line' and, in 1999, it shed its skin and officially changed owner. This brand and symbol of Italian fashion was acquired by an equal joint venture between two industry giants: LVMH (Louis Vuitton) and the Prada group. This alliance was established precisely to take over 51% of Fendi, made possible by the ‘cast iron agreement’ between the leading figures in the deal: Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, and the Italian Patrizio Bertelli, husband of Miuccia Prada and managing director of the family business. Cost of the transaction: USD 850 million. Under the terms of the deal, Prada and LVMH were obliged to acquire any combination of the 49% stake that the Fendi sisters, each owning 20% of the company, had decided to sell. And thus, in 2001, having lost about EUR 20 million and as much the following year, the brand was forced to agree to another change in ownership: Prada agreed to sell its 25.5% stake to LVMH for USD 265 million. That same year, the French group advanced by a further 15.9%.

And the Fendi sisters began to withdraw. Carla Fendi, a member of the founding family, continued to act as chairperson and minority owner until 2008. Anna Fendi explains these stages: “The French are better than us and know how to manage things better, we never managed to take Fendi where LVMH has taken it. We only had a few stores; today there are 250 flagship stores around the world. But I still feel part of Fendi and the staff is Fendi. Buyers continue to come to Rome and I see a great defense of the ‘Italianness’ by the French, who sponsor the restoration of our architectural heritage; I'm proud of what we have done.” After the change of hands with LVMH, Anna Fendi decided to hand over the reins of the creative department permanently to her daughter Maria Silvia Venturini Fendi, who joined Lagerfeld as head of accessories, menswear and kidswear.

On February 19, 2019 Karl Lagerfeld died and Silvia Venturini Fendi took over as manager of both menswear and womenswear. In 2021, Delfina Delettrez Fendi, her daughter, was appointed artistic director of the jewelry collection and made her a grandmother. It is Silvia Venturini Fendi and her family who still actively represent the Fendi family in the fashion sector, while her other two sisters, eldest daughter Maria Teresa and youngest daughter Ilaria, are respectively president of the Carla Fendi Foundation – set up to support art, cinema, fashion, heritage and culture – and an entrepreneur engaged in environmental protection.

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