Alberta Ferretti has been crafting exquisite clothes for women for over four decades. As the owner of brands like Moschino, the Italian designer also harnesses significant business power.
Rain pounds the cement like a showering of coins. Its repetitive clacks drown out the clomping of feet on the tarmac as people deplane the Airbus that has landed in Bologna from Paris. In the dead of mid-January, the air in Northern Italy is biting cold. The purpose of this voyage is to meet designer and businesswoman Alberta Ferretti; on her turf, and where she headquartered her company Aeffe, a clothing manufacturer and distributor that owns and operates Alberta Ferretti, Moschino, Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini, and Pollini fashion brands. Here, it employs 500 people – and 1 400 worldwide – with offices in New York, London, Paris, Milan, and Hong Kong.
Driving down the Autostrada Adriatica, connecting Rimini to Cattolica, the A14 is surrounded by hills peppered with historic villages. I learn that Ferretti has renovated an entire borgo in the distance. This is where the designer was born and raised – and in a sense never left, even though throughout her life she has traveled to all corners of the world, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia long before the Kingdom flung open its doors. Our car pulls into a parking space before a large, corporate-looking building. The Aeffe headquarters appear surprisingly modern for a structure built in the Eighties. A tour up and down a labyrinth of rooms and corridors starts with aseptic offices dedicated to the four companies’ accounting and customer services, but where everything is centralized, I am explained. Aeffe, after all, is a publicly traded company with 350 million euros in 2022 annual revenue, and 138 mono-brand stores operating in 69 countries. From this sober aesthetic, color starts to permeate the space slowly, through various artworks, or from fashion pictures blown up and framed on the walls. Next, the first peeks of clothing announce the entryway to a dreamlike world. From the pattern cutters to the employees working with programs that help decide the exact fabric measurements to minimize waste – everyone bustles about with serene focus.
“It’s a good environment, and I am very proud of this,” says Ferretti behind the desk of her bright office. Petite, she is dressed in black pants and a sweater knitted with the globe in the shape of a heart. The words “help me” are sewn below it. Her blonde hair is fashioned in a wind-swept bob that highlights her heart-shaped face. Her hazel eyes are framed with kohl, and her mouth always upturned in a smile. Everything about her feels dynamic. Behind Ferretti’s chair are framed photographs, notably of Queen Rania of Jordan, a friend whom she has known for years. There is also a signed sketch of Meryl Streep in the gray Alberta Ferretti gown she wore to the Oscars in 2009. On the walls are fashion photographs of Amber Valletta, Tatjana Patitz, and Shalom Harlow. The women express freedom, frozen in happiness and time. “I always loved the way she walked the runway; like she was going for a stroll,” Ferretti says, following my eyes to Harlow’s hip-swinging gait.
There is no one woman or muse for the ever-curious Ferretti. She explains, it is all women who interest her, and any woman in the right outfit can be made to look and feel better. Ferretti’s study of the female form started years ago, when she operated her boutique Jolly Shop in Cattolica. Conversations with her clientele helped her to understand what women wanted – how they desired a garment to fit, what worked, and what didn’t. Along with other designers’ clothes, she also made and sold some of her own, “a manner of humble self-expression,” she smiles of her first designs. Some decades before her, another Italian couturier had a similar start, Elsa Schiaparelli. “I kept in touch with the needs of women who had confidence in me and tried to help them find their type… Women’s looks should correspond to their way of life, to their occupation, to their loves, and also to their pockets,” wrote Schiaparelli in her 1954 autobiography, the method proving timeless.
When one client asked if she could buy and distribute her clothes, Ferretti agreed, ultimately handing over the management of the boutique to her younger brother Massimo and embarking on a new creative journey with a small team of eight. Soon, the signature Alberta Ferretti style heralding femininity was revealed. “Women used to dress in a very masculine way. They were entering the workforce and [that] implied a certain style of clothing. I remember watching movies in the Sixties, with my mother, and seeing women in their lingerie, watching how they would move, and seeing how wonderful they would feel in their skin; then, they would dress, and the magic disappeared,” she recalls. Chiffon, lace, and silk became Ferretti’s outerwear; fabric grazed the skin, and fluttered like butterfly wings. It was draped and delicately layered. She soon earned the moniker Queen of Lingerie, and season after season, year after year, Ferretti persisted. The world’s women, from Angelina Jolie to Elisa Sednaoui and Hailey Bieber, reveling in her creations. Now, she offers that she is keen to spend more time in the Middle East and become closer to her Arab customers. She’s still chatting with HH Princess Basma of Oman, whom she met at the recent Vogue Ball of Arabia, and a new trip to Al Ula is pending on her busy calendar after the upcoming ready-to-wear show in Milan.
All through these years, her eye for business has been forever in motion; very early she saw an opportunity to found something that was still new at the time in Italy – a major fashion business. Aeffe – the Italian pronunciation of her initials AF – was born in 1980. Massimo, with whom she gets on splendidly, took the reins as president, and Ferretti as vicepresident. They launched Franco Moschino in 1983, and for 10 years produced and distributed Jean Paul Gaultier, as well as Narciso Rodriguez. Today, Aeffe owns multiple brands. Did she ever face challenges due to her being a woman? “Never. I was so focused. I never even thought about it,” she says, her hazel eyes appearing to ponder the question as if for the first time.
The moment has arrived for il pranzo – lunch – and Ferretti has found a restaurant still open in the middle of January right on the sea. “I’ll drive,” she smiles. “I’ve always loved to drive.” Very Queen Elizabeth of you, I note. As if on cue, Ferretti motions to a black Land Rover and off we go, driving through the gentle landscape; direction, the sea. Inside the restaurant, the staff’s faces light up in Ferretti’s presence. The designer gazes out the window to observe the sailboats bob and points to birds swooping, while the sun breaks through the clouds the length of our meal. “I don’t have one happy moment, because I love simple things,” she says. “My life is made up of many happy moments.” We say “sì” to a café sorbet.
Originally published in the February 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia