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The Marni Machine

A quiet brand keeps humming.

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WWD Collections issue 10/27/2008

Consuelo Castiglioni zigszags through the Marni showroom on a balmy Friday morning while several retailers are entrenched in finalizing spring orders. As they rise to compliment the petite designer on her spring lineup, the ever-shy Castiglioni thanks them, but is noticeably uncomfortable in the spotlight, preferring her clothes to speak for her.

This story first appeared in the October 27, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

As evidenced by her most recent collection, there is no doubt they say volumes. Milan’s calm waters erupted into waves as the designer sent out mismatched jelly bean brights, patterns and intricate fabrics with techy finishes. She focused on slimmer silhouettes, often layered and belted, and topped with men’s-style long socks and colorful sunglasses. Castiglioni mixed large-scale lace dots, awning stripes, cutout basket weaves and blurry ginghams, all served  up to create her signature kooky effect. She also emphasized combinations of matte and shiny finishes, or argyle patterns with macro florals and wool vests over T-shirts splattered with prints by Sixties British artist Peter Blake. The designer can’t resist an I-did-it-first dig by pointing out her use of Richard Prince prints on T-shirts in her spring 2007 collection, a year before Marc Jacobs tapped the acclaimed American artist for a collaboration on Louis Vuitton bags.)

Not surprisingly, Linda Fargo, senior vice president and fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, praised Marni for the “relief of exuberant, artistic color and pattern.”

“It takes all kinds, as they say, to make a fashion universe,” says Fargo. “We have a poet in Olivier Theyskens, a modernist in Raf Simons, a conceptualist in  Hussein Chalayan, but our artist is Consuelo Castiglioni. Consuelo almost paints her clothing onto the body, in bold, playful, loose strokes. Each design  stands on its own as a complete and exuberant artistic expression. And unlike so many other designer’s collections, which can be retro or costumey or sexed up, Consuelo’s work is highly original, wearable and can maybe even induce… well, happiness.”

Quirky fabrics and unconventional treatments, perhaps inspired by her favorite artists, such as Mark Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg and Piero Pizzi Cannella, set  the mood each season when Castiglioni powwows with a few faithful mills for exclusive and labor-intensive finishes, dyes and contrasting textures. “I’m not  satisfied until I obtain what I want,” she admits. “I know I drive the mills crazy, but my work is always in progress. I don’t plan ahead of time.”

The list of extravagant fabrics, also from past seasons, includes a faded checkered material made with the same nylon used for doll hair; printed gossamer silks and wool blends; floral prints strategically placed on blouses and replicated on the ruffl es that festoon their collars, and jackets crafted from bonded cottons before the layers are stripped apart to make velvet. Silks doused in metallic paillettes in dégradé color blocks are a nighttime favorite.

Castiglioni doesn’t like to wreak havoc with her collections, but she sure doesn’t play it safe, either. She has managed to strike an edgy in-between chord that continues to fuel the brand’s annual sales of 130 million euros, or $174 million.

“I don’t like drastic change. I like evolution, cohesion,” says Castiglioni, dressed in a roomy crewneck, leggings and wooden platforms. She is perched on a  plum-colored chair in her very white Milanese office that overlooks a terrace,  where pink hydrangeas bask in the fall sun.

But for a brand whose hip and edgy status has remained unchanged throughout its 14-year history, evolution over revolution works just fine. So, without wiping  the slate clean, Castiglioni instead tweaks her favorite elements: bold colors, trailblazing fabrics and artsy flourishes.

“I really enjoy mixing color and prints because I like the silhouette and the fabrics to evolve without throwing last season’s message away. Our consumer wants to stay faithful to our look, and we produce all that goes on the runway,” she says.

With the support of Gianni Castiglioni, her husband and the company’s chief executive officer, Marni has expanded into a full-range brand that continues to generate editorial buzz and commercial acclaim. They met after Swiss-born Consuelo moved to Milan from Lugano, Switzerland, to be a fashion consultant. The couple founded Marni in 1994, taking its moniker from the nickname of Gianni’s sister, Marina. Gianni Castiglioni’s family owns Ciwifurs, a highend fur specialist, which recently struck a deal with Giambattista Valli. The closely knit family still likes to ski together and includes 27-year-old daughter Carolina, who masterminded Marni’s two-year-old online store, and son Giovanni, who is cutting his teeth in the sales department.

In September, Castiglioni introduced Marni Summer Edition 2009, a one-off capsule collection that caps her favorite archival pieces, re-created to offer dynamic and versatile summer perennials. They include tunics, shifts, ankle-grazing skirts and tops punched up with abstract patterns by artist Kim Gordon.

Marni collections are carried in 76 namesake stores, plus 320 select sales points worldwide, including Bergdorf’s, Barneys New York, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue stores in the U.S.; Printemps in Paris; Selfridges in London; Luxury Village in Moscow, and Isetan in Tokyo.

The success of Marni’s trendsetting accessories, where alternative design verrules logo mania, has resulted in eight accessories-only stores designed with architecture firm Sybarite.  These stores feature pearl gray lacquered walls and ceilings interspersed with backlit fiberglass niches that accommodate  products of different sizes. The accessories themselves are a fusion between edgy and saleable, as Consuelo puts the focus on soft and slouchy shapes, irreverent color combinations and details such as wood, horn and resins. In the  Vigevano, Italy, workshops, where the footwear is cobbled, Castiglioni personally tests her new models for their wearability. And Marni’s logoless eyewear, made by a small laboratory in Agordo, a tiny town in northeast Italy that is home to the likes of Luxottica and Marcolin, sells about 30,000 pieces a year.

Castiglioni finds no more satisfaction than seeing women clad in her designs, and believes in the emotional connection between her customers and the clothes.  “I don’t think a Marni piece becomes old or dated quickly, because our customers grow attached to them,” she notes. “All they have to do is update with newer pieces, even if it’s from fast-fashion brands or other designers.”

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