>> We are in Tokyo to attend the launch of Un Art Autre, Creation and Innovation in Craftsmanship presented by the internationally celebrated fashion house Fendi. Every time we are in the company of fashion folk — especially international ones — we have to resist the feeling that it is all a splendid ruse and we are, in fact, actors in a scene from Bruno — Sacha Baron Cohen’s devastatingly witty film satirising the vacuity and frivolity of the fashion universe. But there is a certain gravitas to the Fendi lot — and this exhibition in collaboration with the Tokyo University of the Arts — the legendary incubator of avant-garde edgy creative and subversive expression lends it a hard won authority.
Of course, it is also cherry blossom season in Japan, and amongst certain well-heeled global travellers, reason enough to travel across the globe to celebrate the blossoming of the ephemeral blossoms in their springtime glory. But, we are here for a third and secret reason: for long we have believed the Japanese and the Italians to be the ultimate purveyors of unattainable aesthetic zeal.
Our mission on this trip is simple: pitted together in this unique synergy of Japanese art and Italian design — whose aesthetic sensibility will emerge superior?
Will the stylish folk from Rome in their mink and leather and five inch heeled boots – mentored by Fendi’s iconic designer Karl Lagerfeld prevail? Or will the Japanese with their matte black overcoats and professorial spectacles triumph? We have three action packed days to find out.
Sashimi, sea bream and sakura blossoms
>> Dinner that night was created by Tokyo’s legendary chef Kanetanada (a traditionalist master of Japanese cuisine). Over such delicacies as sashimi of sea bream flavoured with kelp and citrus vinegar, grilled foie gras, slices of trout chopped routs, burdock steamed rice, crab meat, bean curd and Japanese black beef. Ninety special guests sit on Phillipe Starke Chairs around a single table suffused with cherry blossom branches and champagne flutes. But all is not tickety –boo in this great coming together of the Italians and the Japanese style aristocrats. When we turn to our dining companion the suave Marco Bevilacqua, creative director of the exhibition, we hear a sigh, “I’ve been here 10 days now setting up the exhibition,” he says, “And what I will do for a simple pasta or a risotto.” Ah, the earthy flavours of Roma are calling, even while the sakura flowers bloom outside in the museum’s vast gardens.
Back to our roots
>> Our first interview is with Pietro Beccari, the young and dashing newly appointed Chairman and CEO of Fendi who in his earlier avatar until was known as the man who made Louis Vuitton the aspirational and super successful brand it is. Taking to the passionate Italian — a dead ringer for a young Richard Gere we get a glimpse into the working of his mind. “When I assumed responsibility for Fendi, I dug deep in to the brand’s roots and realised that its association and relationship with fur lay at the heart of the luxury merchandiser. In fact, when Edoardo and Adele Fendi, opened their shop way back in 1925 it was as a fur and leather shop in Rome; Why not build on this? I thought. After all for a luxury house – what can be more luxurious than fur?” As a strategy to take the brand even further up the dizzying heights of luxury’s totem pole it seems a fine one. After all, Becarri was the man who mined Louis Vuitton’s roots with travel to such advantage. In many ways, ‘back to our roots’ is the zeitgeist anthem.
When Rome met Tokyo
>> The next morning when we meet the redoubtable and soulful Sylvia Fendi, daughter of Italy’s first family of fashion she echoes Rome’s irresistible call even while acknowledging Japan’s undeniable complicity in Style’s unerring path. “We are all so unique and special,” she says of the collaboration. “And even as we mingle and globalise we must protect and promote what is beautiful and intrinsic in our own cultures and countries.” So in the end is it Roma or cherry blossom subsumed Tokyo that comes out on top? How about penne pasta shaped like a sakura flower?
Magic and mystery
>> Stepping into the exhibition, after interviewing its stylish curator, the Rome-based Emanuela Nobile Mino, we experience the highly sensual and irresistibly tactile quality of fur. The exhibition has been designed as a labyrinth of three rooms that engage the viewer on many levels — visual, intellectual, sensory and aural. A curtain of fur opens to reveal Room One, subsumed with heady fragrances and a video wall featuring Fendi’s archival photographs from the 1960s.
Impossibly glamorous models wrapped in skins of gazelle, mink, mole and fox appear and disappear like primeval creatures before our eyes. “We planned the first room to be a multi-sensorial environment which uses sight and touch to interpret the qualities which have contributed to making Fendi furs increasingly sophisticated and glamorous,” says Emanuela. “The second environment presents the exhibition’s main section showcasing 24 iconic furs created between 1970 and 2013 best representing Fendi’s aesthetic, stylistic and technical revolutions.
” But if the second room is all about mystery and magic — the third room focuses on the craftsmanship and handmade heritage of the brand. Here video tables, on which live tablets of information play continually even as two of Fendi’s finest fur artists display their craft to a slew of excitable Japanese invitees culled from the fashion, social diplomatic and artistic communities of Tokyo. To the accompaniment of a specially created soundtrack by international DJ Flavia Lazzarini we watch some of the world’s most stylish people ebb and flow bringing light and wonder to a material as glamorous as it is controversial.