ROME – Love it or hate it, fur has played a prominent role in fashion, not least in the history of Italian luxury brand Fendi. Founded in 1925 as a fur and leather store in Rome, the brand, which is now a part of the LVMH conglomerate, celebrated its 90th anniversary last year – the starting point for an exhibition showcasing its long legacy of artistry and craft in the field of fur. The Artisans of Dreams opened this summer in Rome’s iconic Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, recently transformed by architect Marco Costanzi into Fendi’s new headquarters and showroom. Curated seamlessly in sync with the space, the exhibition deployed vibrant colours and tactile surfaces to bring the history of the fashion house to vivid life. Multisensory installations invited visitors to touch and feel the items exhibited, while immersive technologies and digital media created interactive displays.
The exhibition design was the work of Bureau Betak, a Paris-based consultancy that has produced more than 600 fashion shows, events and exhibitions for clients such as Dior, Rodarte, Viktor & Rolf and Michael Kors. ‘Fendi asked us to imagine a new way of expressing the brand’s vision and savoir-faire of fur,’ says Alexandre de Betak. The office translated the brief into an exhibition and accompanying video installation, dividing the presentation into individual zones where fur items chosen from Fendi’s archives and recent collections were showcased thematically. Bureau Betak designed the scenography and display systems, as well as installations that explored the versatility of Fendi’s trademark fur – and its many applications.
Different zones offered different experiences. In Labyrinth, an installation of panels, spirals and reliefs made from fur highlighted the material’s colour range and its potential to be crafted into expressive shapes, an artistic approach that typifies art director Karl Lagerfeld’s work with Fendi. Another area, titled Obsession, immersed the viewer in a psychedelic maze constructed from Fendi’s signature accessories and charms, while mirrors and lighting integrated into the displays generated illusions of depth and blurred several fields of colour into one.
The long-term collaboration between Karl Lagerfeld and Fendi’s furriers, who have been translating his bold designs for half a century, was the subject of the Craftmanship section. The Experience installation, on the other hand, submerged visitors in a sphere of radiant light, quixotic scenography and interactivity, inviting a tactile examination of fur. Visitors encountered the real world again in Essentials, where keynote Fendi designs appeared on dress mannequins. Physical, analogue encounters with Fendi’s products gave way to their electronic counterparts in the Tablets space, where touchscreen displays enabled visitors to enter the Digiverse.
Much of the exhibition content revisited landmark events in Fendi’s history, including the signature stylistic milestones of Karl Lagerfeld, who began collaborating with the company in 1966. Lagerfeld established a culture of innovation while continuing to build on the Italian artisanal tradition that had shaped Fendi’s corporate image. The exhibition revealed that Lagerfeld sketches his fur designs on paper and relies on master artisans to invent the cuts that bring his visions to life. Despite developing various new technologies, Fendi still bases its furs and leather goods on traditional craftsmanship when it comes to the complicated cuts and extravagant silhouettes that characterize the brand.The exhibition comes at a time when attitudes towards fur have undergone some softening, with furriers promising to abide by ethics that activists and consumers are more likely to accept. Nevertheless, it remains a uniquely contentious material. The Artisans of Dreams did not attempt to address ethical issues, instead focusing on fur as a resource with a long history of artistry, innovation and inspiration. In the words of Alexandre de Betak: ‘The objective was to express the different facets of Fendi: limitless creativity, unique savoir-faire and an accessible product and material.’ Principled considerations apart, the show lived up to its brief, thanks to stunning scenography and cutting-edge design that blurred the lines between fashion and art.
Photos Matteo Canestraro for Bureau Betak