Handbags made out of volleyball nets and soda cans, courtesy of one of the sisters of the Fendi family used to face assaults by animal rights activists.
BERLIN — Before the interview starts, Ilaria Venturini Fendi needs something to eat. It’s nearly 2 p.m. and she hasn’t had time today for a proper lunch.
This is of course not just any old ewe’s milk cheese: it comes from the Roman designer’s own farm. "Many people think that cheese is a vegetarian product, but the fact is that they use the intestines of lambs and calves to make the rennet," Fendi explains. "Instead, we use thistles that grow in our fields to make our rennet. They give the cheese a slightly bitter taste."
As she stands there munching on her cheese, Ilaria Venturini Fendi looks Italian in the very best way, as if she just stepped out of a Visconti movie. There’s a little bit of Anna Magnani to her, just a touch of harshness to her features, a prominent nose, heart-shaped mouth. In her low-cut black top and wide slacks that flow around her legs like a skirt, she exudes in equal measure both the dignity of a well-born signora paired with a kind of laid-back non-conformism.
Visible under the curly hair she wears in a braid are pearl-covered earrings made from the tabs of cans. An opulent bracelet of silver circles on one wrist derives from what were once the bottoms of cans. Fendi designed both pieces for Carmina Campus, which in Latin means "chants of the fields." And the story of her label is related both to the fields as well as the cheese she makes.
Ilaria is the youngest daughter of Anna Fendi, one of the five Fendi sisters who during the 1950s and 1960s (and with the help of head designer Karl Lagerfeld) turned the fur and leather company their parents founded into one of the major Italian luxury labels. In 2001 the family sold the company to LVMH.
Bits and pieces
Today, Silvia Venturini Fendi, Ilaria’s sister, is in charge of Fendi’s accessories and men’s collections and works as co-designer with Lagerfeld on the women’s clothes line. So Ilaria comes from one of the most respected fashion dynasties in Italy that has also made a specialist name for itself working with furs of every conceivable variety. A recent Fendi hit were the “fur monsters” made from mink or fox to hang like charms on handbags.
But what does Ilaria Venturini Fendi do? She designs handbags. No surprise there. What is a surprise is what the bags are made of: bits and pieces of fabric she buys in the factories of other Italian designers; safari tents; old volleyball nets; trash bags; soft drink cans. They are pieces of patchwork art, and no way can you tell that the materials used were originally destined for the garbage heap.
When people find out, the reaction is astonishment at the imagination that could make a piece of volleyball netting pulled over some camouflage fabric look that good. But the designs retain a kind of rebellious quality, and they wouldn’t be for the sort of woman you see walking along Avenue Montaigne in Paris with her Kelly bag. Fendi’s designs mirror the will of a woman who wants to do things differently and they are intended for similarly inclined buyers.
In 2006, Ilaria Venturini Fendi founded Carmina Campus, for which she also designs accessories like jewelry and furniture. She uses recycled materials throughout, has the pieces made in Italy, and couples the production of her collections with social projects.
Within the framework of a project with the International Trade Center, Fendi has a less expensive line made in Africa for Carmina Campus in which only local materials are used. There’s a little card in each bag on which every material used to make the bag is listed, along with how long it took to produce the bag.
"When you think of recycling you normally think of something cheap," Fendi points out. Less expensive or otherwise, her point is that this too is a luxury line into which is poured as much care and know-how as anything bearing a designer label.
Her background plays a role in that. Because before Ilaria Venturini Fendi found her way to becoming a fighter for more environmental consciousness and sustainability in fashion she had very naturally taken her place within the Fendi company.
"To have been born into that family shaped for better or worse what my course would look like," she says.
There were things that didn’t sit with her: “If I wanted to see my mother I had to go to see her at the workshop.” The young Ilaria was also at odds with the renown the Fendi name had acquired in association with fur.
But on the up side, her father had a small farm that they went to, where she learned how to ride horses. As a young girl she wanted to be a vet. "As I was growing up, animal protectionists conducted a real war against our company. I still remember how they came into our stores and poured blood-like red coloring all over the clothes. It made me feel like a butcher’s daughter."
She nevertheless decided on a career with Fendi. In the 1990s she worked as an accessories designer for the younger secondary line called Fendissime, and later designed shoes for Fendi. But she was increasingly dissatisfied with the rhythm of her working years determined as it was by fashion shows. "Every season things had to go even faster. Everything we’d designed was suddenly old and we had to start all over again."
For a while she had wanted to start spending weekends with her horses out in the country. In 2004, a tip from her riding instructor led her to a farm for sale in Parco Veio nature preserve (formerly the Etruscan city of Veio) in the northern part of Rome province.
Finding the farm made the move toward a more conscious, less fast-paced life much more drastic than originally intended. "I quit my job and bought this wonderful farm." Fendi earned an agriculture degree, hired staff, and from then on devoted her time to her sheep and chickens and growing organic vegetables. After the initial shock, her family accepted her decision. "They saw how happy my new life made me." As far as she was concerned, she’d drawn a line under fashion.
But it was her farm that set the course for her independent Carmina Campus project. "At some point I put together a little bag to pack the cheese I made myself to give as Christmas presents," Fendi recalls.
She was feeling like doing a little creative work again, but this time she wanted what she made not only to look good but to contribute to change.
The first real collection was made from old conference bags that Fendi converted for an NGO. Her name and contacts would later turn out to be a big help in getting Italian manufacturers to produce her label, although the fact that they were suffering may well have contributed to their readiness. "These were the days of "Fast Fashion," everybody was having their stuff made in China and Italian producers were going under."
At The Corner, the Berlin designer boutique, Fendi is showing small bags made out of old leather samples that she designed for condoms. They are intended to sensitize people to the importance of wearing condoms in the fight against AIDS. She too is a fighter, just differently from the animal protectionists who once stormed Fendi boutiques.
"My family gave me my love of beauty and for things handcrafted, as well as a respect for materials. I’m so grateful for that," she says. As soon as her kids are grown, she says, she wants to leave Rome and make the farm her permanent home.
Then she can ride her horse across the ancient land of the Etruscans as often as she wants.