Meet the heiress who wants to bring a political slant to the family business. By Claudia Croft
Leonetta Fendi may be fashion royalty but she’s not ready for a gilded life of leisure. Instead, she’s a campaigner and volunteer who’s determined to make luxury a force for good. By Claudia Croft. Photographs by Cat Stevens
‘People would say, “But you are a Fendi – why go to an anti-capitalist march?”’
If you think all fashion heiresses are bubble-headed brats more concerned with tearing through their trust funds than doing something useful, then you’ve not met Leonetta Fendi. The 20-year-old bounds purposefully through the salon at Shoreditch House looking as if she’s just taken a detour from the Women’s March. Dressed like a latter-day Land Girl in a T-shirt tucked into oversized blue workwear trousers, she’s wearing the sturdy boots of someone who prefers to walk rather than Uber it.
Her mother is Silvia Venturini Fendi, who heads up the menswear and accessory arms of the Italian luxury house and who, in 1997, created the Fendi Baguette, the little tote that kick-started the It-bag era. Leonetta’s sister, the jeweller Delfina Delettrez Fendi, also designs accessories for the house.
Growing up a Fendi meant growing up at the heart of one of Italy ’s most iconic fashion brands. Karl Lagerfeld, who has been designing for Fendi for 52 years, would sketch pictures of her when she was a baby. She has been helping out backstage at her mother’s fashion shows since she was 10, attended her first Dior haute couture show at the age of 12 (‘I was desperate to meet John Galliano’) and can have her pick of glamorous looks from the Fendi archive when the occasion calls.
A socialite’s career of front-row photo ops, fabulous furs and expensive friends, with perhaps a little designing on the side, seemed to beckon, but Leonetta wants more from life than that.
She recently graduated from SOAS, the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, with a degree in politics and development studies, cutting off her waist-length hair in a gesture of freedom to celebrate the end of her exams. ‘I want to go into politics,’ she says, running a dainty hand through her gamine new crop. ‘I want to help people and change things’ – although it’s activism, rather than institutional politics (which she describes as ‘scary’), that interests her most. ‘It’s the small acts, because everything you do is political, even small acts,’ she says. But even those aren’t always enough. ‘All my friends are vegan and I still eat meat, so they’re like, “You’re not that political.” And I say, I still am – in my own way.’
Her own way runs counter to the prescribed route of the fashion It girl. If Leonetta, which means ‘little lion’ in Italian, conforms to any stereotype, it’s that of the ‘woke’ millennial rather than the spoilt rich girl. Instead of spending school holidays yacht-hopping around Europe, she volunteered in refugee camps in Greece and Athens, ‘giving out clothes and sleeping bags and helping in the kitchens’. She also went to Calais. ‘Four or five times. I was volunteering in the camp. It was hard the first time, especially as you don’t know what to expect. It was crazy – terrible, terrible situations – but I met such great people. I’m still texting them as they move around the world. Some have managed to get into the UK and they’ve claimed asylum and are starting their life slowly.’ It all sounds very worthy, but this bright young Fendi exudes an infectious optimism.
Her upbringing had, she says, ‘positives and negatives’. ‘When I was young people would say, “Will you give me a Fendi bag for my birthday?” I started to think, why are they asking me that? That’s not nice. People are going to be friendly with me for that?’ She and all the Fendi cousins went to the same middle school. ‘There were so many of us, we were a clique,’ she says of her clan. ‘That’s when I started to realise what it meant, the family.’ Even so, she didn’t enjoy special fashion privileges. She and her cousins were the last girls in school to get Fendi schoolbags. ‘It was after all the other girls started carrying them,’ she remembers, with amusement more than irritation.
For Fendi, like many children born into high-flying families, the challenge is to create an identity for herself. ‘People would say, “But you’re a Fendi – why go to an anti-capitalist march? How can you do that?” People will always judge.’ Her ambition is to work for the UN or an NGO, but she’s not turning her back on fashion and the opportunities a global brand like Fendi offers. ‘Now I’m starting to think of both paths and to aim to combine politics and fashion,’ she says. ‘Fashion is very powerful. It’s one of the most powerful mediums to express yourself in.’
The family specialises in producing unconventional, strong, creative and entrepreneurial women. They have surrounded the young heiress all her life. The brand was founded by Leonetta’s great-grandmother, Adele Casagrande. She opened a fur and leather workshop in Rome in 1918, renaming it Fendi in 1925 after marrying Edoardo Fendi. The business was passed on to their five daughters – Paola, Franca, Carla, Alda and Anna (Leonetta’s grandmother) – who grew up in the atelier, playing with the furs and the bags. With the help of Karl Lagerfeld, who began working for Fendi in 1965, the sisters are credited with transforming the image of fur, from a staple of wealthy women’s wardrobes into a must-have fashion statement. As company president, Carla Fendi, who died in June of this year, introduced the brand to the American market in the late 1960s and masterminded its global expansion in the decades that followed. The Fendis were a rare female fashion dynasty, and as a mark of the sisters’ importance to Italy, they were granted special dispensation by the Italian government to allow their
‘Like most women in my family, my mother was both the woman and the man’
descendants to adopt the maternal surname. In 2001 the sisters sold a majority stake to LVMH. ‘Five sisters was too much,’ Karl Lagerfeld said at the time of the deal, ‘and they were not speaking. The husbands were all happy when they sold.’
After that, most of the Fendi family moved on from the day-today running of the business. Only Silvia and Delfina are actively involved today. The expectation is that Leonetta, too, will join them at Fendi, although she insists she won’t be designing. ‘I said no, I don’t know how to draw,’ she admits with a playful shrug. What she excels at is building a bridge between Fendi – where an haute couture coat can cost €1 million – and her own millennial generation, who have a very different attitude to luxury from their predecessors. In terms of shaping the attitudes of the house to appeal to new young customers, she’s Fendi’s secret weapon.
To that end, she’s been working with F is For…, the digital platform set up by Fendi in 2016. Produced by and aimed at millennials – the consumer group that all luxury brands are desperate to woo – it showcases live art and DJ experiences on the roof of Fendi’s Rome HQ, as well as profiling young artists, actors and creatives.
Fendi – unpretentious, charismatic, warm and confident – is a natural in front of the camera, and stages video takeovers and show coverage on the site as well as scouting for young talent to highlight. Its values of freedom of expression and optimism chime with her. Obsessed with authenticity, plugged into social media (‘I get all my news from Facebook and Instagram’), she says her generation wants to engage with brands that reflect their values. ‘We want to change things for the better and we need everyone’s support. We can’t do it by ourselves. The people that are in power now, we want to have a dialogue with them. We don’t want to wait to be in power to change things. We will make our voices heard.’
Politics was always discussed at home, and she credits her philanthropic Aunt Carla with inspiring her to get more involved with the causes she believed in. She regularly volunteered at Carla’s hospice for children with cancer. Her interest in politics deepened when she left home at 15 to attend United World Colleges Atlantic, a progressive boarding school in the Vale of Glamorgan, which describes its alumni as ‘agents of positive change’.
Her mother, Silvia, had an unconventional upbringing. Her mother, Anna, was such a dedicated aesthete that she dressed Silvia and her siblings only in black because it was more chic than wearing colour, leading many who met the youngsters to believe they were in constant mourning. Anna art-directed the family’s life to the point that they even ate food dyed to match her favourite shades. ‘There was the blue period, the green period, the black period… All my friends would love to come over because we’d serve blue rice for dinner, up until my mother realised she was poisoning us with chemicals,’ Silvia said in an interview last year.
Silvia inherited her mother’s aesthetic sense (although not her culinary tastes), gravitating towards the Fendi ateliers. She began working for the family business as soon as she could.
Fendi remembers her mother wasn’t like the other parents at her school in Rome. ‘Like most of the women in my family, she was both the woman and the man,’ she says. She recalls asking her mother to do the school run but Silvia was too busy at work.
‘All the mums would hang out at and come and pick up the kids after school. I would think, why is my mum not doing that?’ While having a mother with a high-powered job might have given her pangs of anxiety as a child, Fendi now has a different take on it.
‘It is good because she is very powerful. She gives me a sense of empowerment. I can do whatever a man can do and do it as well as she could, and I can take care of myself without needing anyone else to look after me.’
As a member of one of Italy’s wealthiest families, Fendi doesn’t try to hide her privilege. Instead, she wears it lightly. During her first year at SOAS she was too embarrassed to invite her university friends over because she was living in her mother’s London house in Knightsbridge. ‘I hated it. I didn’t know where to go for lunch or dinner and all my friends were in east London,’ she says. She moved to Dalston in the second year and spent her time going to marches, lectures and exhibitions, and cycling back and forth to Peckham, where her then-boyfriend lived. ‘I go to Loulou’s [a private members’ club in Mayfair] but also Blues Kitchens or any bar I find. I feel I can adapt to everything,’ she says.
After graduation, she took some time out, surfing in Portugal with a group of 30 friends, putting off the tricky business of deciding what to do next and where to call home: Italy, where her teenage bedroom is still plastered with One Direction posters; London, where she’s spent the past three years; or New York. ‘My mum is saying, “Did you find yourself an internship yet?’’’ Whatever she does, we can expect her presence at Fendi to grow.
As for fashion, there are plenty of things she would like to change. ‘It’s not enough to put a slogan on a T-shirt – you have to put in place what you talk and advocate for – but it’s a start,’ she says. Sustainability is a big concern for her and her generation, as is exploitation in the supply chain. ‘Fashion has to be conscious about what’s happening around the world. It’s such a massive industry and it also has much potential to reach the youngest in society. Now, it has to have a positive impact.’ Current and future CEOS take note.
Clockwise from below
left Leonetta with her sister, the jewellery designer Delfina Delettrez Fendi, at spring/summer 2017 fashion week in Milan; with her mother, Silvia Venturini Fendi, who designs accessories and menswear, at the haute
fourrure autumn/winter 2017 show; at the F is
For... launch party in New York, February 2017
In tweed plaid jacket, £2,790, Fendi (fendi.com)
In cotton dress, £910, and leather belt, £530, both Fendi (fendi.com) Styling: Sophie Dawson. Hair and make-up: Johanni Nel at S Management using Kérastase and Bobbi Brown