ROME, Italy — Fendi celebrated its 90th anniversary in Rome last night with a haute fourrure show called Legends and Fairy Tales. The models walked on the water of the Trevi Fountain. The spectacle was so exquisitely realised that even the famously unreflective Karl Lagerfeld was moved. “In my wildest imagination, I never thought something like this could exist,” he mused in a pre-show conversation. “To do this on a crystal bridge over the most famous fountain in the world? If that’s not a fairy tale, I don’t know what a fairy tale is.”
It all started with an early 20th century edition of East of the Sun, West of the Moon, a Norwegian fairy tale with pictures by the famous children’s book illustrator Kay Nielsen, which Lagerfeld found at his friend Sandy Brant’s place. His curiosity was piqued. “This was something from the North, we were making a fur collection, and the pictures were something in between art nouveau and art deco,” he explained. (It was also, coincidentally, an era when the designer liked the way fashion used fur, as opposed to later decades when everything got much too heavy for him.) “So we asked the estate for permission to use them.” And that is how Nielsen’s illustrations came to be reproduced in a minutely-intarsia-ed mink coat, or embroidered on a flowing empire-line gown then re-appliqued with fur and organza. (Contemporary artists Katy Bailey and Charlotte Gastaut also contributed ideas.)
The collection spun its own tale: a princess journeying from day to night, the colour palette darkening as she travelled further into the woods. Consistent throughout was the subtle application of Fendi’s extraordinary craftsmanship, the way, for instance, an insect’s wings illuminated by sunlight were duplicated in a tiny clutch of feathers, or the flowers around the hem of an organza dress had petals of mink.
Lagerfeld brought in Lemarié, the Chanel-owned Parisian atelier which specialises in feather work, to work on some of the fur detailing. That underscored the incredible lightness. (“Lightness is not unbearable,” he quipped, even though you could imagine some of the people he employed to pursue it might occasionally disagree.) Even the grandest gestures were similarly weightless. One dress in Persian lamb was perforated 5000 times, creating an unlikely lace.
This is a new golden age for Fendi. The creative triumvirate of Lagerfeld, Silvia Venturini Fendi and visionary chief executive Pietro Beccari (“A genius in his way,” Karl called him) has reinvigorated the house. For Silvia — Roman to the core in her dry humour, her cynicism, her appreciation of the decadent, the slightly perverse — it’s especially meaningful. “To walk on water inside the Trevi Fountain?” she marvelled last night. “If somebody had told me that could happen, I would have said ‘Impossible!’.”
She relishes the way Fendi presents an image of Rome to the world. It embodies the city’s contradictions, Colosseum and Vatican, pagan and Catholic. “And we’re a very secret story,” she added last night. “Romans like to keep a secret attitude.” How much longer that can last when you’re marching the magic of your ateliers across one of the most famous tourist landmarks in the world is debatable. Besides, Silvia was keen to advertise Fendi’s newest dimension. “Our fur is known to be the best, but I’m very proud of the clothes.” And rightfully so.
Artful use of fur and hide aside, the new collection starred languid empire lines, delicately embellished dresses in fairytale shades, a prettiness that managed to convey subtle power. Just like the heroine of Silvia's favourite fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood (though her favourite character in that story is, in fact, the grandmother. "I don't understand how she's alive at the end," she wondered. "Being a strong woman, I can only hope that if a wolf eats me, I'll still be alive.")
“I don’t feel myself getting older,” Lagerfeld insisted. “I live much better with myself than before. I can still improve. The minute you think you know it all, forget about it. You always have to think you’re lousy, you can do better, you’re lazy, you have to make an effort. That’s how I think about myself.”
Listen to that, world. Fendi’s next 90 years are shaping up nicely.
Disclosure: Tim Blanks travelled to Rome as a guest of Fendi.