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A Look Inside The Life Of The Woman Behind Marni

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 19/10/2015 Jessica Kane
MARNI © Marni MARNI

By Serena Tibaldi

 The passengers on the motorboat are furiously snapping pictures with their smartphones as the Rialto Bridge appears. The structure, which is under restoration, is partly covered: They are trying to capture the billboard that dominates the scaffolding and announcing Becoming Marni, the show created for the Venice Art Biennale by the Italian brand and dedicated to the Brazilian artist Véio. The enthusiastic photographers are none other than Consuelo Castiglioni, her husband Gianni, and their children Carolina and Giovanni. Essentially, they are Marni.

The giant poster marks the final stage of the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the brand created by Consuelo. But judging from their excitement (chaotic moments to snap group shots ensued), none of the four have lost that sense of wonder from the early days. “Everyone thinks that after a while, seeing someone wearing your pieces becomes second nature, but it has never been like that for me,” reflects Consuelo a few hours later as she looks out over a very busy Grand Canal. “The surprise of meeting someone who chose to spend money on one of my ideas never changes. How do you get used to that?”

It goes without saying that this attitude is not surprising for someone like her – she definitely doesn’t belong to the designer-superstar category for whom the cult following goes hand and hand with what they create. Petite, quiet, shy and cheerful, Consuelo Castiglioni is the antithesis of certain types of extremism. Marni was actually founded in 1994 as a response to that kind of hedonistic and ostentatious fashion. One look, and it is easy to see how the style of that time had little or nothing to do with her: it was hard for her to dress. “That’s for sure! But that isn’t even what made me create my own collection. In the end, it all came down to great recklessness on my part and deep love on the part of my husband, who has always supported me in everything I do.”

The Castiglioni family founded Ciwifurs, a symbol of Italian fur, in the 1950s. Consuelo started from there. For her, everything was tied to her family: Marni is the nickname of Gianni’s sister Marina, and the collection began with the furs they were working on in their workshops.

Stylistically, there was only one road to take. Others created clothing for women who dressed for the opinions of others. So she devoted herself to women who dressed for themselves. She shaved mink so it looked like fabric; she got rid of lapels, buttons, decorations and linings; she lengthened hems, raised necklines and played with naïf prints when everything else was about sexy seductresses. And she invented the “fussbetts” as she calls them: the flat, wide and comfortable sandals that became an identifiable feature of her silhouette. It was sacrilegious at that time. “An English journalist described them as ugly shoes,” she says, more puzzled than offended. “I think a woman walking with confidence is so elegant, so of course that’s better than wobbling on high heels. Oh, and Gianni didn’t want to give in, he couldn’t understand how I could like those sandals. He finally caved and now, more and more men understand their beauty. I am not aggressive, but when I decide on something, I don’t give up easily.”

She later reflects that it’s not about being stubborn. She just knows that at a certain point, you have to make a choice and take a stand. That is what she regularly does, and good for her. Consuelo knows how to create collections that outlive disposable fashion, perfect for attracting those who think outside the box, those who think the real sin would be conforming to a stereotype. The first one to embrace the message – the men’s line arrived on the scene in 2002 – were the English, and the others flooded in later.

She was raised in Lugano and is one-fourth Chilean – her grandmother was from Chile and one of her greatest regrets is not having visited the country – and she reveals very little about herself. For sure, we know she met Gianni in 1973 and got married in 1978. In the 1980s, she had Carolina and then Giovanni. “She has always worked, but she was and is a very present mother,” her daughter comments. “Maybe she wasn’t always home, but we knew we could always count on her. Whether it was to spend the evening playing 'Guess Who?' or to learn how to waterski, you could count on her being there, ready to pull everyone else along.”

We are on the set where the photos are being taken for this story and a smiling Consuelo is explaining to the photographer, who is encouraging her to relax, that this would mean covering herself from head to toe and turning her back to the camera. Considering that all the models have their faces hidden in the fall/winter ad campaign – Marni’s first – it is obvious this shyness is truly a lifestyle. She is vegan, a passionate consumer of almonds and chocolate, strict about exercise (she works out with her team to set an example), loves blue and gushes when talking about someone she admires, such as Richard Prince, Kim Gordon, Nina Simone, Ludovico Einaudi, Neil Young, Gio Ponti and Steve McQueen, as well as Jean Prouvé and Cindy Sherman, a client who became a friend.

On the subject of fashion, there is only one name, Rei Kawakubo, and even in terms

of politics, it is hard getting anything out of her – but for other reasons. She kindly yet adamantly responds that she makes dresses and intends to talk about them to those who ask her opinion. Is this also because of her shyness? “No, it’s just that I don’t see why people would want to know what I think about such matters. My work is about other things, I don’t know enough to discuss politics in public.”

It should be noted that she never studied fashion, and never designed anything and her only experience in the field is from working at Ciwifurs. She can count her collaborators on one hand – and, at this point, it comes as no surprise. But her approach works, seeing as how Marni makes inroads season after season, becoming a media phenomenon in its own right, with family management that has remained unchanged even after long-time family friend Renzo Rosso’s OTB group purchased the majority share. It is obvious Consuelo was right when we see the amount of irrefutably Marni-esque elements that have entered common design language. A fast fashion chain has just flooded their stores with canvas jackets that are very similar to those in her spring/summer collection. Perhaps only a few people realize it, but it doesn’t make this trend any less real.

“Well,” she says thoughtfully, “the alternative would be indifference. This works for me.” To just think that, perhaps to avoid the problem, she created a capsule collection for H&M in 2012. “The day the pieces were to be selected, I showed up with 120 garments. It was the bare minimum for me and they said, ’OK, now choose the 40 you want.’ I was stunned.” It was a shock for her, someone who could be defined as a tireless collector, which her daughter confirms under her breath. “I never throw anything away. Now I can also use my granddaughter Margherita as an excuse, as at the age of 18 months she seems to have the same body type as me. So I can say I’m doing it for her, and everyone pretends to believe me.”

Re-thinking the celebrations for the twentieth anniversary and Véio’s Venetian show, it came naturally to ask: What does all this have to do with fashion? “Nothing, and that’s why we did it.” Carolina, the creative director of events (her brother Giovanni is in charge of retail, and Gianni is the CEO) planned the celebrations. Four cities were involved and not a single dress was shown. It was a record. “We are not into retrospective exhibits,” her daughter explains. “We wanted to talk about who we were in a different way, and anyway, there are already plenty of exclusive dinners and parties.” First there was the Flower Market, an explosion of flower stands in Milan, and along these lines, there was the night-time Roof Market in Hong Kong and the Blossom Market in Tokyo.

After that, we went to Venice with Véio’s abstract and primitive art. It was a peculiar choice. “Carolina and I noticed his art at a collective exhibit at the Fondazione Cartier in Paris,” Consuelo recalls, “and when the project for the Biennale started to take shape, we remembered him.” This story emphasizes the harmony that seems to reign in this family. They aren’t just on the same page, they have the same tastes. It is a good sign in a world where it’s not easy for generations to relate to each other. “We’re lucky because we truly understand each other, and we don’t have to try hard,” the designer continues. “Education helps, I know, but there are things you can’t learn.”

The explanation as to why they chose a virtually unknown artist for such an important event is proof. “His artistic world is similar to ours, and that was enough. Of course, a more famous name would have helped in promotions, but we’ve never considered that, and we’re certainly not going to start now.” The same philosophy has always helped them avoid brand product placement, famous spokespeople and mercenary advertising. “In any case, I know,” says Consuelo, “you either love Marni or you hate it. A red carpet appearance certainly won’t change anyone’s mind.” For the record, until now the exhibition has had an average of 12,000 visitors a week. It seems the concept is successful.

Consuelo hesitates when asked the classic question of what she would do if she weren’t working in fashion. She is too tangled up in this world to respond. “It’s an all-consuming world, so it’s difficult to move away from it when it has been your life for such a long time. I have just one regret. I would have liked to have been there more when my children were little. I feel like I’ve missed too many things in their lives. Ah, and I should have listened to my mother and learned to play an instrument. She forced me to play piano, and as a rebellious teenager, I obviously refused. But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. When I tried to do the same with Carolina and Giovanni, they reacted the same way. The moral of the story is that we all want to know how to play, but none of us can,” she laughs.

But she has never been chronically unsatisfied, like the kind of women that brood over their every move. “Of course I’m happy with the collections I present. I’d rather keep the level high, and that’s where anxiety creeps in because the pace of the system – and there’s no point looking for alternatives because there aren’t any – only make it worse. If you then add in the ability to get yourself in situations that border on the surreal, it’s clear why you can never stop,” she says. “I still can’t believe we made it to the Art Biennale. And to think we accepted because we were so undecided that it seemed like the most improbable and difficult thing to achieve – so we would have definitively avoided the problem. We were oblivious then and oblivious we remain.” She stops and jumps to her feet. A vaporetto covered in her exhibition poster passes by. Everyone is suddenly ready to immortalize the event with their smartphones. Thankfully, you never get used to some things.

FROM A SHACK TO ART

Cicero Alves dos Santos, known as Véio (meaning

“old man”), is an unusual figure in the art world. From Sergipe, Brazil, the 68-year-old farmer uses branches and logs found in fields to create spindly and colorful people and animals. In addition to the show, Marni conceived the event as an artistic exchange between Italy and Brazil. Under the supervision of Carolina Castiglioni, Italian artists Tellas and Roberto Ciredz were sent to Véio’s village last winter to create a

series of murals to donate to the city (there is a video describing the experience at the show). The exhibition at San Gregorio on the Grand Canal, curated by Stefano Rabolli Pansera, reconstructs the artist’s shack- workshop, surrounded by works made from branches found at the edge of the water on Venice’s Lido (until 22 November 2015 at San Gregorio, Dorsoduro 172, marni.com/experience/it/event/becoming-marni/).

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