From Issue One of 10+: Hooked On Classics by Claudia Croft Takes Us To Max Mara Cruise 2019
Don’t speak. It’s too early to make conversation. I’m sure my personality will return when the sun comes up, but for now I am a sleep-deprived husk, shuffling through the airport, hoping not to bump into anyone. Oh Christ! Is that Sasha Slater, the hyper-intelligent “queen of luxury” at The Telegraph? I duck into WHSmith and pretend to read Grazia.
Sasha’s great, but I’ve got nothing to give in terms of conversation, plus I’m wearing socks and sandals, which seemed like a good idea when the taxi picked me up at 4.30am, but now makes me look like an escapee from the Elsa Klensch retirement home for deranged fashion editors.
I board the plane and get the front seat. It’s funny how that makes you feel instantly brighter. Apart from the early start, I’m looking forward to this trip. This is the last of the big international-destination cruise events. The fashion caravan has travelled around France, from Chantilly to Arles, with a Prada pit stop in New York. Finally, a select few of us are heading to Italy and the small town of Reggio Emilia, in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna. It’s here, in his birthplace, that Achille Maramotti started Max Mara. The year was 1951 and he had a vision for the future of fashion. He bet that women wanted the very best design, mass-produced by a finely honed industrial machine to the highest quality. Maramotti’s bet paid off spectacularly. Not only has Max Mara become one of Italy’s biggest brands (with annual sales reported to be more than £1 billion), but the prestige of the Made in Italy label and the blueprint for modern designer ready-to-wear are rooted here, in this sleepy, land-locked town.
Maramotti’s mechanised approach to high fashion was revolutionary. Previously, customers went to French couture houses for originals, or to local dressmakers who produced licensed copies in small batches. He built high-spec factories and employed a host of respected designers: Karl Lagerfeld, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, Dolce & Gabbana and Narciso Rodriguez have all worked for Max Mara, although historically the brand never draws attention to its designers. Ian Griffiths, Max Mara’s British-born creative director and a company veteran of 31 years, gave his first big press interview only two years ago. The Max Mara philosophy has always been to focus on the clothes.
To that end, our first stop is the Max Mara archive. Housed in the original factory building from 1951, it was transformed into a remarkable repository of fashion history in the early 1970s. There are 350,000 objects stored here – everything from fabric swatches, paper patterns, old magazines (50,000 of them) and video clips, including the first ever Max Mara TV ad, shot by Sergio Leone in 1968. Even the rugs and sofas that once adorned Max Mara’s global boutiques have a home here and, alongside a comprehensive Max Mara collection archive, there are 8,000 vintage pieces dating back to Victorian times.
And so begins a remarkable tour led by Laura Lusuardi, the white-haired fashion director who began her career as a designer here in the mid-1960s (the rest of the fashion industry may be locked in a cycle of three-year creative director contracts and sudden firings, but long service is the norm at Max Mara). Dressed in elegant black layers and wearing a huge crystal necklace, she says, “Everything has been made. We only have to reinterpret it in a different way.” Which is exactly how the Max Mara designers use the archive – as a repository of ideas and inspiration. What makes this different from other fashion archives is that it is not a museum but a working collection. The clothes are not kept in museum conditions or handled with white gloves by reverent curators. The goal is not to preserve the garments – however rare or significant – but to use them. You can touch everything with your bare hands. And I mean everything.
I pass by a selection of 1920s wedding dresses and finger a 1934 Lanvin bias-cut dress laid out in a tissue-lined box. Then I spot it. A cream tweed coat, cut like a long cardigan, lined in shearling and edged with red and blue ribbon trim. The coat came from the personal collection of Coco Chanel and was bought at auction. Inside the smart co-ordinating tweed bag that came with it is one of Chanel’s hair ribbons. I can’t resist putting my hand into the little square pocket on the front of the coat and communing with the long-dead designer. Next to Chanel’s coat is a gorgeous Yves Saint Laurent couture coat owned by Audrey Hepburn and two cocoon-shaped original Balenciagas, all of which I fondle madly.
Lusuardi is constantly adding to the archive (rails of Burberry, 1990s Helmut Lang, Kansai Yamamoto – design treasure upon design treasure), buying important pieces at auction and in vintage shops (the best are in LA, she says). Prominent figures donate their clothes. One American customer gave all her Chanel couture suits, and if you’ve ever wondered what happens to the things Carine Roitfeld, who has consulted for the brand, doesn’t wear any more, they end up here in Reggio Emilia. I spy the editor’s spectacular patent Alaïa coat and Tom Ford for Gucci spikes, along with rails of her covetable high-fashion cast-offs. We head to the rooms dedicated to Max Mara. Lusuardi points to the first coat she ever designed for Sportmax in 1969 (a short, sassy little blue number) and the original Sportmax teddy-bear coat (still in the collection three decades after first being introduced in the 1980s), before pulling out the original Max Mara 101801 camel coat. Designed in 1981 by the French couturier Anne-Marie Beretta, the design remains unchanged and is still a bestseller. The slouchy classic was originally intended to go over the oversized tailoring of the 1980s and has, according to Lusuardi, perfect proportions. The length (120cm) suits everyone, she insists, and to prove it she makes us all try it on. Sure enough – tall and short, lumpy and lean, plain and insanely gorgeous – we all look good in the enveloping, iconic design.
While we’ve been lost in the archive, the heavens have opened and there’s a torrential downpour of rain. Those who had attended the Dior show in Chantilly a few weeks earlier shudder, but our Italian hosts are unruffled. The Max Mara show is not being held outside, but in Collezione Maramotti, the art institute filled with more than 200 pieces from Achille Maramotti’s personal art collection. Its galleries were once Max Mara’s former HQ and were repurposed as a museum after Maramotti’s death in 2005. Tonight’s homecoming show is also a family affair. The company remains in family hands. Maramotti’s son Luigi is the chairman, and several younger Maramottis work within the business. Maramotti senior’s Max Mara label might have majored in modern classics, but his taste in art was daring. He bought Burri, Fontana, Manzoni, Novelli and Twombly, who moved to Italy in the 1950s.
We mill around the vast galleries, taking it all in before sitting down on foam blocks placed among the art. “These are the pictures and sculptures that interest me the most and this was the opportunity to use that,” says Griffiths, who took inspiration for the collection directly from the art. He worked in the building for nearly 20 years and the gallery space he’s standing in to give his backstage interviews used to house his old design office. “I know every stone of it,” he says. “The artwork that hangs here would line the corridors of the building. You’d see it every day going to the bathroom or conference room.” And as the models pick an elegant route through the gallery, we can see what he means. The freshness of Pascali’s Coliseum relief has inspired the chalky, neutral palette. The idea for crinkly pleats on tube skirts and evening columns came from a rippled Manzoni sculpture, and Griffiths points out an Anselmo sculpture, Torsione, “which is probably one of the most pivotal pieces of arte povera, which for us was the inspiration for a shoulder strap – because we’re not artists, we are fashion designers”.
That’s the magic of Max Mara. It combines great sophistication with something everyone can relate to. There was plenty here for every woman, from the roomy coats to the slouchy trousers worn with simple vests and a silk cummerbund for evening. This classical elegance comes with a punch. “We do straightforward clothes that you can get on with your life in, but they have this connection to avant-garde art,” says Griffiths. “This man, Achille Maramotti, who was making power-dressing clothes in the 1980s was buying Bacons and Burris. He was not a conservative thinker. He was forward thinking and radical. It puts a new perspective on the clothes.”
Griffiths can relate to that. Tonight he’s elegantly suited in pinstripes, but rewind to the early 1980s, and he had jacked in his architecture degree for life as a Manchester club kid. He went to the newly opened Haçienda club every night, made his own outlandish outfits and lived on unemployment benefit of £37.50 a week. A rumour that Margaret Thatcher would conscript the unemployed for the Falklands War prompted him to get off the dole and take a fashion degree. He ended up at the Royal College of Art and joined Max Mara on graduating. He’s been here – Max Mara’s best-kept secret – ever since. Backstage he confesses to feeling emotional. This show gave him an opportunity to highlight a new side of Max Mara but also Italian fashion. “People are saying negative things about Italy, but look at Italian culture, Italian charm, Italian food and Italian fashion, which is all about making people bella. It’s about making people look their best. I wanted to celebrate that.”
Afterwards we descend to a gallery lined with long, flower-strewn tables and feast on tortellini. I pop into the after-party at a tiny underground jazz club and then walk back though the quiet streets of Reggio Emilia to our little hotel. I’m struck by how unique the culture at Max Mara is and how family, loyalty and a commitment to its own aesthetic code have insulated it from the worst of the fashion industry’s short-termism. Achille’s spirit is alive and well.
Issue One of 10+ is out now. Order it here. Photographs by Till Janz.