If you happen to be a glamorous Italian aristocrat, or if you grew up reading about the European jet set in the pages of Women’s Wear Daily and Vogue, then you probably know a thing or two about Federico Forquet. In the 1960s Forquet was one of Italy’s top couturiers, designing the chic palazzo pants and toga-inspired gowns that people like Marella Agnelli wore while lounging around their actual palazzos. But in 1972, at age 41, Forquet closed his business and retreated from the fashion world. He quietly began designing gardens and interiors for his friends, and over the years he became the ultimate insider’s connoisseur—a good-taste guru whom the privileged few relied on to determine which Greek antiquities to pair with their favorite Mirós or Mondrians.
Today, at 90, Forquet is still so discreet that there’s no Wikipedia page for him—but he’s very much alive and well, working on several decorating projects and a new porcelain department for Naples’s venerable Museo di Capodimonte. He’s also the subject of a sumptuous new book, The World of Federico Forquet: Italian Fashion, Interiors, Gardens (Rizzoli), for which writer-editor and Vogue editor at large Hamish Bowles took a deep dive into the designer’s remarkable archives. “Federico is kind of a mythical figure that other mythical tastemakers tend to idolize,” says Bowles, who hopes the book will lead a wider audience to appreciate the designer’s rarefied portfolio.
On the phone from his house in rural Tuscany, Forquet is ebullient when recalling how his career began: with a nerveracking introduction to Cristóbal Balenciaga. In 1954, a young Forquet showed up in Paris for a meeting with the famously aloof designer; he brought along more than 100 fashion sketches and watched as Balenciaga wordlessly flipped through them, setting aside only 12. “I was hoping those were the bad ones and that he liked all the others!” Forquet says. “But he told me, ‘These 12 are the only drawings where I can see your potential.’ ” Balenciaga nevertheless decided that he’d found a new protégé, so Forquet mustered the courage to inform his conservative family—a prominent Naples clan descended from a French banker—that he was moving to Paris to design dresses. He spent the next four years at Balenciaga’s side, learning “everything, everything,” he says.
When Forquet finally opened his own haute couture atelier in Rome, in 1962, the timing was perfect: His elegant tunics, asymmetrical capes, and bold prints became favorites of not only European royals and international fashion editors (“The Italian Dior is named Forquet,” gushed Harper’s Bazaar) but also the Hollywood stars who were flocking to Italy to work at Cinecittà and dance on tables with Marcello Mastroianni. In his salons on Via Condotti, Forquet carried on the tradition of the old-school couturier, designing every piece and often doing the fittings himself. After dark he squired his favorite clients around Rome, playing BFF to people like Princess Alessandra Torlonia, Princess Ira von Fürstenberg, and Allegra Caracciolo di Castagneto, his longtime muse. Friends of Forquet’s say that he exudes a genuine warmth and joyfulness that’s often lacking in his fancy social circles. “Listen, I like life,” Forquet tells me in his singsong Italian accent. “I like friends. I like the sun. I like the stars, the moon, animals, good wine. I am a happy person. And remember, when you love somebody or something, the affection comes back to you.”
So why did Forquet suddenly ditch fashion in the early ’70s? It was a time when major designers were going global—branching into licensing and hiring big teams to build their prêt-à-porter operations. “I was no longer enchanted,” Forquet says. “It was all about ready-to-wear, and I was not born for that.” On a whim he began designing fabrics for Gustav Zumsteg of the famed Swiss silk house Abraham, which led to his first interior design projects.
Forquet’s most striking interiors combine formal traditionalism with Neapolitan verve. Custom hand-painted fabrics cover walls, chairs, and sofas; Baroque consoles are topped with Roman sculpture fragments, ancient micro-mosaics, and neoclassical candlesticks. Forquet has a way of bringing various bygone worlds together and making them all come alive, as at Palazzo Torlonia in Rome, where the 17th-century Dutch tapestries, redvelvet Régence chairs, and Indian brocade tablecloths somehow look like they were made for one another. Dotted around Forquet’s projects are many of his own stunning one-offs—side tables, shelving, objets d’art. And when you least expect it, you might spot some wicker. Marella Agnelli—the patrician wife of Fiat mogul Gianni Agnelli and a lifelong friend of Forquet’s—was famous for using rattan furniture to add a subtle dash of humility to the grandest of salons. It turns out it was Forquet who first introduced Agnelli to Italy’s revered wicker maker, Bonacina.
Seeing Forquet’s groovy ’60s culottes sharing space in the book with his timeless interiors might raise a question: Did the clothes and the rooms spring from the same brain? In fact, they’re both part of a consistent vision, one that’s rooted in classical refinement, Mediterranean exuberance, and a reverence for superb craftsmanship. “The clothes and the interiors both have the same distinction of line, and a kind of elegant drama,” Bowles says. “Federico himself is full of surprises and charm, and I think his interiors are too. For all their grandeur, they’re very convivial places.”
The same could be said of Forquet’s garden designs. Heavily influenced by the English style (Russell Page was a close friend), they show how a formal structure can serve as a solid foundation for a disciplined kind of wildness. It’s as if the plants can be set free because they know exactly how to behave. Forquet’s landscaping talents reached their ultimate expression at his Tuscan property, in the village of Cetona: A series of terraced “garden rooms” leads downhill from the house, with a cypress-dotted landscape in the background, evoking the great Florentine paintings. When Forquet bought the place in 1969 with his longtime partner, press agent Matteo Spinola (who died in 2006), it consisted of two squat stone buildings, with no electricity or running water, and a few empty fields. Forquet still spends most of his time in Cetona. “For me now this place is like Arcadia,” he says. “You know the shepherds of Greece, tending their sheep on Mount Olympus? I feel like that here, like I’m in the company of all the classical gods.”
When I ask Forquet what he learned about himself while working with Bowles on the book—the two spent weeks sifting through more than seven decades of photos of Forquet’s clothes, interiors, antiques collections, and gardens—he lets out a big laugh. “Can I tell you something terrible? I still like everything I did, right from the beginning. I would change very little, not even the details. It’s been almost 75 years, but I still like all the same things.”