MILAN — Achille Maramotti, founder of Max Mara Fashion Group SpA, died Wednesday after a long illness. He was 78.

True to its low-profile modus operandi, the company declined to comment on any details, but, according to Italian press reports, Maramotti died in the family’s castle near Reggio Emilia. A private funeral was held Thursday.

Maramotti’s fashion story started with a camel coat. That coat sold one million pieces, is the stepping stone of Max Mara’s success story, and is now on display at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, at the Fashion Museum of Paris and in Copenhagen’s Industry museum.

A law graduate, Maramotti turned the fashion conglomerate he founded in 1951 into a 1.1 billion euro, or $1.43 billion, empire with 30 lines and 1,830 doors in 90 countries. Its collections include Pianoforte by Max Mara, I Blues, Marina Rinaldi, Pennyblack, Max & Co. and Marella. Most of the lines include sportswear, accessories and knitwear.

Maramotti tapped into Italy’s desire to emerge from the ashes of World War II, building Max Mara’s fashion reputation with clothes that were as elegant as they were accessible and wearable. He inherited a passion for fashion from his great-grandmother, Marina Rinaldi, who ran a high-society atelier in the heart of Reggio Emilia. Inspired by the coquettish styles of legendary French designers, Maramotti tweaked them with precise tailoring, clean silhouettes and lean proportions toward a more Italian fashion sensibility that was Max Mara’s signature.

When the Swinging Sixties exploded in London, Maramotti jumped on that bandwagon by launching Sportmax, a secondary line for the younger crowd.

Over the years, Max Mara has worked with such marquee names as Karl Lagerfeld, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and Narciso Rodriguez. But, in true Max Mara style, it was always a low-key affair, with the clothes taking precedence over the designers’ names.

Photographers who have shot ad campaigns for the brand include Sarah Moon, Paolo Roversi, Peter Lindbergh, Richard Avedon and Steven Klein.

“He was a very charming man, with a lot of class and style,” said Lagerfeld, who designed several collections for Maramotti early in his career. “I think he did a lot for Italian ready-to-wear.”

This story first appeared in the January 14, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Lagerfeld recalled that Maramotti was an innovator in another sense: He was among the first in the fashion world to collect modern art. Working with him, Lagerfeld said, “was a very nice memory.”

Added Gianfranco Ferré: “When I was starting off, Maramotti was already an enlightened entrepreneur with a farsighted vision. He strongly contributed to this industry when it was still nascent, and I have always followed the development of the company he founded with enormous respect and admiration.”

Though he remained group chairman, in the early Nineties, Maramotti passed the torch to his three children: Luigi and Ignazio Maramotti, chairman and vice president of Max Mara srl, respectively, and Maria Ludovica Maramotti, chairman of the group’s Manifatture del Nord division.

But resting on his laurels wasn’t on Maramotti’s agenda. Aside from boasting one of Italy’s largest private art collections, Maramotti honed his financial skills. He was a majority shareholder and deputy chairman in Credem, a publicly listed Italian bank; he sat on the board of Mediobanca, Italy’s merchant bank, and was a counselor in Unicredit Bank.

— With contributions from Luisa Zargani and Miles Socha