Profile: Luigi Maramotti, Max Mara chairman

That Luigi Maramotti likes to keep a low profile is fitting. He is responsible for Max Mara, the fashion brand that is a byword for understated chic. Nevertheless, on the opening of the exhibition of Laure Prouvost, winner of the Max Mara Art Prize for Women, you might expect the award’s patron to be eager to comment. Instead, Luigi Maramotti’s office plead that the Max Mara chairman is travelling and cannot help.

No one who knows Maramotti will be surprised. In an age where patrons often command more column inches than the art they buy, his distaste for the limelight is the exception that proves the rule. When, in 2007, he presided over the public opening of the Maramotti Collection – acquired by his late father Achille – barely a single article alluded to his existence.

Two years ago, on the occasion of an exhibition by the previous winner, Andrea Buttner, Maramotti did grant me an interview but it was hedged with conditions. There were to be no personal questions and none regarding his family art collection. Such constraints were frustrating given that our meeting took place in his private office under paintings by Gerhard Richter and Lucio Fontana.

Most likely they were picked out by his father Achille who, by the time he died in 2005, had assembled more than 750 works. Born in Reggio Emilia, northern Italy, in 1927, Maramotti senior was by all accounts a visionary businessman, and the magus behind Max Mara. He burst on to the fashion scene in the 1950s with beautifully cut, prêt-à-porter classics at a moment when quality fashion was the province of couture houses or local tailors. By the time he died in 2005 he was worth $2.1bn, thanks partly to banking directorships which Luigi has maintained. Luigi currently sits on the board of Unicredit and his family have controlling shares in Credem (Credito Emiliano).

Achille left the business in the care of his three children, Luigi, Maria Ludovica and Ignazio, and the Maramottis have retained control. Last year the company boasted a turnover of €1.26bn, a figure that has remained stable throughout the recession. Since Achille’s death, Luigi as chairman has presided over the group’s expansion into China, Russia, India and Brazil. (He has also successfully seen off a charge of tax evasion, of which he was formally absolved last year.) And his graceful demeanour doesn’t mask the drive that has seen him not only keep his company on course but also transform his father’s private passion for art into a weighty public operation.

Housed in a rationalist edifice that was once Max Mara’s headquarters, Achille’s collection is a journey through Art Informel, Arte Povera, Transavanguardia, neo-Expressionism, and late-20th-century American Neo-Geometric abstraction. From Alberto Burri’s sackcloth laments to the graphic-cool goddesses of Alex Katz, the emphasis is on painting. Overall it testifies to a collector drawn to an art of metaphysical expressions rather than mute minimalism or rude, Rauschenberg-style shocks.

In contrast to the shopping-spree mentality of many of today’s collectors and the “mediatizzazione” (representation-by-media) that Luigi condemns as a “narcissistic gesture”, he prefers to “give an artist the instruments” by which they can work. “It entails risk, both for the one who finances and particularly for the artist, but it is more interesting,” he says.

Such is the nature of the Max Mara Prize. Now in its fourth edition, this year’s winner, the French-born, 35-year-old Laure Prouvost, saw off a shortlist that included Turner Prize candidate Spartacus Chetwynd. Prouvost has been the recipient of a six-month residency in Italy, split between the British School in Rome and the foundation in Biella, near Turin, run by Arte Povera cornerstone Michelangelo Pistoletto, and the resulting work will be shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in London and then in Reggio Emilia, before being acquired by the Maramotti collection.

Back in 2004, at a dinner in London to mark an exhibition by contemporary artists Jane and Louise Wilson, a lively discussion about gender discrimination left Maramotti convinced that women artists faced greater challenges than their male peers. The decision to hold the award in London rather than Italy is not unrelated to the promotional opportunities this most international of cities offers to a brand with more than 2,000 branches in 100 countries. Yet genuine Anglophilia has also played a part. Maramotti is an enthusiast of the Arts and Crafts movement and cites John Ruskin as one of his favourite artists. He envisages the prize as a “gift of time” whose ancestor is the Grand Tour that saw British art-lovers and artists drift through Italy in dazzled admiration. “There is no experience more fantastic than to be able to visit this country and discover its past,” he says.

Because of Maramotti’s distaste for reproduction, a practice he describes as “a negation” of art, he refuses to countenance a catalogue for the collection. He regularly makes pilgrimages to see art in the original. His face lit up at the memory of “the most extraordinary” watercolours he had seen in Emil Nolde’s foundation at Seebüll in northern Germany, painted in secret while the artist was under house arrest during the Nazi era. That genuine passion, allied to a Walter Benjamin-like refusal to be pacified by the popular and platitudinous, explains why the contemporary art he champions is characterised by a combination of intellect, imagination and irreproachable technique.

Not only do the winners of the MaxMara Art Prize fulfil those criteria – if a digital video seen in preview is indicative, it looks as if Laure Prouvost will serve up a sublime parody of Mediterranean art and sensuality – but they are also met by the temporary exhibitions at the Maramotti Collection where artists have included, for example, the Romanian-born twins, Gert and Uwe Tobias. The duo are now renowned for their enigmatic woodcuts, and Maramotti showed them when they were virtually unknown. Often the temporary exhibits are commissioned and then acquired by the collection.

I ventured to ask if Maramotti might divulge any information about his own personal collection. “Absolutely not. That question is the most . . . ” Lost for words, he finished the sentence with a snort of laughter, then added: “I’m joking.” But he wasn’t.

Max Mara Art Prize for Women: Laure Prouvost, until April 7, Whitechapel Gallery, London,;

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