By  on December 1, 2006

MILAN — Kenzo designer Antonio Marras has chosen to live and work out of his hometown, Alghero, in Sardinia, an area filled with rugged cliffs and winding creeks that is far from the stereotypical Sardinian image of luxurious villas and jet-setting yachts.

So it was only natural Marras would celebrate the wild region in marking the 10th anniversary of his namesake collection. Photographer Yelena Yemchuck has taken pictures of the Alghero area, as well as a number of the designer's archival dresses. The photos are being exhibited in Turin at the city's main contemporary art museum, Fondazione Sandretto Re Baudengo. The exhibit opened Thursday and runs until Jan. 21 — coincidentally, Marras' birthday. He will be the first designer exhibited at the Fondazione, which will also present a book about Marras.

"It's my house, there's my family, the light, the colors, the smells — all my senses are working in Alghero," he said about his choice of living there. "I'm curious about the rest of the world, but I want to return, it's all about leaving in order to come back, going while staying."

Marras, however, clocks in some serious frequent flier miles, traveling between Alghero and Milan, where he shows his signature line; Paris, where he works with the Kenzo staff, and Bologna, where BVM, his minority shareholder, is based. "I'm attracted by opposites and places and people who are distant from me," the designer said.

BVM owner Mario Bandiera was the first to believe in Marras after he made his debut at Rome's couture shows in 1996, investing in the designer's label and taking him on to design the Trend Les Copains line in 1999. "Marras is pure creativity, and my first impression of him was of a raw stone, with an enormous potential," said Bandiera. "He is evolving constantly and is destined to reach the highest peaks." Marras stopped designing Trend Les Copains two years ago.

The designer recalled his early days trying to find a backer, after his years as a consultant for other fashion companies, describing the time as "my journeys of hope." "I was aware that my designs were difficult to produce, and that many thought I came from Mars, but I also believe that if you persist and have faith, you can make your dreams come true," said Marras.The designer has a small business, with sales of about 15 million euros, or $19 million at current exchange, a year, and a niche customer base, relying on two brand stores and 200 points of sale around the world. But his experiments with fabrics and his stunning embroideries — which Marras creates with the help of a group of artisans in Sardinia — caught the eye of Concietta Lanciaux, adviser to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton chairman Bernard Arnault, who offered him the Kenzo position in 2003.

"I'm really happy with Kenzo, and [LVMH's] excellent staff and organization. It's a group that gives a lot — if I ask for a button, I get 100," chuckled Marras. "I have a Sturm und Drang, tormented personality and I'm melancholic, but I also have this side of me that is fun, playful, joyful and more childlike that draws me to Kenzo."

Riccardo Dallai, owner of the Riccardi boutique in Boston, which carries the Antonio Marras line, praised the designer's talent and constancy in tackling the collections, while progressively growing.

"His precious fabrics, which are increasingly difficult to find in fashion today; his feminine designs, and the sensations his clothes convey attract a very special customer, who understands fashion and wants something more than a logo," said Dallai. A Marras dress retails at between $2,000 and $2,500.

Marras' goals for the future include the opening of other boutiques, following the inauguration of a store in Moscow last year and one in Alghero this summer. "I enjoy the feedback from my customers," he said. "I'm ready for the next step, the market is responding to my product and I feel the need to be more visible."

The designer's passion for the arts will be on display again in an exhibition in collaboration with an artist in Alghero this summer, and in the costumes he is designing for a ballet choreographed by Robyn Orlin, which will bow at the Paris Opera in the second half of 2007.

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