“The best way to pay homage to Karl tonight is to be on that hill where all the emperors used to build their houses. He deserves a space there among them because, for sure, at Fendi, he was not the kaiser, but the emperor,” says Silvia Venturini Fendi, mere hours before her FW19 haute couture show at the Temple of Venus on Rome’s Palatine Hill.
The show’s location atop of Rome‘s birthplace was chosen mutually by Fendi and Lagerfeld, and it couldn’t have been more poignant. The Dawn of Romanity marks not only the final bow to Lagerfeld but also signals the rebirth of the brand. “Today we are writing a new page after 54 years of working with Karl,” explains Venturini Fendi. “It’s like the scene of something new.”
In the show, 54 models – echoing the number of years of Lagerfeld’s tenure; the longest for any house – walk down an ornate, marble- clad runway at the foot of the Temple of Venus, which is the latest of Rome’s treasures to be restored by the fashion house. The soundtrack is ethereal and the mood pensive, yet hopeful. There is no mistaking that this is more than a farewell – it’s game-changing for the fashion industry, setting the new tone for the company.
While Lagerfeld offered thoughts and opinions toward the collection before passing away on February 19, 2019, aged 85, the show is 100% Venturini Fendi’s. “This is the first collection without Karl [his last collection for Fendi was FW19 ready-to-wear] so it is important,” she explains, while sitting comfortably in a makeshift living room in Fendi’s headquarters in Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana. The gigantic building, originally commissioned by dictator Benito Mussolini, is now a haven to fashion, with all signs of fascism eradicated. The headquarters are now a beacon symbolizing the industry’s success in the city.
Already creative director for accessories, menswear, and children, Venturini Fendi’s move into haute couture doesn’t come as a surprise, or as a hardship. It’s a challenge she is happy to undertake. “Of course, I feel pressure, as with every collection, and I have a big responsibility, but I’m used to it. I was well-trained and I’m quite confident of what I’ve learned.”
Venturini Fendi has often cited Lagerfeld as a mentor. He was hired by the Fendi sisters, which included her mother, Anna, in 1965. That same year, he designed the house’s iconic FF logo in a matter of seconds. Venturini Fendi was just five years old at the time and was instantly captivated by him. “Ever since I’ve had memories, Karl was part of them,” she says fondly. “I understood that he wasn’t part of my family but that he was someone very, very special. He wasn’t always there – he was always coming and going – but I felt that I had to be part of his life. I understood that he was one of the most important people for my mother, so I wanted to be as important to him as he was to her. He was amused that a little girl was in the atelier instead of being at home playing with her sisters or with friends.”
Venturini Fendi can talk endlessly about her fond memories but with the show around the corner, she stops short. “It’s a long story, but exciting,” she explains. Their bond was unbreakable, with Lagerfeld helping mold her into the formidable fashion force she is today. “He taught me to never be satisfied,” she shares. “I’ve learned to never think that you have achieved something. Every collection is like a new start and a new beginning. The moment you finish a collection, you have to prove yourself again in the next.” She finds this process refreshing and credits Lagerfeld’s “great sense of humor” for making the work more enjoyable. “He was interesting and pleasant to work with,” she adds. “We used to work late at night, even weekends – fashion is nonstop – but we felt that the work was light because we enjoyed it.”
Another lesson that resonates is Lagerfeld’s disapproval of looking back – he was always about moving forward into the future, a trait Venturini Fendi took on board with Dawn of Romanity. “This is the first collection without Karl, so I wanted to dedicate it to him, but paying homage to Karl is not easy because the only homage he would love, is to see something new,” she says, explaining that while she turned to the archives for inspiration, the collection is far from a retrospective. “Everyone knows Karl hated to talk about the past, so I tried to avoid any specific reference.” This was no easy feat. “I wanted to go to the roots of the brand. And at the roots, Karl is everywhere. When talking about Fendi, it’s like talking about Karl.”
For her couture line, which features 21 non-fur pieces, Venturini Fendi sought inspiration from the patterns in Roman architecture, as well as Raniero Gnoli’s Marmore Romana, which highlights ancient artisans and marvels at classic structures. The result is a collection that explores the metamorphic splendor of marble and geometric design with mosaic-style effects, intricate laser cut treatment, and beading work. The silhouettes include sweeping tailored lines, ample draping of empress dresses, tucked shoulders, and a graphic décolletage. There’s also a distinct late- Sixties vibe, perhaps a nod to the era Lagerfeld joined the brand. For the accessories, the woman who invented the It bag went supersize with her iconic Baguette. Overall, the looks celebrate the cinematic allure of a Roman woman.
“To me, I want to show a woman who is used to living and being surrounded by beauty,” explains the designer. “She doesn’t want to go unnoticed among those incredible walls, art, and frescoes. She wants to stand out and feel sure of herself. Her attitude and her clothes are always interesting, different, and eclectic.” Does she feel confident Lagerfeld would approve? “Well, who knows. I think so,” she says softly. “I think he is proud of me, otherwise he would never have asked me to join him in the creative studio at his side. He understood that I was committed and hardworking.”
The creative director is also proud of the house’s efforts to preserve the treasures of its city – Fendi Roma was founded in Rome in 1925. “It is a city that needs care. We feel it’s good to give back because it gives a lot to us in terms of inspiration,” she explains. The house has funded various restorations of Rome’s most famous icons, including the Trevi Fountain in 2015. The following year, Fendi used the landmark as the backdrop for its 90th birthday celebrations. The house also paid €2.5 million towards the restoration and protection of the Temple of Venus – the jaw-dropping setting for the couture show.
Fendi is proud of its heritage, and that includes Karl Lagerfeld. The death of the designer may have ended one of fashion’s longest love stories, but his role is in no danger of becoming a myth. If the couture show confirms anything, it is that Mr Lagerfeld is a legend, and Fendi will always preserve that just like its home.
Originally published on the November 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia