Freedom, fur and Kim Jones — the new era of Fendi

Serge Brunschwig, the Italian brand's chief executive, on the making of a fashion dynasty and the label's future

Silvia Venturini Fendi, second from left, and Kim Jones, second from right, with model Linda Evangelista, centre, at a show celebrating the Fendi Baguette's 25th anniversary. Photo: Fendi
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The Fendi story is one of strong women and even stronger familial bonds.

There are the founders, Adele and Edoardo Fendi, who opened their first handbag and fur workshop in Rome in 1926; their five formidable daughters, who shaped the label into a global powerhouse; their granddaughter, Silvia Venturini Fendi, who joined the company in 1992 and continues to play a day-to-day role as artistic director of menswear, accessories and children; and now her daughter, Delfina Delettrez Fendi, who serves as creative director of jewellery, launching the house’s first high jewellery collection this year.

But it is not only blood family that is central to this tale. “They believe in the open family, the chosen family,” says Serge Brunschwig, Fendi’s chief executive, who recounts the Fendi story as if it were a modern-day fairy tale.

“The five sisters take the decision in 1965 to hire an unknown German designer and ask him to join the family," Brunschwig tells The National. "And that man arrives and starts to shake up everything. He says: ‘I am going to cut up that fur that you like so much. I am going to cut it into pieces and dye it and reassemble it. And they accepted.”

Serge Brunschwig, chief executive of Fendi, recounts the brand's story as if it were a modern-day fairy tale. Photo: Fendi

That German designer was, of course, one Karl Lagerfeld, who would spend the remainder of his life, an incredible 54 years, as part of the Fendi family. He brought Silvia into the fold and, following his death in 2019, she has, in turn, embraced “a new ‘Karl’, whose name is Kim, and he is English this time, and joins with the same passion for the brand and the Fendi woman”, says Brunschwig.

Kim Jones is the man responsible for carrying Fendi into its post-Lagerfeld era, as artistic director of Fendi’s couture and women’s collections. A switch of creative leadership after more than half a century seems like a monolithic undertaking — but the transition has been smooth, says Brunschwig, largely because of how Lagerfeld himself used to operate.

“Karl left two things. First, a sense of tomorrow. He would sit backstage at his shows and at the end, he would applaud, then stand up and say: ‘And now, next.’ He left this sense that tomorrow is more important than today. We have this responsibility of always inventing the future. That’s his legacy.

“We also have this archive that is full of treasures. Kim is happy to visit from time to time. Karl, himself, would not do it, because he was always about tomorrow. But Kim has joined the family and these treasures are part of the heritage. He is happy to use them, if he thinks they are relevant to what he wants to say in the current moment.”

The young Englishman brings modernity to the house, Brunschwig says. “He is also bringing this extraordinary sense of tailoring, coming from the men’s universe. He brings many things, but also this sense of proportion and silhouette. He has already given a new silhouette to the Fendi woman.”

A look from Fendi's spring/summer 2023 show in Milan. AFP

Jones’s creations have a new home in the UAE, with the brand having unveiled its expanded flagship in The Dubai Mall at the end of November. “Dubai and The Dubai Mall are extremely important sites for luxury,” says Brunschwig. “I’ve always thought The Dubai Mall was a masterpiece of commercial architecture. To be able to express the brand and its values in such a place is beautiful. If The Dubai Mall continues as it is, it will always be a priority for a brand like Fendi.”

Now double in size, the brand’s boutique sits over two levels, with a metal facade, LED arches and diagonal glass windows embellished with classic Lagerfeld sketches. It offers a complete immersion into the Fendi world, with a display of leather goods and accessories, furniture by Fendi Casa, men’s and women’s ready-to-wear, couture pieces and the house’s signature furs, as well as a fine jewellery collection created by Delfina specifically for the store opening and a number of other limited-edition pieces only available here. These include a Peekaboo Mini bag that is entirely embroidered with crystal beads that have been dipped in 24K gold, and a silver Baguette bag with matching Fendi First slingback heels.

An embellished Fendi Baguette. Photo: Fendi

Celebrating its 25th birthday this year, the Baguette represents one of Fendi’s biggest success stories. It was immortalised in popular culture as one of Carrie Bradshaw’s go-to accessories in Sex and the City, and became one of the world’s first It-bags.

It has existed in countless renditions since its launch in 1997, and to mark its silver anniversary, is currently being offered in 25 re-editions.

Collaborations with Japanese brand Porter, actress Sarah Jessica Parker, who played Bradshaw, jewellery house Tiffany & Co and designer Marc Jacobs are set to follow, highlighting how the bag has been an inspiration for many over the years.

“There is no better demonstration of our mastery of materials,” says Brunschwig of the bag. “We can do 1,000 different versions, even though it is such a simple shape. That’s the reason it is still so relevant. The way that Kim and Silvia have played with it to celebrate the 25th anniversary is mind-blowing.

“But it’s not because it is an icon that it cannot evolve. It’s a living object, in a way. It’s sacred but, at the same time, you have the right to adapt it to current use. Which I think is one of the secrets of luxury. How are you making sure the Baguette is relevant for the functional use of today? If you don’t do that, you are in the museum.”

Fendi's boutique at The Dubai Mall has doubled in size. Photo: Fendi

Nobody could accuse Fendi of not moving with the times. A newly opened factory in the Tuscan countryside is a case in point. The facility has been built with sustainability at the fore and is on track to becoming the first LEED Platinum-certified leather factory in the world by early next year. It is set on a 30,000-square-metre site in Capannuccia that was formerly the home of the Fornace Brunelleschi kiln and a brick quarry.

Fendi set out to rejuvenate the scarred landscape and “create extraordinary conditions for our workers”, complete with tree and solar-panel covered roofs, glass walls that maximise on views of the surrounding topography and a 700-tree olive grove that encircles the building. The facility will also create employment for 700 additional people in the coming three years.

“If you have a large audience, like we have, you also have a large responsibility,” says Brunschwig. “It’s extremely important that we support sustainability — and one aspect of that is employment and how we sustain the local community.”

A look from the Fendi Baguette anniversary capsule collection. Photo: Fendi

The idea of caring for people and creating employment re-emerges when the topic of fur comes up. Fur has been integral to the Fendi story and the brand remains committed to using it. I suggest it is a “contentious” issue. “Not for me,” Brunschwig retorts.

“We are a master of materials. It comes down to what a customer wants. It’s about freedom. If they want to buy fur, we can do it. If they would like our expertise, but in a different material, we can also do it. We have started to expand our shearling line, for example. If people want to buy shearling rather than mink, they are welcome. It is done by the same craftsmen, who are very dear to us and we want to protect them. We have to protect animals, yes, but people as well.”

Fendi’s ability to pivot with the times was perhaps best illustrated in May, when the house teamed up with fellow Italian fashion brand Versace to create the Fendace line. In a fun-filled switching of roles, Donatella Versace recast Fendi through her vision, while Jones and Silvia brought their perspective to the Versace universe.

“It was extremely spontaneous,” says Brunschwig. “There was no plan, which is why it worked. It was really a matter of Donatella, Kim and Silvia meeting and having a nice evening together and just saying over dinner, why don’t we do this? Let’s swap roles. It was something very genuine. They did it with their hearts.”

After all, there’s always room for newcomers in the Fendi family.

Updated: December 26, 2022, 7:50 AM