This is what it must be like to fall asleep and dream that you have somehow entered your own de Chirico painting. The gleaming, sun-bleached cube of travertine marble can be spotted from miles away. Such is its colossal size that, rather like some distant, soaring alpine peak visible from lake or lowland, it is never out of sight. Once it comes into view, it just stays there. Up close, the monumental scale dwarfs humanity. It juts into sky of a shade somewhere between Klein and cornflower, the stark contrast of white on blue heightened by the six storeys of 7.5m-high arches that punctuate each façade with geometric precision, like a series of deftly cut identical surgical incisions.
There are corporate headquarters and there are corporate headquarters and then there is the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana into which Fendi will move its fur atelier and offices from scattered locations across Rome. This is architectural bombast at its most flamboyant. For all its unornamented restraint, there is nothing unassuming about the building Romans know colloquially as Colosseo Quadrato (Square Colosseum). But then, if a building seeks to command attention in a city around every corner of which lurks some architectural treasure from antiquity, discretion is not a virtue.
Over the millennia this boldness has been translated from public architecture to personal appearance: Roman style is not for the shy. When it comes to emblematic Roman brands such as Fendi, Mies van der Rohe’s paradoxical maxim of less being more has seldom seemed so out of place. Fur in fashion is already a polarising statement, and Fendi fur is about as extravagant and imaginative as the business of making clothes out of animal pelts can get.
Whether silken sables or lavish lynx, even the most fleeting acquaintance with Fendi’s manufacturing techniques and the skills needed to work with skins leaves one amazed. There’s the detailed planning of a garment that is mapped out using a paper pattern divided into squares, into which fur is fitted like a jigsaw; the expert matching of the subtle gradations of shade that occur in natural materials; the dextrous movement of fingers that tease a dampened skin into the shape – be it curved, long or wide – required by the design; and the microscopically fine stitching of hundreds of sliver-like chevrons of mink into a garment that appears to be seamless. The skills of the furrier today are the accumulation of centuries of tradition.
It is a tradition to which Fendi has added its own daring irreverence and boldness in terms of techniques, treatments and colours, playing with concepts such as mosaic, inlay, weaving, dyeing and the use of contrasting hues, textures, materials and finishes. A few wisps of fur may accent a pair of eyes embroidered onto a piece of knitwear, or dozens of skins may be made into a floor-length coat that then appears to have been handed over to a disciple of Jackson Pollock and spattered with paint. This is Karl Lagerfeld’s 50th year at Fendi, and it’s thanks to him that the brand transformed the fur coat from a status-conferring cliché into a vibrant and constantly evolving expression of fashion.
The palazzo is a perfect architectural metaphor for what Lagerfeld has done with Fendi: “When I met the five Fendi sisters, they were known in Rome for furs that were expensive and beautiful – but heavy, which was typical of that time. Fur was the first step in social recognition, when a woman would receive a fur coat as a present from her wealthy husband. I had a much more modern vision, with furs worn in a more fun way.” Fendi is now part of LVMH, and in the world of 21st-century luxury, where mere brands have been replaced by “maisons”, the move to the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana is the physical manifestation of the maison concept, as this one building will unite the various strands of the business. Given that there are some 15,000sq m of space, there will be room for a museum and also, on the ground floor (albeit one accessed by a grand set of steps), a space for exhibitions that will, says Fendi president and CEO Pietro Beccari, reflect the purpose for which the palazzo was originally constructed – viz as a showcase for Italian creativity and ingenuity.
Indeed, the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana is a vision of a future that never quite happened; it was designed in the Mussolini era towards the close of the 1930s in preparation for the 1942 World Expo, the Esposizione Universale Roma, which, overtaken by world events, did not take place. Built at the end of a long avenue running east to west, which ensures it gets light all day long, the palazzo is the most emblematic building of what is, in effect, an alternative version of Rome: a place of triumphal boulevards lined with bold, confident buildings embodying the classical Italian architectural language of arches, colonnades, amphitheatres and fountains, reinterpreted for a new Roman empire of the 20th century. Taking the exhibition’s acronym as its name, the EUR area covers hundreds of acres and originally the plans were even more ambitious, Beccari explains: to the side of the new Fendi headquarters there was supposed to be a modest arch, 300m wide and 150m high.
We meet on a sparkling, cloudless day of sunshine so bright that we need to wear sunglasses. It is warm enough to sit outside, overlooked by the towering sculptures that surround the building, each monumental figure executed in classical style with an object symbolic of its métier. Some are slightly bewildering, such as a Junoesque bare-breasted woman carrying alembic apparatus (emphasising perhaps Italian excellence in the distillation of grappa) or the man in a loincloth holding a propeller (presumably this is what aviators looked like in ancient Rome).
Beccari is an energetic man with collar-skimming hair and a broad smile, who says, as he gestures to the sculptures, that he hopes they will inspire a new generation of Italian excellence and that Fendi’s occupancy of this modernist landmark will in some way have a “noble-ising” effect on craft skills. “This palazzo will help us highlight the beauty of the artisanal. We need, just as in France, to support the fashion industry, because through that we help a lot of little suppliers and a lot of artisans.”
As for Lagerfeld, he is thrilled about the new building, saying that he took inspiration for the spring/summer 2015 collection from Fendi’s new address. “Fashion and architecture were among the favoured forms for expressing avant-garde culture in the early 20th century. The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana is a perfect example,” he explains. “For me, the Italian style of that period and especially this palazzo is like a de Chirico painting. I love the light that you can find there reflecting in the white marble. And it will host all Fendi’s Rome employees under the same roof. I think this is very beautiful.”
Recalling the palazzo’s history, Beccari tells me that it was empty for 72 years, except when it was occupied by the offices of the Cavalieri del Lavoro (The Knights of Labour – an Italian order of chivalry similar to the French Légion d’Honneur). “The Ministry of Culture was going to use it for the museum of visual images, but three years ago the project was shelved and a friend who was working in the company found out that the EUR was in need of money and that we could visit the building and make an offer.” Thereafter, Fendi signed a 15-year lease. But for Beccari it was much more than a real-estate deal. “Of course, we could bring some income for the next 15 years,” he says, but it was also an opportunity “to put some life back into the building and into the quarter.
“Romans are attached to this building. The location is strongly identifiable with the city – when you arrive from the airport, it is the first thing you see.”
Beccari is big on the notion of Fendi as a Roman brand – he has introduced the word Roma into the logo and the company has supported the restoration of the Trevi Fountain. The move to the iconic Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana is a perfectly logical next step and, with its light-flooded, cathedral-like interior spaces, it will make one hell of an office building.
However, if Beccari permits me, I have one suggestion that might further improve it. From my admittedly cursory examination of the solemn 3.5m-high statues housed in the arches around the ground floor, I was unable to locate one that attested to Italian excellence in fashion. Perhaps as part of the renovation of the building he might consider commissioning a contemporary sculpture that demonstrates Italy’s supremacy in the field of style and design.