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
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.