Fashion pioneer in a female dynasty dies at 79

Carla Fendi was an instrumental force in the evolution of her small family business into a luxury brand

Carla Fendi. Photo: AP

Carla Fendi, one of five sisters who inherited a small Roman leather goods workshop and together transformed it into a global luxury powerhouse famed for its reimagining of the classic fur coat, died on Monday in Rome. She was 79.

Her death was announced by Fendi. The company said she had been ill but did not specify the cause.

Fendi, now owned by the French luxury group LVMH, is recognised for making fur a contemporary fashion trend rather than merely a wardrobe staple of the upper-class or older consumer (its distinctive double F logo stands for "fun fur"); for its luxe leather "it" bags, like the Baguette; and for its longtime relationship with Karl Lagerfeld, who has designed collections for the house since 1965.

The fashion house staged a spectacular show with a Plexiglas catwalk across the Trevi fountain last year to celebrate its 90th anniversary, at a reported cost of US$2.4 million, and in 2007 it put on a runway show on top of the Great Wall of China -- the first fashion show, a spokesman said at the time, to be visible from the moon.

But the house, which at its height was a rare fully female fashion dynasty, had humble origins. Founded in 1925 in Rome by Adele and Edoardo Fendi as a small leather goods store (and secret fur workshop), the business was a home away from home for the couple's five daughters, Carla, Paola, Anna, Franca and Alda, who grew up on the shop floor playing and sleeping amid its samples and handbags.

While Paola, Anna, Franca and Alda Fendi later became important creative forces in the evolution of the brand, it was Carla, born in Rome on July 12, 1937, who was the mastermind of its commercial and marketing strategies.

Soon after the company moved to a site near the Spanish Steps in 1965, Fendi bags, furs and scarves became beloved by Hollywood, European royalty and the global glitterati. In the next decades, Carla, affectionately nicknamed the General (her official title was house president), became central to the march of the Fendi brand, particularly regarding its North American operations, and to cementing its position as a patron of Italian heritage and the arts.

She had no children, although the other sisters went on to have 11 between them and more than 30 grandchildren. It was a measure of the sisters' importance to Italy that a special government dispensation was granted to allow their descendants to adopt their maternal surname.

However, to best ensure the future of the company -- and to preserve familial relations -- the sisters decided in 2001 to sell a controlling stake to LVMH.

"Five sisters was too much," Lagerfeld, who has often been referred to as the sixth Fendi child, said after the deal was announced. "And they were not speaking. The husbands were all happy when they sold."

Despite the takeover, Carla Fendi remained honorary president until her death.

Deeply committed to Rome and its culture, she helped finance the restoration of the Trevi Fountain, via her Carla Fendi Foundation and alongside company initiatives spearheaded by the company's chief executive, Pietro Beccari. An avid collector of 20th-century European art and design, Fendi was also a chief patron of the Two Worlds arts festival in Spoleto.

Her husband of 55 years, Candido Speroni, died in 2013. She is survived by her sisters.

"Aunt Carla was one of the most visionary people I have ever met," Silvia Fendi, Carla Fendi's niece and the creative director at Fendi for accessories, men's and children's wear, said. "She was very ambitious and driven, totally determined to make her small family company an international one in a way that was very rare for women in the 60s."

Silvia Fendi is the daughter of Carla's sister Anna and the only family member still actively involved in the running of the house. Her latest men's collection was shown in Milan on Monday, hours before her aunt died.

Tributes from the Italian fashion world flooded social media on Tuesday as news of Fendi's death spread. On Instagram, Simone Marchetti, the fashion editor of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, wrote, "how important it is to leave a trace not just on fashion and on business, but most of all on art, beauty and theatre". © 2017 New York Times News Service

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