Silvia Venturini Fendi has her game face on.
The frantic countdown to Fendi’s spring runway show is on and, dressed in all black save for a ruby and emerald butterfly brooch, she is deftly entertaining the press backstage. She moves from rack to rack with each high-profile editor and reporter, carefully pointing out the season’s themes, the technical aspects, the accessories—a routine repeated in French, Italian, English, over and over again. Fendi’s performance is spot-on and charming, providing a wealth of perfect sound bites she admits she practiced the previous night. “Journalists go from one show to another, so you have to hit them with a good sentence in a short time,” she says amid the growing frenzy. Then, a half hour after the scheduled 4 p.m. start, the fever pitch: Karl Lagerfeld arrives. He kisses Fendi hello, and the collective attention shifts. “He is the main course; I am the appetizer,” she acknowledges.
Theirs is a rare relationship. Fendi handles accessories and men’s wear for the Roman house, while Lagerfeld is, quite famously, head of women’s ready-to-wear, a perch he has occupied since 1965, nearly two decades before he took the reins at Chanel. Fendi was just five years old. “He had curly black hair then,” she remembers, “and would wear large white shirts with big satin bows.”
Founded in 1925 by Fendi’s grandparents Edoardo and Adele, the firm was eventually passed on to their five daughters—Paola, Franca, Carla, Alda, and Fendi’s mother, Anna—who brought it into the international spotlight. The rest of the house’s history has been oft reported: LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Prada Group notoriously beat out Gucci Group in 1999 to jointly acquire a controlling stake. Two years later LVMH gained full control of that 51 percent and has since bought out the sisters’ remaining shares.
Silvia is the sole family member still involved. “Karl and I are like the walking archives of Fendi,” she says in an interview a week after the show in the midst of the Paris collections, as she sits tucked into a red velvet corner couch at the Ritz’s Bar Vendôme. “Sometimes when we work, we talk and say, ‘Do you remember this? And this?’ And we laugh. It’s nice. It’s something that the others don’t have.” To hear her describe it,
Lagerfeld’s role at the house has been to toss out preconceptions about the stodgy nature of fur while challenging the Fendi artisans. He throws down the creative gauntlet—printed shearling! rubberized lamb! transparent fox!—and they figure a way to get it done. “For us it’s a question of pride to go ahead of our possibilities,” Fendi notes. Press her about Lagerfeld’s personality, and she offers a concise answer: “He can be very, very nasty; he can be nice. That’s him.” Whether that suggests a current chill in the air is anyone’s guess. For his part, when asked about her, Lagerfeld responds with parallel pith, saying only, “I’ve known her since she was four years old.”