“T he location is important,” says Alda Fendi, speaking about the new headquarters of her Fondazione Alda Fendi – Esperimenti. “It’s where Rome was born.”
Indeed, a stone’s throw away is the bank of the Tiber, where those mythical twins Romulus and Remus – the central characters in the story of Rome’s foundation – are said to have been discovered in their basket. Archaeological evidence indicates that the city’s earliest settlements were built here, in the quarter known as Velabro, a kilometre from the series of public squares known as the Imperial Fora.
Now, some very contemporary things are percolating amidst these ancient sites, thanks to Fendi, the youngest of the five sisters who transformed a small fashion brand they inherited from their parents into a global powerhouse.
After luxury goods conglomerate LVMH acquired the Fendi brand in 2001, Alda had the wherewithal to begin realising other goals. “From that moment, I said I will finally be able to do what I’ve dreamed about since I was young – work in art.”
That same year, she established her foundation. Its primary aim was, and remains today, to break down the traditional barriers between the disciplines of art, theatre, literature, music and performance.
Fendi maintains two homes in Rome – one, a minimalist apartment filled with Arte Povera works, the other, a house furnished in the Charles X style – and two in Paris, one of which formerly belonged to Jean-Paul Sartre. She also has residences on the Italian island of Capri and in New York, among others.
It was in Rome that she acquired a 19th-century palazzo, adjacent to the Foro Traiano, to base her activities. During the renovation of the ground-floor gallery, the remains of the largest basilica in ancient Rome were discovered in the basement – including pristine, intact marble floors. It was one of Rome’s most important archaeological finds in decades.
Over the years that followed, Fendi financed the subterranean restoration project, even as she presented provocative, avant-garde performances and exhibitions upstairs, with artists ranging from opera singer Cecilia Bartoli and ballet dancer Roberto Bolle, to actor Vincent Gallo and musician Marilyn Manson. In collaboration with the foundation’s longtime creative director Raffaele Curi, happenings were also staged in locations throughout the city, from the Curia (the Roman Senate House) to the Mercato del Pesce degli Ebrei (the ancient Jewish fish market).
About 10 years ago, Fendi glimpsed the foundation’s present site in Velabro, and immediately realised its potential. “It was a space that would allow us to have a global impact,” she says.
The site was, in fact, three contiguous buildings, built between the 17th and 19th centuries, originally as a trading post. By then, however, the structures were on the verge of collapse.
Fendi enlisted Pritzker Prize-winning, Paris-based architect Jean Nouvel to oversee the restoration, in what was his first commission in Rome.
Christened “Rhinoceros” (harkening back to ancient Rome and the idea of strength and unconventionality), the six-storey, 38,000 sq ft centre was inaugurated on 11 October, after a decade of arduous efforts (things take time in the Eternal City).
A unique cultural hub, it includes gallery and performing arts spaces, a cinema, shops, a hotel called The Rooms of Rome, and, topping it all off, a rooftop branch of Paris’ fabled Caviar Kaspia, which includes a bi-level terrace that affords some of the city’s most breathtaking views.
“It’s a neighbourhood under one roof,” says Fendi. “It’s a building in constant motion, and anyone can come here and become part of the experiment.”
The spirit of experimentation is the heart of all her initiatives. “I want to give artists the freedom to express themselves and the public the possibility to experience it,” says the 70-something Fendi, who favours Issey Miyake pleated apparel and large statement sunglasses.
The value of taking chances was instilled in her during the four decades she worked in her family firm, where she was in charge of furs. “We constantly experimented with materials and fabrics,” she says. “We were 50 years ahead of everyone else. We made sable coats so light and so thin you could slip them into a little pouch. It really turned the whole industry upside down.”
The sisters’ longtime collaboration with designer Karl Lagerfeld, whom they hired in 1965, was also inspirational, she recalls. “Flying into Rome, for example, Karl would see some fields of hay, and then say to us, ‘I want it to look like that.’ Then we had to figure out how to do it.
“The important thing in life is never to do anything banal.”
“Our strength was our craftsmanship,” she continues. “The rest of the industry made things mostly by machines. We did everything by hand.”
When their parents handed them the reins of the company in the 1960s, the siblings were among very few women in the industry. “It was terrifying for us. It was a business run completely by men. We arrived up at auctions of pelts in Russia and Canada and they hated us!”
Clearly the sisters showed those men what time it was. “The important thing in life is never to do anything banal,” says Fendi, summing up her philosophy.
At Rhinoceros, she plans to mount an array of contemporary art shows, including one of works produced by artists from conflict zones. The inaugural exhibition features Renaissance treasures, notably Michelangelo’s masterpiece Crouching Boy, 1530–34. The marble sculpture, on view until 10 March, is from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, and is part of a remarkable three-year-long loan programme between the museum and the Fondazione Alda Fendi – Esperimenti.
Throughout the building, 14 architectural drawings by Michelangelo are also on display. The chance to view them at any hour is one of the treats afforded to guests of the 24-suite The Rooms of Rome. Although management of the hotel is overseen independently by Spanish entrepreneur Kike Sarasola, Nouvel and Fendi oversaw all details of the rooms’ unique designs.
In front of the building is the 5th-century Arch of Janus. Fendi commissioned the masterful cinematographer and lighting designer Vittorio Storaro (a three-time Oscar winner for pictures including The Last Emperor) to create a permanent illumination scheme for the arch, in front of which she has installed a life-sized resin sculpture of a rhinoceros designed by Raffaele Curi, fondazione’s artistic director.
It certainly feels like sparks are coming out of Velabro now.
“The [financial] crisis has slowed Rome down, like the rest of Europe,” says Fendi. “But big ideas and culture can restart it from right here. When culture is missing there is no democracy. Free expression is critical. It helps us rediscover our souls.”
James Reginato is writer-at-large at Vanity Fair and author of Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats (Rizzoli)