I’ve been profiling fashion houses for longer than I can remember, and nobody I’m close to has much cared—until I told a bestie with a closet full of marquee Belgians that I was going to Reggio Emilia, Italy, to write about Max Mara, to commemorate its 70th anniversary. “Girl,” she said, making a sound like she was dropping dead, “Max Mara is the best. So chic, easy to wear, well made. You put it on, and you’re good.” More or less the same rhapsody poured forth from every woman I talked to that week.
Max Mara, a pragmatic label that specializes in executive suite–ready tailored separates, captivates women in a way that flightier fashion brands simply cannot. (The group includes eight subsidiary companies, the best known of which are Sportmax and Marina Rinaldi, an early player in the plus-size market.) Largely, this is because the product, while gently au courant in its silhouette, is not trend-based, but needs-based. The winds of fashion might shift, but good luck finding a tailored skirt without a pocket on Max Mara’s racks, ever. The proof of the company’s winning formula—a changing seasonal offer, with legions of always available classics—is in the years the clothes live in your closet. Shopping at Max Mara is not a sybaritic impulse, but a Cartesian one.
“It’s about the logic of a man’s wardrobe, but for women,” explains Laura Lusuardi, 75, Max Mara’s design director emeritus, whose main domain today is the company’s impressive archive and library. The essence of Lusuardi’s dictum can be boiled down to a single coat: the 101801, which was designed by Anne Marie Beretta in 1981. “Put it on,” Lusuardi says, holding one out. Enveloped in gray double-faced wool felt, her short gray hair neatly combed into a pompadour, Lusuardi slides the coat over my shoulders. It drapes across my back like a protective cocoon with a sumptuous nap. “This one is the best one, for me,” Lusuardi continues, pointing out the proportions between the buttons and the pockets, and the drop of the lapel. To this day, it remains the company’s best-seller, and not a single stitch has changed since its debut, four decades ago.
Max Mara was founded in 1951 by the Italian entrepreneur Achille Maramotti, when he was just 24, with the aim of creating high-end feminine clothing produced with industrial processes. His mother was the head of a sewing school, and owned pattern books that included life hacks like repurposing tattered adult clothing for growing children. Italy had been devastated by World War II, and was taking longer than its neighbors to climb back into prosperity; Maramotti’s big idea was to offer ready-made, fashionable tailoring—at first heavily inspired by the silhouettes of French couturiers—at a modest price, to impart dignity and sophistication to working women who needed a leg up. This was early in the couture to ready-to-wear timeline. It took most Parisian houses until the end of the 1950s to embrace the idea of premade fashion, and another 10 years after that for the ready-to-wear business to really hit its stride.
Max Mara’s archival fall/winter collections include a 1971 cape, designed by Karl Lagerfeld.
A green coat from 1989, over a pink coat from 1988.
The first Max Mara store opened in 1964, on Via Emilia, an ancient thoroughfare that cuts through Reggio Emilia, the pretty, historic northern Italian city that is the family’s hometown. Lusuardi joined the company that same year, and worked her way up from an assistant to the design team to the head of Pop, a label that would become Sportmax; eventually, she oversaw design across multiple sub-brands. As the business grew, Maramotti, rather than moving to a bigger hub, hunkered down in Reggio Emilia and built the facilities that the mother ship needed. Through the years, Max Mara recruited freelance consultants, including Beretta, Karl Lagerfeld, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, Narciso Rodriguez, Giambattista Valli, and Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler. Though it’s quite a roster, Max Mara generally prefers to keep these collaborators under wraps. “We never reveal the name of the associated designers, because the brand is more important,” Lusuardi says.
Today, the staff count in the Reggio Emilia headquarters is around 1,000. The factory, at about 107,000 square feet, is state-of-the-art and fulfills global production runs, rather than just prototyping samples. Spread out over three stories of a former stocking factory, the archive and the library that Lusuardi oversees encompass over 20,000 pieces from Max Mara collections, 8,000 garments and accessories from various other labels, 6,000 reference books, and about 40,000 magazines, some dating back to the 1920s. Then there’s the Collezione Maramotti, an extraordinary private contemporary art museum, and evidence of Maramotti’s visionary taste; it opened its doors as an institution in 2007, two years after his death, and includes everything from Cy Twomblys to Gerhard Richters to Julian Schnabels. And let’s not forget the nursery school, located near the factory, for the children of the workers, or the beautifully appointed farm-to-table cafeteria. (Try to visit when they’re serving pumpkin risotto.)
An archival fall/winter look from 1988.
An archival fall/winter look from 1959.
An archival fall/winter look from 1984.
A Teddy Bear coat, first designed by Ian Griffiths in 2013, from 2017.
“If you look around you, what we do is about essential rationalism, no?” asks Maria Giulia Prezioso Maramotti Germanetti. She tells me of a company-wide decision, pre-Covid, to reduce product output by 40 percent. “We’re not a listed company, so we don’t have the pressure of releasing quarterly statements. It’s a state of mind that says, I don’t want to maximize profit; I want to do what’s right and sustainable for the business.” A granddaughter of Achille Maramotti’s, she is now head of Max&Co., a Europe-only contemporary line that distills the Max Mara ethos while knocking a few hundred euros off the price tag. While her uncle Luigi Maramotti is Max Mara’s chairman, and both of her parents work in the family business, Germanetti, 37, is one of the key members of what the family calls “Gen 3,” the generation being groomed to eventually take over. She started her professional life working on the Max Mara shop floor in Milan; as with her cousins and siblings, her rise through the ranks wasn’t a given: “You build your own career. If anything, Gen 2 was stricter with us than with nonfamily members, but fair enough.”
The proof of the company’s winning formula—a changing seasonal offer, with legions of always available classics—is in the years the clothes live in your closet. Shopping at Max Mara is not a sybaritic impulse, but a Cartesian one.
Designer Ian Griffiths is one of the most important “nonfamily members,” and the closest thing Max Mara has to a traditional creative director. He was recruited 35 years ago, when he was still studying fashion at the Royal College of Art in London, and ended up overseeing Max Mara’s runway collections. Griffiths is responsible for another best-seller, the Teddy Bear coat, a wool and alpaca jersey bathrobe style with a fluffy surface pile like that of a stuffed animal. Like Lusuardi, Griffiths is agnostic on the myth of the auteur, but he is happy to pipe up when necessary. “There came a point when, to interface with the industry, you had to have a mouthpiece to speak on behalf of the product,” he says, days after my trip to Reggio Emilia, on the set of Max Mara’s spring/summer 2022 catalog shoot in Paris. The pictures, featuring the model Greta Hofer, mirror the company’s look over the decades: simple, lovely, and efficient. There is an implicit understanding that an agency’s or a photographer’s ideas will never overshadow the Max Mara woman or her clothes. (Hofer is wearing a fetching striped midthigh skirt. With pockets.)
One thing Griffiths is very happy to discuss is the women who inspire his designs. Among them are his mother, an English teacher; the writer Dorothy Parker; the punk singer Siouxsie Sioux; the screen legend Marilyn Monroe; and the politicians Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi’s most iconic fashion moment to date involved a brick red Max Mara coat from fall 2012, which she had bought for Barack Obama’s second inauguration, but which went viral in 2018, when she wore it striding out of the White House after a contentious meeting with then President Trump. The pictures of Pelosi, donning her sunglasses like an action hero, earned the coat several Twitter handles of its own.
“Laura taught me that trends might be relevant for a moment, but that’s not the same thing as style,” Germanetti says. “Style you build over the years, and it has continuity and consistency. If you want to keep the bar straight, you need to know the difference. We have a narrative with our clients that is about timelessness. If I said the word ‘safe,’ a designer would kill me, and I don’t like that word. But that sense of security—that’s our state of mind.” Security is not the easiest way to work the fashion media into a froth, which might explain why Max Mara is not on the tip of everyone’s tongue in today’s hypebeasty climate. But that, in the long run, might be the company’s secret weapon. “The problem with fashion houses now is that they’re so self-referential,” Germanetti says. “What you thought might be a creative concept, women couldn’t care less about. As long as the clothes have the right price, quality, fit—as long as they make women look good—that’s the lesson.”
Hair by Werner Amort at Julian Watson Agency; makeup by Kassandra Frua De Angeli for W-MManagement; models: Anita Pozzo at Women NY; Britt Oosten at Elite NY; Kayako Higuchi at Women Milan; Ronja Berg at Paparazzi Model Management; casting by Michelle Lee Casting; photo assistant: Andrea Schiliro; fashion assistant: Angelica Arienti; hair assistant: Alfredo Cesarano; makeup assistant: Gabriele Brunelli.