The re­luc­tant fash­ion star

The founder of Marni may not take to the lime­light with ease, but it is Con­suelo Castiglioni’s drive for ex­pan­sion and pas­sion for pro­gres­sive, of­ten ir­rev­er­ent, de­sign that lie be­hind the brand’s global ap­peal. Katie Trot­ter en­joys a rare in­ter­view with

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Con­suelo Castiglioni doesn’t like in­ter­views. In fact, the founder of Marni dis­likes any­thing to do with the me­dia. No­to­ri­ously ret­i­cent, her press ap­pear­ances are rare – ev­ery move un­der­taken with painstak­ing pre­ci­sion and prepa­ra­tion. So when you do get the op­por­tu­nity to in­ter­view her, it is some­thing of a coup – but no easy task. Castiglioni is un­com­fort­able with the pomp that sur­rounds the fash­ion in­dus­try, not to men­tion its com­mer­cial con­straints, and re­mains thor­oughly tightly zipped. Although this doesn’t ex­actly win hearts and souls, keep­ing things at an arm’s length has al­ways been her pri­mary cop­ing mech­a­nism. “I am a very re­served per­son and pre­fer that my work speaks for me,” she ex­plains.

She doesn’t ad­ver­tise, ei­ther. Nor does she pester celebri­ties or key me­dia. Which is all highly ad­mirable, but, in an in­dus­try driven by packs of pow­er­ful pub­li­cists, it can’t have been an easy line to tread. Cer­tainly, it is less dif­fi­cult to de­fend such de­ci­sions when business is good, and per­haps her decision to re­main re­moved has only ever added to Marni’s allure. For, de­spite hav­ing spent most of her ca­reer hov­er­ing on the pe­riph­ery of the fash­ion world, she has been sin­gled out as one of the most pro­gres­sive and pi­o­neer­ing de­sign­ers of our time. Whether or not she is con­scious of her place in fash­ion his­tory mat­ters lit­tle – her ec­cen­tric­ity pro­vides light re­lief in an in­dus­try that can o en be seen as rife with ba­nal­ity.

“I don’t like nar­row bor­ders, nor do I like im­po­si­tions,” Castiglioni says. “Marni is a range of pos­si­bil­i­ties for peo­ple to choose from, and I want the cus­tomer to be the one who makes those choices.”

In re­cent times, de­sign­ers have in­creas­ingly had to call on their pow­ers of in­ven­tion to sur­vive. Which has put Marni in prime po­si­tion, for un­like so many of Castiglioni’s con­tem­po­raries, she will not al­low her vi­sion to be ham­pered by any­thing as pro­saic as com­mer­cial­ism. Like her, her clothes are un­com­pro­mis­ing. They are what they are – if you like them, you like them. If you don’t, you don’t. No apolo­gies here.

The Swiss-born, part-Chilean Castiglioni grew up in Lugano, Switzer­land. She talks of a happy child­hood, with her mother at home tak­ing care of her and her sis­ter. “I re­mem­ber lots of friends com­ing to our house, hav­ing fun in our gar­den and dress­ing up in our mother’s clothes. She taught me that if you be­lieve in some­thing, you have to fight to ob­tain it, with­out be­ing in­flu­enced too much by oth­ers’ opin­ions.”

In 1978, she fell in love with and mar­ried Gianni Castiglioni, the el­dest of four sons who worked in the fam­ily business, a fur company called Ci­wiFurs, which pro­duced gar­ments for many of the big in­ter­na­tional fash­ion la­bels. Soon a er her wed­ding (she walked down the aisle in her grand­mother’s wed­ding dress), she joined the company, de­spite hav­ing a com­plete lack of for­mal train­ing. She ini­tially fo­cused on furs and later, more in­ter­est­ingly, on their rein­ven­tion.

“We met when we were very young and our paths de­vel­oped nat­u­rally to­gether, start­ing from our life to­gether in Mi­lan to found­ing Marni,” she says of the re­la­tion­ship.

The pair set up Marni in 1994, nam­ing the new brand a er Gianni’s sis­ter, Ma­rina, known af­fec­tion­ately as Marni. The first ready-to-wear col­lec­tion was ex­tremely well-re­ceived and be­fore long, the duo was at the helm of one of the youngest but most highly re­spected fash­ion houses in Italy.

I ask if she felt like she had some­thing to prove, break­ing the mar­ket so quickly with­out the crutch of a for­mal de­sign back­ground. “The de­vel­op­ment was very or­ganic,” she ex­plains. “When we launched Marni in 1994, furs were very old-fash­ioned and my wish was to in­ter­pret them with a more mod­ern twist and work the ma­te­rial with a fur-to-fab­ric ap­proach. It proved suc­cess­ful. Ev­ery fol­low­ing step ar­rived nat­u­rally, such as the in­tro­duc­tion of the first spring/sum­mer col­lec­tion, the ac­ces­sories, menswear, etc. We al­ways stepped on­wards only when we felt the time was ripe.”

It is im­pos­si­ble to re­main in­dif­fer­ent to such an in­spired mav­er­ick. O en de­sign­ers are so locked in a web of rules that they for­get what de­sign is meant to be about – in­no­va­tion. Castiglioni is dif­fer­ent. She has en­sured that the Marni woman doesn’t rely purely on sex ap­peal – o en de­fy­ing tra­di­tional ideals of fem­i­nin­ity and beauty com­pletely. The brand’s aes­thetic sits some­where in the murky wa­ters be­tween high cul­ture and the or­di­nary world – not an easy rest­ing point.

“The Marni aes­thetic is about the cross­con­tam­i­na­tion of dif­fer­ent worlds and o en com­posed of con­trast­ing de­tails – mix­ing cou­ture and sports­wear, the in­ter­est for folk and func­tion­al­ity, aus­ter­ity and ro­man­ti­cism. I can only speak for my­self, but in­no­va­tion is such an im­por­tant de­tail of my work, it means find­ing new so­lu­tions and in­ter­pret­ing el­e­ments in un­ex­pected ways.”

And yet, de­spite her suc­cess, Castiglioni’s fam­ily has al­ways come first, she says. “When my chil­dren were very young, I con­cen­trated on tak­ing care of them. It wasn’t un­til they were grown up that I started Marni. It is dif­fi­cult to man­age both things, but my fam­ily has al­ways been my pri­or­ity.”

To­day, Castiglioni’s fam­ily is in­volved in ev­ery as­pect of the business – a rare feat for an op­er­a­tion of this size. Her hus­band, Gianni (whom she ad­mires “for his ra­tio­nal ap­proach”), is Marni’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, and their daugh­ter, Carolina, is the di­rec­tor of spe­cial projects.

“We are a very close fam­ily, and there is an open di­a­logue, filled with pas­sion and at­ten­tion,” Castiglioni ex­plains. “Ev­ery­one con­trib­utes with their own ideas and ex­pe­ri­ences. It is stim­u­lat­ing for all of us.”

In dis­sect­ing her col­lec­tions, it be­comes clear that Castiglioni is also in­flu­enced by the in­ter­min­gling of dif­fer­ent art forms – par­tic­u­larly ge­om­e­try and ar­chi­tec­ture. She speaks of her love of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe be­cause of the at­mos­phere they con­vey, but also for their use of form, colour, print and tex­ture. Like Schi­a­par­elli and Chanel be­fore her, Castiglioni finds con­fronta­tion with other vi­sions ex­cit­ing, and her col­lab­o­ra­tions with the art world are al­ways fas­ci­nat­ing.

“I like to ex­per­i­ment and art for me is an im­mense source of ideas, images, colours, de­tails and so­lu­tions. I think art is closely linked with fash­ion, as they are both an ex­pres­sion of the zeit­geist. In­deed, a dress can be seen as a piece of art: a func­tional one, a fine three­d­i­men­sional hand­i­cra .” Her ap­proach to­wards the whole cre­ative process is highly in­tu­itive. “I follow my instincts com­pletely and want to be in­volved in ev­ery step. This is not al­ways easy or im­me­di­ate to achieve. It takes many at­tempts un­til it re­ally feels right.” In 2012, some­what sur­pris­ingly to those around her, Castiglioni ac­cepted an of­fer to de­sign a cap­sule col­lec­tion for the high-street brand H&M. It was a plucky choice: here was a hugely suc­cess­ful avant­garde de­signer hand­ing over the reins to a high-street su­per­power known for its throw­away fash­ion. How would youth cul­ture even be­gin to un­der­stand the essence of the Marni woman?

Castiglioni’s aim was to pro­duce a Marni col­lec­tion that of­fered qual­ity to the main­stream mar­ket. “I liked the chal­lenge right away. It of­fered me the op­por­tu­nity to reach a wider au­di­ence, in par­tic­u­lar a younger gen­er­a­tion.” It sold out in min­utes. Of course, main­tain­ing Castiglioni’s spe­cific brand of tun­nel vi­sion is dif­fi­cult in to­day’s cor­po­rate cul­ture. Although the company had read­ily ad­mit­ted to hav­ing been ap­proached by po­ten­tial in­vestors and buy­ers for years, it wasn’t un­til the close of 2012 that Renzo Rosso and his company, Only the Brave (OTB), fi­nally ac­quired a ma­jor stake, sig­nalling Marni’s de­sire to ex­pand fur­ther glob­ally. Wasn’t she wor­ried? “OTB is an Ital­ian company and Renzo is a friend – we felt that with him we could de­velop the company in the right way,” she says.

Their re­cent plans for ex­pan­sion are of elephantine proportions – re­port­edly, the aim is to dou­ble sales. Th­ese in­clude new store open­ings in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Ara­bia among other new mar­kets, and the roll­out of strate­gic and in­fras­truc­tural changes to their store con­cepts.

“The com­pe­ti­tion is be­com­ing more and more dif­fi­cult and the mar­ket is more and more de­mand­ing. We need to cre­ate new pro­pos­als all the time, which is re­ally chal­leng­ing.”

I ask if she ever thinks it would be nice to just live an or­di­nary life, to read books, see friends and do all of the things she en­joys with­out the pres­sures of “global ex­pan­sion” and all that goes with it. For what are clothes with­out a life to live them in?

“My work is, of course, very much part of my life, but I do find mo­ments to visit a new art gallery or to play with my grand­chil­dren … this is very im­por­tant to me. I couldn’t live with­out the house in the moun­tains in Cele­rina, Switzer­land. It was built by my mother in 1963 and it’s one of the places where I can re­ally re­lax and spend time with my fam­ily and friends.”

That’s the thing about Castiglioni – un­like many of her con­tem­po­raries, she is un­der no il­lu­sions about the ec­cen­tric world she in­hab­its, and chooses to ap­proach the in­dus­try with a healthy level of ir­rev­er­ence. Like most in­spired cre­atives, she has no time for popular taste, and I have a feel­ing that, deep down, she op­poses con­ven­tional de­sign as much as she does the lime­light. “All I know is that if you have an opin­ion and a vi­sion you have to follow it,” she main­tains. “It is so im­por­tant to re­main true to one­self.”

IN FULL BLOOM Marni’s spring/sum­mer 2015 col­lec­tion at Mi­lan Fash­ion Week was an ef­fu­sive cel­e­bra­tion of colour and print, and the Castiglioni fam­ily also or­gan­ised a pop-up flower mar­ket in Mi­lan’s Ro­tonda Della Be­sana.

FREE-FLOW­ING FASH­ION While Marni’s spring/sum­mer 2015 col­lec­tion in Mi­lan was colour­ful and flo­ral-in­spired, it was in­ter­spersed with Zen-like cre­ations in darker hues such as this clutch, le , and out­fit, right.

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