Max Mara’s Fashion Director, Keeping It Real

The daughter of one of Max Mara’s first retailers, Laura Lusuardi joined the house in the Sixties.

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WWD Milestones issue 10/05/2011

It’s not necessary to have Sigmund Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams” on the nightstand to see why Laura Lusuardi’s recurring nightmare is to be submerged by tons of coats.

This story first appeared in the October 5, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

And it’s not hard to understand the nature of her hobby, either: “In winter I like to take pictures of women wearing Max Mara coats in the streets,” she said. “I started three years ago and I’ve already collected a pretty big dossier, especially in New York. I admit that I get real gratification from seeing how women use the pieces we design in their everyday lives.”

To say she has a coat obsession is not an understatement.

The daughter of one of Max Mara’s first retailers, Lusuardi, who is fashion director for the group’s 19 labels, joined the Reggio Emilia-based house in the Sixties.

“I was 18 years old and I wasn’t into studying, so my father put me in contact with Achille Maramotti,” she said. “He gave me a chance, he believed in me and I grew up with the company.”

Seated at a table of the company’s fashion library — which counts 4,000 books, 350 current international magazines and 3,000 periodicals from the early Nineties through today — Lusuardi talks about her mentor with affection and gratitude.

“Achille Maramotti was everything to me, he gave me a lot, he taught me to be open-minded and to always look ahead. During the Seventies, I traveled with him around the world, from London and Copenhagen to New York, and even if he had the last word on everything, he used to involve me in every decision.”

Maramotti, considered an innovator in the fashion industry, started with a team of three young women making a few pieces in a small room at his mother’s tailoring school. He made an inspired guess when he founded Maramotti Confezioni in 1951, pioneering the era of mass production of women’s clothing in Italy.

“When fashion was dominated by French couturiers like Dior and Balenciaga, whose creations were destined for the richest women in the world, Achille Maramotti strongly wanted to dress a chic yet normal woman, one he used to refer to as ‘the doctor’s wife,’” Lusuardi explained.

The launch of the Max Mara label in 1955 started the company’s rise, thanks to well-cut coats embellished with fur collars and practical yet elegant two-piece suits.

But Maramotti soon realized that the women’s universe was too complex to be satisfied with a single line. In the Sixties he delivered MyFair, the first plus-size collection, which was renamed Marina Rinaldi in 1981.

“Maramotti always paid particular attention to his customers, he was very democratic,” Lusuardi emphasized.

In 1964, Maramotti also launched Pop for a younger target. Defined as a “junior collection,” it consisted of colorful, fitted pieces, including a “slim, red double-breasted coat that we reissued a couple of years ago for Max & Co.”

Five years later, Pop became Sportmax. “At that time, I was assisting Maramotti and he asked me to design the sketches for this first collection under his supervision,” said Lusuardi, showing the line’s manifesto. The cartoon-inspired drawing features seven smiling young girls wearing kilts, flare pants, A-line coats, high-collar sweaters, floral shirts and loafers.

“He was a typical Italian man but with a strong taste for British fashion staples, including duffle coats and trenches that are still always present in our collections,” she noted. “With Sportmax, for the first time a fashion company was delivering a total look and we debuted at Milan fashion week in 1976 with a runway show at the Principe di Savoia Hotel.”

Lusuardi showed a copy of the fall 1977 fashion week schedule and proudly noted that of the 44 brands listed on the calendar, only seven are still showing in Milan — and Sportmax is among them.

“That season, Maramotti called Jean-Charles de Castelbajac [to help realize] the collection. He’s an eclectic artist, it has been great working with him,” Lusuardi said.

De Castelbajac sent out young models with no makeup, dressed in oversize coats and capes featuring hoods and leather belts or strings to hug the waist. 

The French designer was just one of many creative minds to work with Max Mara over the years.
“Maramotti always tapped freelance consultants to collaborate with our in-house teams to stimulate a productive stream of ideas,” Lusuardi said. “Each designer gave us something. It’s always been a mutual exchange.

“I grew up working next to creative people and I’ve learned the importance of giving a direction to the different [aesthetics]. From the consultants you get the trends, and than the design team has to realize the commercial version of the specific idea.”

The list of Max Mara partners includes such notable names as Emanuelle Khan, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, Narciso Rodriguez, Franco Moschino and Karl Lagerfeld.

“The first time I met Karl was at his apartment in Paris. He was about 30 and I was very young and extremely excited,” Lusuardi said. “He was very professional, able to make you feel comfortable, creative, clear and was surrounded by amazing people, such as Anna Piaggi and the American illustrator Antonio.”

Lusuardi recounted working with well-known coat designer Anne-Marie Beretta. 

“We were trying to reinforce Max Mara and we called her in 1978. She designed avant-garde shapes, anticipating the trend of the Eighties,” she said. “At that time it was a risk, but Maramotti decided to take it. He produced the assortments only for the 300 clients that he considered able to understand that collection, and it was a success.”

In the Seventies, Maramotti broadened the company’s offerings, launching Marella, I-Blues and Pennyblack, that Lusuardi called “diffusion collections, designed to get deep into the market.”

More lines were introduced in the Eighties to accommodate big changes in the fashion industry, the rise of the Made in Italy label and the evolution of women’s roles in society.

Designed to dress customers of various ages and for different occasions, Max & Co. was for a young audience aiming to look trendy on a small budget; Pianoforte, now Max Mara Elegante, was made for special occasions, while Weekend consisted of practical yet chic outfits for off hours.

“I have a special tie with this line because I invented it and I convinced Maramotti to invest in it. But I have to admit that I feel affection for all our brands. They are like children that at a certain point make their own way, but you always must control them from a distance.”

With the addition in the Nineties of denim label Sportmax Code and ’S Max Mara for relaxed elegance, Max Mara became a fashion empire where Lusuardi reigns on the creative side.  

Modestly defining herself as “a glue among the different lines,” she oversees the design teams, which are asked to respect the company’s values: “high quality, coherence, wearability, all supported by a precise creative idea.”

“Loyal to our heritage, we design products that many different women can relate to, products that are contemporary but not trendy. Now our goal is to attract a new generation. We’ve dressed the moms, and now we want do dress their daughters,” Lusuardi said. 

“We are pleased with our results but we are conscious that there is always a lot to do. It’s a never-ending effort, because we want to dress many different women, and even if the philosophy is always the same, we have to release specific strategies for each brand,” she continued.

Besides the recent launch of some new initiatives, including a bridal collection, an eyewear license with Safilo, accessories and hosiery lines, and two special projects — Atelier, which consists of 10 couture-inspired coats, and Cubo, “which aims to make our ultralightweight down jackets iconic as much as the 10181, our classic camel coat” — Lusuardi also revealed a new strategy for retail.

“We are placing in the stores people with specific skills that can deal better with the customers. The retail business is fundamental for our company because it’s a crucial part of our heritage. It’s also very important for me, because I started from that. At the end of the day, the creative process must always be connected to sales.”

Only at this point Lusuardi, who clearly prefers to talk more about Max Mara than about herself, lets a more personal anecdote slip. 

“My daughter Federica has just joined the company and she started working in the Paris store,” Lusuardi said. “A few days ago, she called to tell me she had sold a red Atelier coat to a German tourist. She reminded me of my father, who used to tell me what the Max Mara bestsellers were and suggest what we should add to our collections to satisfy clients. I have the feeling that I’m reliving what I experienced with my father.”

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