The house of Fendi has made its mark on the fashion world with its distinctly Roman energy and outright audaciousness. But before the Spy bag (last spring's little half-moon hobo with the braided leather handles) and the B Fendi bag (a two-buckled-pocket purse in 50 mind-boggling variations), Fendi was a rather modest leather and fur workshop founded by Eduardo and Adele Fendi in 1925. The famous Fendi daughters—Paola, Anna, Franca, Carla, and Alda—drove the business for decades and watched the house thrive in the high-glamour fifties. Then, in 1965, the family made a prescient decision, choosing a young, pre-Chanel Karl Lagerfeld as head designer. Fresh off a stint at Jean Patou, Lagerfeld pushed the sisters Fendi beyond leather and sable into evening dresses and day clothes. He turned furs inside out and sheared them down to create couture-sexy shapes. Today Silvia Venturini Fendi, the founders' 45-year-old granddaughter, is the family's heiress apparent, and thanks to her (and Lagerfeld), this may prove Fendi's most historic era. Last May the company opened new Peter Marino–designed headquarters in Rome as well as a New York store on Fifth Avenue (another Marino project). And September saw Lagerfeld spinning out a terrific spring 2006 collection. For the first time in a long while, the ready-to-wear got as much attention as the fur and accessories. "Clothes have long played second fiddle at Fendi," wrote New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn, "but the new fashion polish suggests Fendi's management intends to see the brand as a whole." All this, however, was still not enough: Fendi wants to make sure the world takes fashion—and, more important, Fendi itself—seriously.
To that end, the company instituted the Fendi Rome Prize, a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, whose recipient will be named in April 2007. Since 1897 the foundation has been best known for hosting U.S. scholars in Rome for the study of that city's art, architecture, and literature. This award will allow an emerging American fashion designer to join a carefully selected group of 30 artists, writers, and academics in residence. For one year the winner will live at the academy's 130-room Renaissance-style palazzo, designed by McKim, Mead, and White and set among ten acres of gardens. Scholars are granted special access to Rome's oldest writings, loftiest institutions, and most-valued antiquities.
The Fendi Prize could go to someone looking to explore the link between classical sculpture and goddess gowns; a designer interested in immersing him- or herself in Etruscan jewelry or the history of cameos; or a person aiming to create textiles based on classical weaving techniques.
"The definition of a Rome fellow used to be a Harvard-, Yale-, or Princeton-educated white Anglo-Saxon male," says Adele Chatfield-Taylor, the New York–based president of the academy. "They dressed for dinner and collaborated on one central project together. Now the Rome Prize is associated with individual potential. We like to find the people for whom this opportunity will be truly life-changing."
Silvia Fendi, a woman who admits she "went to Brazil instead of university," understands that financing an academic fellowship might be seen as a rather unexpected move for a fashion company. "It's totally new for us," says Fendi, who, though Romanborn, has never stepped foot on the academy's grounds. "To me it's part of what is happening today, like having Richard Meier build a glass dome over the ancient Ara Pacis memorial in Rome. Our mantra these days is to mix the past and future: I like this contrast."
This sort of high-profile fusion of art and commerce is, of course, nothing new. Prada, which famously hired Rem Koolhaas to design its Manhattan store, has recently sponsored installations by Dan Flavin and Tom Friedman in Milan, as well as a film by video/embroidery artist Francesco Vezzoli. Fondazione Prada, a fund founded by Patrizio Bertelli and Miuccia Prada, hosts biannual shows devoted to contemporary art. Such support is akin to Renaissance patronage à la the Medicis in its scope and the financial freedom it allows the selected individual. The Ferragamos are active patrons of the Harold Acton Library at the British Institute of Florence, home to the largest collection of English-language books in Italy. And last year Max Mara announced the Max Mara Art Prize for Women, aimed at nurturing the career of an up-and-coming British female artist. But by choosing to sponsor an unknown American fashion talent, Fendi has taken a different tack.
"The academy was founded in 1894 as a great experiment of combining scholars and art," explains R. William Franklin, an associate director. "Anyone who comes here is stretched and changed. People go through a subtle conversion: ‘How will I go back and fit into my small place? I've been so expanded.'
"The secret is that the real work of the academy happens during meals," Franklin says. "There are no reserved spots; the evening meal is ninety minutes and everyone eats together. Now fashion has a space at the table."
The American Academy in Rome, 212-751-7200 or 39-06/58461; www.aarome.org.
FENDI'S TWO FACES
Silvia Fendi pairs art with It bags.
Janus is the Roman god of passage; his two heads simultaneously face the past and the future. That both Fendi and the American Academy in Rome use Janus as their icon may be a sign that the two were destined to collaborate. In anticipation of the announcement of the Fendi Rome Prize, the academy issued a general invitation last summer, urging all its fellows to submit a piece of art using Janus as the concept. Some 20 pieces were displayed at the opening of the Manhattan Fendi store at the end of 2005, and the entire collection was sold at auction in April, the proceeds of which benefited the academy. Here, an exhibit of those works paired with Fendi bags from the spring–summer 2006 collection, curated by Silvia Venturini Fendi herself.
Fendi, 800-336-3469; www.fendi.com