WHEN SHE WAS A CHILD, SILVIA VENTURINI FENDI (CREATIVE DIRECTOR AT, UM, FENDI) watched a lot of movies, but she didn’t go to the cinema. The cinema came to her.
“Every anniversary, every Christmas, every family gathering, we’d screen a movie at home, and I remember my cousins and I waiting impatiently for the man to arrive with the projector. They’d put up a white sheet against the wall and we’d watch Visconti’s The Leopard or Gone with the Wind or The Sound of Music. The boys, of course, wanted to see more action films, but I loved it. There were the dresses and the suits, and over and over again I’d sit and stare.”
It was during these nights that Silvia grasped the power of filmmaking, its dark magic and liquid mystery, and, of course, its potential as a platform for fashion. Her grandparents Edoardo and Adele did, too. They’d founded Fendi back in 1925 and, thanks to the shrewd hire of an up-and-coming designer named Karl Lagerfeld in 1965, transformed it from a nuts-and-bolts fur-and-leather-goods company into a major Roman maison. Soon the Fendis were providing costumes for some of cinema’s most iconic films while forging friendships with the likes of Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti.
Directors like these, Silvia learned, were just designers in another medium. They too had taste and vision and an attention to detail that only the finest tailor could appreciate.
“My mother told me when they helped with Visconti’s Conversation Piece”—a 1974 film starring Burt Lancaster—“there was a bedroom scene, and Visconti insisted there be linens stocked inside the closet even if the doors of the closet were closed the entire shot. Why? Because the actor had to know this, Visconti told her. If not, it would affect him differently.”
FAST-FORWARD FORTY-PLUS YEARS AND Silvia now is a titanic force in fashion, driving her namesake men’s-wear brand since 2000. For the men’s Spring/Summer 2020 collection, she’s joined up with her own auteur, Italian director Luca Guadagnino, whose 2017 romantic coming-of-age drama, Call Me by Your Name, starring Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, broke gay and straight hearts alike and was nominated for four Oscars, including best picture.
Luca and Silvia’s relationship is a close one. In 2005, the company hired him to shoot a short promotional film titled First Sun, and Silvia liked it so much, she bagged the idea of a fashion-show catwalk and ran Luca’s film instead.
photo by Lorenzo Bringheli for Esquire
That work led to other projects, including two of Luca’s feature-lengths, which Silvia helped produce: 2010’s I Am Love, starring Tilda Swinton as an expat housewife trapped in the stifling, moneyed upper middle class of contemporary Milan, and Suspiria, a 2018 remake of the 1977 Dario Argento-helmed horror classic, starring Dakota Johnson. And just like Fendis before her, Silvia provided costumes and even her mother’s jewelry, which Luca insisted be from a certain era.
“You see?” she says. “He’s got this maniac Visconti thing in him. Everything needs to be exact.”
Amazingly, many of Luca’s initial sketches for this collaboration were done on the set of Suspiria while passing the time between lighting changes.
“When I shoot, I’m not happy,” he says. “But when I am designing or talking about designing, it’s fantastic.”
For the hyperactive, multitalented filmmaker, executing multiple projects while shooting a movie isn’t a distraction. It’s a release. In addition to this Fendi venture, he was prepping a series for HBO while designing houses on Lake Como and Aesop boutiques in Rome and London.
Luca’s idea for the collection stemmed from a farmhouse he recently purchased in the north of Italy.
“And when he showed me these photos of this beautiful place, we decided to explore the notion of gardening, nature, and farming,” says Silvia. “But for Luca, the setup was important. We had to tell the story first.”
“I wanted to capture a man wandering in the nature that he has forged,” Luca explains. “This isn’t a person out there in the wilderness living off scraps. It’s about a person and about the garden he’s cultivated. What is the art of gardening? What does it mean to walk and bend nature to your will?
Directors, Silvia learned, were just designers in another medium. They too had an attention to detail that only the finest tailor could appreciate. This was the tension I wanted to capture.”
“And, I might add,” Silvia says, “he is not just a farmer but a gentleman farmer.”
When you look at the line, you see more than enough beiges and greens and browns to go around. Each is combined with material you’d expect to find in a farmhouse or a greenhouse—denim, cotton, leather—but also silk, suede, and cashmere, with the noble elements put to use in clothing you might wear to dig in the dirt, or string a line of beans, or net a butterfly.
Yet not all is rustic, bucolic, and compost heap. There are clothes you need when you’re in town: light suits, croco-printed loafers, silk shirts with African-inspired patterns (designed by Luca), not to mention the wood-handled umbrella, because any gentleman farmer of standing isn’t paying social visits dressed in gardening boots.
THE FENDI-GUADAGNINO DUO MAKE FOR an odd couple. Luca is an easy six feet tall, and when you first see him next to the petite Silvia and her shock of white hair, you almost vibe a czarina and her Rasputinesque counsel. But when you sit with them drinking espressos as I did at Fendi headquarters, high up in the hills overlooking Rome, they remind you more of those older couples at the end of When Harry Met Sally . . . , finishing each other’s sentences because they know each other so well.
“What I like about Luca,” Silvia says with a smile, “is the great balance he has between his aesthetics and vision. Plus, he delivers things. I’m very fast, but I get bored very easily. Luca, when he has an idea, he can wait years, slowly crafting a story around his vision.”
“Well, it’s like a screenplay, actually,” Luca says. “If I’m designing something for somebody, whether it be a house or a store or a collection like this, I have to know what the client really wants, who they are, and what is their way of living. And then you have to translate that into spaces or clothes. Maybe it’s intuitive, but I don’t know how else to do it.”
promotional photo property of Fendi
In a way, the screenplay for this collab hearkens back to Call Me by Your Name, a patient him set during a beastly Italian summer, with bike rides through lush orchards and calls to the dinner table echoing inside airy villas, delivering a sensuality and audaciousness that’s become rarer and rarer in him nowadays, considering that most of what we see today is either an eight-episode Netflix series or a Marvel franchise.
“I don’t agree,” counters Luca, “and I know my take probably goes against all the analysis, but I do believe that cinema is always surprising. Take Joker, for example. It’s a movie that exists in the space of a character piece, the storytelling of the filmmaker, and by the performance of his actor. There is no car chase. There are no explosions. There are no digital effects. Nothing. And yet it made one billion dollars. I remember when I was a kid and already people were saying, ‘Cinema is dead. Cinema is dead.’ And yet here we are here, still talking about it and making it and enjoying it. It’s like fashion, actually. Things come full circle.”
So, while we tend to assume that big data mapping each of our tastes has won, Italian designers and filmmakers are still holding it down, huddling over bottles of Chianti late at night in Roman trattorias, talking jewelry and cigarettes and marble staircases and visions of how to mold them into something that stirs the soul.