Fendi, like many of its Italian counterparts, didn’t begin as a fashion house. In 1926, Venturini Fendi’s maternal grandparents, Adele Casagrande and Edoardo Fendi, opened a small leather goods store and fur workshop on Rome’s Via del Plebiscito. After Edoardo died in 1954, Adele continued to run the company with their five daughters — Paola; Franca; Carla; Alda; and Venturini Fendi’s mother, Anna, now 89 — who had napped and played in the family store as children.
Over the next several decades, Fendi transformed into a global powerhouse — along with Gucci and Ferragamo, a member of what might be called Italy’s Luxury Generation. Hollywood actresses and European royalty were drawn to its modern handbags and coats, and to the family’s dedication to artisanship. In 1965, the sisters began a lifelong collaboration with the German designer Karl Lagerfeld. Although he’s more immediately known for revitalizing Chanel tweeds, Lagerfeld also revamped Fendi’s trademark fur coat, reconstructing it into everything from a black sable trench that was valued at a million euros (fall 2015 couture) to a multicolored mink with a floral motif that took more than 1,200 hours to produce (fall 2016 couture). He held the post of creative director of fur collections and later women’s ready-to-wear at Fendi for 54 years until his death in 2019; the partnership was the longest of its kind between a designer and a house. While Lagerfeld’s collections reflected passing trends — he did his own take on Halston one season, and on punk, too — he gave Fendi a sense of opulence without ostentation, an elevated articulation of the sisters’ pragmatic elegance.
Unlike Lagerfeld, Venturini Fendi is often characterized as a reluctant designer with a rebellious spirit or, as Dana Thomas wrote in The New York Times in 1999, “the bad girl of the Fendi clan.” And yet, except for a brief hiatus in her 20s, she has devoted her entire life to the brand. At 6, she appeared in a Fendi campaign wearing a bomber jacket made of beaver pelts with a matching hat. In fact, she’s hard-pressed to surface any early memory that doesn’t involve fashion: the runway shows; the family dinners that would inevitably devolve into long, sometimes heated business meetings; the hours she spent on Lagerfeld’s lap watching him sketch. “Everyone thinks that fashion is so open-minded,” says Venturini Fendi, “but my family had strict rules: You studied or you worked.” Having seen how much time her mother spent on Fendi-related matters, Venturini Fendi, like most teenagers, preferred to go roller skating with her friends. “I knew that the moment I started working, it was the end of my personal life,” she says.
In 1980, at the age of 20, she narrowly avoided an abduction attempt. During Italy’s Years of Lead, an era marked by assassinations and other acts of political terrorism, the heirs of rich and powerful families — including, most famously, John Paul Getty III, the grandson of the oil tycoon J. Paul Getty — were targeted by the Mafia for ransom. “Thank God I was very smart, and they didn’t succeed,” says Venturini Fendi, who grew up thinking it was normal to ride in cars with bulletproof windows. She doesn’t like to remember that period. “This fear doesn’t go away. Never.”