Empire rebuilders

The chief of Italian fashion house Fendi tells Rachel Sanderson why the luxury brands are pouring cash into cultural heritage
Pietro Beccari at the Trevi Fountain

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

The LVMH-owned luxury brand Fendi has completed a major restoration of a historic site in Rome with the opening of the 17th-century, five-floor Palazzo Fendi on luxury shopping street Via Condotti, a short walk from the Spanish Steps. It’s the third restoration the house, which was established in 1925 as a luxury furrier, has undertaken in as many years. In 2013 Fendi pledged €2.2m to clean up the Trevi Fountain, the landmark made famous by Anita Ekberg luring Marcello Mastroianni into its water in La Dolce Vita. More recently, Fendi moved its headquarters to Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana on Rome’s outskirts: the restoration brought running water and electricity to the Fascist-era monument after 40 years of neglect.

For a house with a reputation for fashion innovation rather than urban regeneration — it used drones to film its catwalk show in 2014, and a recent campaign featured Instagram star Kendall Jenner — isn’t the focus on Rome’s crumbling monuments off-message?

Not so, says Pietro Beccari, Fendi chairman and chief executive since 2012, who has been behind the restoration projects. “It is beneficial for Fendi to be linked to Rome,” he says. “Today’s consumer is very informed, and very volatile. So the two sides, the contemporary and the intemporal, are very necessary [to hold their attention].”

Fendi’s investment in the city also reflects a wider trend in the “Made in Italy” luxury industry. The country is home to a record 51 Unesco heritage sites but, constrained by austerity, the state spends just 0.2 per cent of its budget on culture. Amid the squeeze, participating in the cultural life of Italy appears to be more vital than ever.

In 2011, Diego Della Valle, the billionaire tycoon behind Tod’s and Roger Vivier, pledged €25m for a now near-completed clean-up of the Colosseum. Renzo Rosso, the entrepreneur behind Diesel, Marni and Maison Margiela, has since invested €5m in the renovation of Venice’s Rialto bridge. The Ferragamo family, the largest owners of Salvatore Ferragamo, have lavished €600,000 on the Uffizi museum in their native Florence. Brunello Cucinelli has put €1m into the restoration of an Etruscan arch near his home in Umbria. In Milan, Prada, as befits the house’s edgy aesthetic, instead called on cult architects Herzog and de Meuron and US director Wes Anderson to create a modern art foundation on an industrial site.

Another house in the LVMH stable, Bulgari, has spent €1.5m to restore the baroque steps that lead from Rome’s Piazza di Spagna to the late-Renaissance church Trinità dei Monti. Bernard Arnault, the French tycoon behind LVMH, “has invested €100m in Italy over the past year”, says Mr Beccari, a chunk of it on cultural projects.

The trend has been incentivised by the government of 41-year-old Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who has taken Fyodor Dostoevsky’s line “Beauty will save us” as a political mantra. Two years ago, Italy introduced a 65 per cent tax break for money put into cultural projects. It was a break from tradition in Italy, where the state has historically paid for cultural heritage.

A Palazzo Fendi private salon

Dario Franceschini, Italy’s culture minister, says the “Art Bonus” initiative is important “from a material point of view but also an educational one: our country is finally understanding art patronage”. Ministry insiders admit they wanted to tap into rising demand for corporate sustainability — particularly among sought-after millennial consumers. A recent report from consultants BCG for Italian luxury industry lobby Altagamma showed that sustainability is important to 25- to 35-year-olds. “Today customers want to share the values of a brand. They want to know more, they don’t want just the products,” says Mr Beccari. “I want to give them the possibility of entering a place which is the incarnation of our sense of aesthetic, in terms of furniture, art works, products.”

From the outside, the renovation of Palazzo Fendi has spruced up its golden-coloured façade and improved the view by securing the removal of street hawkers. Inside is an orgy of Instagram candy. Fendi’s 10,800 sq ft global flagship store occupies the ground and first floors, replete with geometric patterned furs and walls of handbags retailing at four- and five-figure sums, set against red travertine and Gio Ponti furniture. The third floor, designed by Milan-based design firm Dimore Studio, is a private salon for top clients and VIPs. The 1,080 sq ft room sets Murano glass chandeliers against art by Lucio Fontana. Upper floors host a seven-room hotel, Fendi Private Suites. Award-winning Japanese restaurant Zuma, co-founded by German chef Rainer Becker, will open this month.

The flagship store

Mr Beccari, who declined to provide a cost for the works, has emerged as one of LVMH’s top executives in the past five years. Having started his career at mass-market goods firms Reckitt Benckiser and Parmalat, he was previously executive vice-president of marketing and communications at Louis Vuitton.

For a seasoned marketing man, does he see no risk in putting money into Rome, a city that has been engulfed by a corruption scandal? The executive, who was with Mr Renzi at the opening of Milan Fashion Week, shrugs this off: “I agree with Renzi, let’s talk about going forward, and forget about the past.”

Such ebullient talk also seems timely, given the industry slowdown. Global luxury sales rose only about 1 per cent last year, and not much improvement is being seen this year. Fendi does not provide figures but industry experts estimate it has suffered along with the rest. Mr Beccari says Fendi has no plans this year to add to its 210 stores — of which 19 are in China, the epicentre of the slowdown. Instead it is remodelling its brand for the longer term, pushing up prices and image — of which investing in Rome’s heritage is a key part.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.