Early on, Fendi was learning about the family business from the inside out. Her mother, the second-eldest sister, worked on the creative side as design director (the other siblings handled various business ends, such as fur development and the boutiques), which meant that Silvia basically grew up in the atelier. She’s full of amusing anecdotes about the famous clients, the petites mains and her workhorse mom. “If I wanted to grab her attention, I would call her Madame Fendi,” she says. “If you called ‘Mom, Mom!’ she didn’t answer because she was listening to the people around her.” And then there’s the tale of how Silvia and her sisters were always dressed in black when at the seaside or in the country and mistaken for, as Fendi tells it, “oh, poor girls, orphans. But I would say, ‘Oh, no, it’s fashion!’ Black was a color my mother liked very much.”
Fendi’s job responsibilities back then were limited to picking up stray pins on the workshop floor (a magnet attached to a ribbon did the trick) and the occasional modeling stint. She recalls one early catwalk gig, at age five, in which she wore a beaver bomber jacket, white leather pants and lizardskin boots. A photograph of her in the outfit, taken after the show, still remains.
At 18, Fendi entered the family business, though only because she didn’t want to continue school, and so work, per Mom, was the sole option. “I was not really a good student,” she says. “I studied, but really the minimum.” She became a Fendi ambassador of sorts, following the collection around on trunk shows with her cousins and her older sister, Maria Teresa, while tending to her party-girl persona. “We used to go out every night and go back to work in the morning with the high heels on,” she says. And she has no regrets: “It was fantastic,” she reminisces of late nights at Studio 54 while on business in New York. When prodded for specifics, Fendi shrugs off the question with a laugh. “You know,” she says, “I was kind of drunk every night.”
In 1987 the company launched a secondary line called Fendissime, and Fendi, then 27, was tapped to design it. Eight years later, she moved over to the main collection. “There are always some people who ask, ‘But is she really doing this? Is she good? Is she really involved?’” says Fendi, fully aware of such nepotistic complaints. Yet she claims to be more in her element now that she’s the last Fendi standing. “I feel free,” she explains.
The transitional period from family firm to full corporate concern, however, wasn’t smooth sailing; much has been written about the troubled times surrounding LVMH and Prada’s takeover. It shone a spotlight, for one, on the Fendi sisters’ disagreements. “When you work with other people, there are always different points of view,” Fendi observes about her mother’s and aunts’ dynamics. “I suppose it’s like this for Viktor & Rolf, Stefano and Domenico, Dan and Dean Caten, when you are not the only head.” She notes that Carla was “the big boss, the brain,” and Alda, the youngest, “struggled more to find her niche.” Of the actual takeover, she says only, “it was very painful for my mother because she didn’t really want to sell the company. But the Fendi sisters are five, we are 11 children and our children [the grandchildren] are more than 30. How can you think about a future? It’s difficult. So she understood.” Today the sisters live fairly separate lives, with the larger clan reuniting for “big family things—Communions, anniversaries. Some people ask, ‘Do you see each other every day?’ No, no, thank you. We would kill [one another] after a while,” she says, the last part accompanied by a laugh.