Fashion-show seating is a curious thing. Custom dictates that celebrities, and perhaps a few diva-ish editors, are top of the food chain (and God help the poor mortal who accidentally sits in their place). But at Fendi’s spring/summer 2024 men’s show outside Florence in June, the guests of honour were the cheerful workforce of its new factory, which has just opened in a small hamlet, Capannuccia, half an hour south of the city.
The catwalk ran through the factory floor. So while models breezed by, seamstresses sat at their workbenches stitching leather, and post-room employees packed orders into boxes. At the end of the show, about 100 of the factory’s workforce in their white lab coats joined the house’s formidable matriarch, Silvia Venturini Fendi, to take a bow on the runway.
‘It’s all about them and the incredible work they do,’ said Venturini Fendi afterwards. The occasion was held to inaugurate Fendi’s new leathercraft atelier, a space-age building set among cypress trees in the Tuscan hills. The house of Fendi is as Roman as a plate of bucatini in Piazza Navona, but the story of the label, now owned by LVMH and valued at €6.3 billion, actually starts here, in the Tuscan hills.
‘My grandmother came here almost 100 years ago to learn the art of leather goods,’ explained Venturini Fendi. ‘She had family here and came because the region was so famous for its craft. She returned to Rome in 1925, and Fendi was born.’
Bistecca alla Fiorentina is served in every self-respecting local trattoria, and along with the cattle farming came a historical expertise in leather goods. But today, under Venturini Fendi’s exacting eye, 21st-century technology is united with the time-honoured craftsmanship of the region.
‘This is about a modern kind of artisan,’ she said. ‘Man and machine working together. I wanted everything to be fully modern and sustainable.’ The Milanese architectural practice Piuarch created an indoors-outdoors feel with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking fields and trees. The factory also features a living roof and furniture made with recycled materials.
Two-dimensional templates for bags, designed on computer, are also bang up to the minute. There’s a choreography between the designer, working online, and a modellist who will take the digitised template and create it, on repeat, as a paper sculpture before it is made in leather. After all, bags are to Fendi what tweed is to Chanel, and the Baguette – first created in 1997 – has become part of 20th-century fashion history.
The factory’s head of production tells me that, despite this painstaking process, most of the bags created won’t make the cut. What eventually appears on the runway, and then in the stores, is a small proportion of what’s dreamt up here. Once a style gets the green light – a new rendering of the whimsical Peekaboo handbag, for example – the process of manufacture begins. Autocut digital technology will give the craftworkers templates, and then it’s up to them to begin cutting the leather to make the various sections of the bag.
Fendi has a dedicated training school to ensure the future of leathercraft, and although the Capannuccia site is new, the staff come from another, smaller, factory nearby. Some of the 350-strong workforce have been working in leathercraft for several decades.
An average bag will take four to five days to create once the cutting process starts. It’s a combined process with a modellist, a cutter, an assembler, a sewer and perhaps also a painter involved. The level of skills required depends on the complexity of the bag: a sleek little clutch will be relatively easy to make, but a weighty rucksack with pockets, trims and contrasting materials is another matter. The famous Baguette often involves hand-stitched decoration, which may be outsourced to artisanal embroidery houses.
Back at Capannuccia the painting is the most sensitive part of the process because by that stage the bag is assembled. Where the different panels of the bag meet it forms a ridge, and it’s the job of one artisan to paint those fine joins with a needle; it’s a hold-your-breath moment because should the painter’s hand wobble and one drop of vegetable dye go awry, the bag’s redundant and it’s back to quadrato uno.
‘Of course, we can all talk about the importance of handcraft,’ said Venturini Fendi. ‘But I think there’s a bigger shift today to feel connected; we garden, we’re more aware of the farm-to-table movement. We know what a real tomato should taste like.’
A keen gardener herself, she spends weekends tending the terraces at her holiday home on the island of Ponza, not far from Rome. ‘It’s about a visceral connections to real things instead of a virtual world.’