Silvia Venturini Fendi
Silvia Venturini Fendi

Beyond the Baguette

Silvia Venturini Fendi on preserving cultural heritage through restoration projects, and the survival of luxury handbags

Earlier this month, Fendi’s much talked about art exhibition, A New Rome: The E.U.R. And The Palazzo Della Civiltà Italiana, came to a close. E.U.R. stands for Esposizione Universale Roma, and this exhibition, which featured paintings, photographs and videos from Italian artists, architects and film-makers, marked the Roman maison’s move to its new headquarters last October. The new address, the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, a symbol of Fascist architecture from World War II, is a seven-decade-old geometric building with six floors and 216 arches lining the palazzo. It is also called the Square Colosseum. Renovating it and moving there is Fendi’s way of reigniting its brand story by once again invoking its Roman roots. Before this, the brand contributed to the restoration of Rome’s iconic Trevi Fountain and the Complex of the Four Fountains.

Owned since 2001 by French luxury conglomerate LVMH, Fendi, the storied maker of fur and statement handbags, is at a curious crossroads. It has been 91 years since Adele and Edoardo Fendi opened the first Fendi boutique, in Rome, in 1925. Plus, this year marks two decades of the Fendi Baguette, an imaginative handbag interpretation of the long French bread loaf. The bag was created by Silvia Venturini Fendi, the granddaughter of Adele and Edoardo. As the creative director of accessories, menswear and kidswear at Fendi, she gave the global fashion industry the irrepressible term “It" bag. The slim accessory that got made in hundreds of tones, textures and embellishments, and could actually be tucked under the arm exactly like the traditional loaf of bread, went on to win the 2000 Fashion Group International Award for accessories and had a book, The Fendi Baguette Book, written about it.

Venturini Fendi would then create the Peekaboo, calling it the anti-Baguette, a reminder of the classic bag. She remains a true bag woman—whether it is the Dotcom bags, the Bag Bugs (pompom charms) or the Fendi Selleria, she continues to create interesting versions, some of which have found fame through enviable celebrity collaborations. Fendi’s boutique on New Bond Street in London opened with the Peekaboo Project in 2014, and another New York boutique on Madison Avenue opened with the 3Baguette Project last year.

In the last couple of years, though, not only has the rarity of luxury been challenged by the e-commerce boom, even the “It" bag’s formerly assured place as a superhero of accessories is on the decline.

Luxury brands are rewriting their stories with fresh impetus, paying heed to the need of the hour. Most are investing in corporate social responsibility initiatives, some are working on the restoration of historical places in their home countries, while still others are concentrating on digital strategies even as they launch new store concepts to keep the offline customer hooked. Fendi is doing all of this.

Venturini Fendi, of the caramel-coloured bob, who is known to dress in dark slacks, boyfriend sweaters and collared shirts, is the kind of woman who would rather inaugurate a store in rural India than speak at a high-brow conference, an insider tells us. In an email interview, she tells us why “It" bags are timeless and how luxury has become less evident, more whispered. Edited excerpts:

What, for you, is the most valuable part of your work today—Fendi’s overall commitment to philanthropy and corporate social responsibility or cutting-edge design and fashion?

I am particularly happy about what we are doing today as mecenates (patrons) in the city of Rome, with the restoration of the iconic Trevi Fountain and many other fountains. Another of our collaborations, the one with the Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro (ISCR), is Fendi’s support to young talent in the field of antique restoration, cultural heritage, the Made in Italy brand, along with the preservation of savoir faire. It is in perfect line with our DNA.

What does the new Palazzo Fendi mean to you?

The Palazzo Fendi embodies the spirit of Rome, which is very central to the Fendi family and to the maison. For me, it’s all about that unique tension between past and future, traditions and innovation. As the Fendi chief executive officer, Pietro Beccari, always says, it is a game changer, it embodies the new Fendi image, a great space dedicated to all product categories, including a large space dedicated to the men’s collection. In addition, (there is) a great selection of design pieces, such as The Armchair Of Thousand Eyes, created in collaboration with the designers Campana Brothers, featuring the iconic Bag Bugs.

Of all your contributions to Fendi, what is it that you hold most dear?

Every piece has a special memory for me…but I would say that the creation of the Baguette has a special place in my heart.

Don’t you think that the bag craze is on the decline and the obsession with ‘It’ bags on the wane?

“It" bags are timeless. It’s difficult to find a good recipe, there is no secret or rule, it’s all about taking risks and doing the right thing at the right moment.

Fendi’s new concept stores have a separate men’s universe. Is menswear overtaking women’s fashion in commercial interest and sale?

The constant attention to detail and quality, along with great experimentation, is the key to success of the men’s collection. It is an interpretation of the Fendi codes in a luxurious and contemporary way.

Of all the Fendi design initiatives over the years, which has been most memorable for you and why?

A great collaboration was the one with iconic women throughout the world on the occasion of the opening of our boutique on Madison Avenue, New York (last year) when five iconic women—Rihanna, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jourdan Dunn, Rachel Feinstein and Leandra Medine—personalized their own 3Baguette bag, perfectly embodying the Fendi spirit. And the London New Bond Street boutique opening (in 2014), when we launched the Peekaboo Project and collaborated with 10 strong and talented women, including singer Adele and Gwyneth Paltrow, who created their customized version of our iconic Peekaboo.

Given luxury’s overexposure in the digital age compared to its traditional aura of rarity, how do you propose to retain exclusivity?

I think that nowadays luxury is less evident and more whispered. At Fendi, we are always rediscovering our traditional values and handmade craftsmanship, yet projecting them to the future. That’s what sets us apart.

You had once told a visiting team of fashion editors from India that luxury means freedom. I was in that group. Do you still believe that?

It still is and always will be; it’s part of my DNA.

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