12 July 2020

Carla Fendi - fashion executive

Turned family business into global giant

Carla Fendi turned her parents' shop into a global fashion empire
Carla Fendi turned her parents' shop into
a global fashion empire
Carla Fendi, whose flair for marketing helped propel her mother and father’s small fur and leather business into a worldwide fashion giant, was born on this day in 1937 in Rome.

Under Fendi’s guidance, the business became so successful that at one point it had 215 stores worldwide and generated more than $1.2 billion in annual sales.

She also helped turn a young Paris-based German designer named Karl Lagerfeld into a household name, having taken up a friend’s recommendation to give him a try when the firm needed some fresh ideas in the 1960s.

Carla Fendi was one of five sisters who grew up in the leather workshop and fur boutique run by Edoardo and Adele Fendi in the Via del Plebiscito, near Rome’s Piazza Venezia. The family lived in rooms above the shop.

When Edoardo died in 1954, the sisters began to help the mother with the business, gradually taking on more responsibility. The business had a solid, up-market clientele for its bags and cases but Carla sensed it needed to appeal to attract younger, more fashion-conscious customers if it were to expand.

In 1964, with Carla becoming the driving force, the business opened new premises in Via Borgognona, the street that runs parallel with Via dei Condotti in the heart of Rome’s fashion district near the Spanish Steps.  The following year, needing someone to create contemporary designs, they took on Lagerfeld, who had been an apprentice to Pierre Balmain in Paris and was freelancing in Rome while he studied art history

The famous 'double F' logo, designed by Karl Lagerfeld
The famous 'double F' logo,
designed by Karl Lagerfeld
Lagerfeld largely focused on fur initially, his innovative use of mole, rabbit, and squirrel pelts in addition to the more traditional furs soon catching the eye.  Carla, meanwhile, made contacts within the film industry and it was not long before actresses Catherine Deneuve, Sophia Loren and Laura Antonelli were wearing Fendi furs.  Lagerfeld also came up with the brand’s trademark ‘double F’ logo.

Fendi began to grow exponentially in the late 1960s, after a fashion industry contact had helped Carla secure a window display in the prestigious Fifth Avenue store of Henri Bendel in New York. The exposure turned Fendi almost overnight into a byword for luxury in the United States, giving Carla a foothold in the world’s biggest market.

By the time Adele died in 1978, the Fendi range included scarves, ties, gloves and sunglasses in addition to bags and furs. In 1977, Lagerfeld unveiled his first ready-to-wear fashion lines.

The backlash against fur in the early 1990s posed a challenge for the company, of which Carla became chairman and president in 1994, but another piece of design genius secured Fendi’s future. This time it was not Lagerfeld but Carla’s niece, Silvia Venturini Fendi - daughter of Anna - who took the credit, designing a lightweight but capacious handbag known as the ‘baguette’.

Fendi's best-selling 'baguette' handbag, designed by Silvia Venturini Fendi
Fendi's best-selling 'baguette' handbag,
designed by Silvia Venturini Fendi
Inspired by the shape of French bread loaves and worn across the body, the baguette soon became a must-have accessory, with pop star Madonna and actress Julia Roberts among its fans.  Despite some special editions costing up to $35,000, more than a million bags were sold.

Carla and her sisters sold half of Fendi’s shares to Prada and LVMH in 1999, a deal that valued the company at $950 million. By 2002, the French luxury group LVMH had control, although Carla remained president until 2008.

Freed from day-to-day involvement in running the business, Carla focused more attention on the Carla Fendi Foundation, the charitable arm of the company, which paid for the restoration of Rome’s Trevi Fountain among other projects. An enthusiastic supporter of music and the arts, she also restored the Caio Melisso theatre in the Umbrian city of Spoleto, where she was a long-term patron of the Festival dei Due Mondi.

Married since 1960 to former pharmacist Candido Speroni, she lived in an apartment in a 16th-century palazzo in Rome. She died in 2017, having been widowed two years earlier. Her funeral took place at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Montesanto, in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo.

The couple had no children but Carla was aunt to 11 nephews and nieces, of whom Silvia remains on the board of Fendi as its creative director. Lagerfeld continued to work for the brand until his death in 2019.

Rome's Via Condotti, viewed from the city's landmark Spanish Steps
Rome's Via Condotti, viewed from the city's
landmark Spanish Steps
Travel tip:

The Via dei Condotti - known generally as Via Condotti - takes its name from the conduits that carried water to the Roman Baths of Agrippa. Beginning at the foot of the Spanish Steps, it links the Tiber with the Pincio hill. Today, it is the street which contains the greatest number of Rome-based Italian fashion retailers, equivalent to Milan's Via Montenapoleone, Paris's Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré, Florence's Via de' Tornabuoni or London's Bond Street.  The street is also famous for the historic Antico Caffè Greco, which opened in 1760. Once the haunt of literary and musical figures such as Stendhal, Goethe, Byron, Liszt and Keats, it is the oldest bar in Rome and second oldest in Italy, after Caffè Florian in Venice.

The colossal monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of Italy, dominates Piazza Venezia
The colossal monument to Victor Emmanuel II,
the first king of Italy, dominates Piazza Venezia
Travel tip

The Piazza Venezia, close to where Carla Fendi and her sisters grew up,  is dominated by the vast Altare della Patria, otherwise known as the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, and sometimes 'the wedding cake' or Il Vittoriano, a monument built in honour of Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a unified Italy. It features Corinthian columns, fountains, an equestrian sculpture of Victor Emmanuel and two statues of the goddess Victoria riding on quadrigas. Including the winged victories, it touches 81 metres (266 feet) tall. The base of the structure houses a small museum of Italian Unification.

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