Heir Force One

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Heir Force One
Silvia Venturini Fendi at the company's headquarters in Rome.

Heir Force One

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.”

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.

During the tumultuous turnover, even Lagerfeld threatened to leave the house, a thought that fre­quently crosses Fendi’s mind at times as well. “Yes, there are moments like that,” she acknowledges. “They are very often. But I’m strong.”

“I think Silvia had a hard time to step from a mental position of being a Fendi within the Fendi family to being in the LVMH group, with no Fendi family around,” says Fendissime alum and close friend Giambattista Valli, one of a number of designers who apprenticed with her. (Others include Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli, the newly named creative directors of Valentino, as well as Gucci’s Frida Giannini.) “You have to be like a chameleon and change the color of your skin,” Valli continues. “But she did it. She’s staying over there because she’s extremely talented. She showed everybody.”

After all, this is the woman responsible for the Fendi cult hits: the Spy Bag, the B Bag and, of course, the Baguette. The latter’s debut was a Nineties fashion moment, one that helped kick-start the craze for the elusive It bag, a quest that remains a designer obsession today. Fendi, however, has moved on, saying she’s over the It. “Everybody has an It bag. They think they’re going to change the world,” she says. “In the end, you see many ugly, cheap, awful bags. It’s like vomiting over bags, full of studs and hardware and metal—embellishment just to make people look rich.” Hence the Peekaboo, her new design for spring, with its pared-down exterior and luxed-up interior. The roomy side pockets drape gently to expose gold threaded canvas here, a jolt of butter-soft electric blue snakeskin there. “I wanted to have a normal, banal bag but with a twist,” Fendi says. “So the inside is more interesting than the outside. It’s a more private luxury.” She pauses. “I think the word ‘luxury’ has been overused to mean expensiveness. Real luxury is personal.”

Fendi also disdains the notion of fame, which is perhaps surprising given the nature of her business. “Today you take pictures with a celebrity, which I can’t stand,” Fendi vents, campily mimicking being caught by a paparazzi flash. “It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s me! I’m going to have lots of press with this!’ I also see many, many people who become crazy. I think it’s good not to pretend you are God because you are in fashion.” If she’s thinking about anyone in particular, she doesn’t say.

“Silvia doesn’t like the frivolous part of fashion,” remarks Fendi CEO Michael Burke. “She’s deep; she likes to think things through.” Case in point: the inspiration behind her latest shoes and belts. Fendi created graphic trompe l’oeil stilettos on wedge heels “to represent the dualism of tradition and the avant-garde that has always been at Fendi,” she says, while she designed her wide belts with a hole at the center in lieu of a buckle. “The idea was to have a belt that was not a belt. Sometimes absence is more than presence, no?”

Though at first meeting Fendi comes across a bit reserved (she’ll tell you as much herself), get to know her and a whole other side comes to light. She’s mischievous, with a tart sense of humor. As a teenager, for instance, she used to crank call her aunts, impersonating editors and dissatisfied clients. “I remember once I did a very nice interview with my aunt Carla, pretending to be a journalist from a very important Italian magazine. I called on the private phone, so she didn’t have time to check with the press office,” she says with a chuckle.

Fendi also describes herself as the “most rebellious” of the Fendi clan. After all, she is the only family member who faked her own wedding. Indeed, for her February 1984 “marriage” to French jeweler Bernard Delettrez, she was three months pregnant with her first child, Giulio Cesare, and wore a beribboned red silk faille cutaway gown, short in front and trailing into a train in back. Lagerfeld designed it. “He knew I was pregnant, so he said, ‘Well, a white dress is not very good,’” she recalls. “And I was maybe becoming a bit round from the pregnancy, so he said, ‘We’ll show the legs.’” Though Fendi’s mother knew the wedding was bogus, not many others did. “You invite people to the wedding, but they’re not going to ask to see the papers, eh?” Fendi notes in her staccato Italian inflection, adding that some guests only recently learned the truth.

So it wasn’t such a big deal when, two years ago, her jewelry designer daughter Delfina (also with Delettrez) announced she was having a baby girl with her boyfriend, actor Claudio Santamaria. The bigger shock for Fendi, however, was becoming a grandmother before she hit 50. “People look at me and ask, ‘What? Nonna?’” she says. “It’s strange, but for me it’s like having another daughter, so it’s not so different in my mind.” In addition to Giulio Cesare, 24, and Delfina, 21, Fendi has a third child, Leonetta, 12, whose father’s identity she has never divulged, revealing only that he’s a lawyer.

The day after the Fendi show was Leonetta’s birthday—the first one ever celebrated together by mother and daughter. “Every other time there was a meeting or show or fittings,” Fendi explains. “You know, when she was little she didn’t know which was the exact date, so we cheated, moving the birthday around to when it was convenient.”

Rather than observing birthdays, Fendi usually spends the postshow period poring over the various reviews. “I get up early to read them,” she notes. She’s plugged in to the news of other designers, too, following the work of Duro Olowu and Christopher Kane in London, while her favorites in Milan are Prada and Jil Sander. “Prada, she takes a risk; she’s a vital energy to fashion,” says Fendi. Of Dolce & Gabbana she remarks, “They are more commercial oriented, maybe because they sell a lot, I don’t know.” On Armani: “He’s a superman for me because he kept the company in his hands. But he was only one, so maybe it’s easier.” And Versace: “Too sexy for my taste.”

Recently Fendi has also been making inroads in the film industry. She has her own production company, First Sun, launched in 2007 with Italian director Luca Guadagnino; this year marks the debut of their first film, Io Sono L’Amore, a romantic drama starring Tilda Swinton (its release date is still pending). “It’s a story about an Italian family in the textiles business,” says Fendi, making clear that it’s a personal side project.

Yet film is only one outside interest. Were it not for the fashion gig, Fendi muses she could be doing any number of things, rattling off a laundry list of would-be careers, from screenwriter and director to psychiatrist (“I like complex personalities”) and sculptor. “I think it would be interesting to become a nun,” she adds, “and start exploring religion.” Once upon a time Fendi wanted to become an actress, a yen she attributes to a family tradition in which the children organized the dinner-party entertainment. (Delfina previously had the acting bug; Leonetta still does.)

“I remember when I had to be the seven dwarves, all at once, because I was the little one,” she recalls. “It was stressful. Can you imagine? All seven!” At another shindig, this time for a Lagerfeld birthday celebration, the young Fendis dressed up as various fashion personalities. Silvia played two characters, her aunt Paola—“very theatrical,” she says, jumping into another mock impression—and editor Anna Piaggi. “That was easy,” she says. “It was just a pillow with a vase, flowers, everything, on my head.

“You know, when you are creative, you are creative in anything,” Fendi continues. She pauses a bit before making one final conclusion: “Probably I would do what I am doing. I think I’m good at this.”