EAT, DRINK, AND LIVE FERRETTI

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The Independent Culture
Alberta Ferretti (below) doesn't just design wearable, infinitely

desirable dresses-for-real-women: she runs a huge business empire, collects fine art and renovates entire villages in her spare time. Welcome to the woman who really does seem to have everything

Alberta Ferretti may be small, but her personal universe is bigger than most. Outposts of her pounds 80m business (which manufactures collections for Jean Paul Gaultier, Rifat Ozbek and Moschino as well as her own increasingly successful signature label) include an office in a fine, restored 19th- century palazzo in Milan, another in Manhattan, shops scattered across south-east Asia and a new flagship store opening on London's Sloane Street. It's just as well she's got a private jet.

The 47-year-old Signora Ferretti is one of those impossible women who has it all. With knobs on. She is a fashion designer, a businesswoman, a collector - of castles and ancient monuments as well as de Chiricos and other Italian paintings - a mother of two grown-up sons, and a keen gardener. Then there are her homes. She doesn't like to be away from them too long - be that the balconied house in Cattolica on the Adriatic coast, the country manor near her design studio in San Giovanni, or Montegridolfo. This latter is a walled medieval village and castle in the hills of Romagna, which Ferretti owns in its entirety and has just finished restoring. Cobbled streets now link the castle (converted into a hotel) with shops selling local produce, restaurants and a music academy. Don't call it a resort - this is more like the Alberta Ferretti holiday experience.

Such inclusivity is a hallmark of the Ferretti empire. The three-storey London boutique will naturally be selling both her main line (typically, embroidered chiffon dresses for about pounds 1,000) and the more affordable and younger Philosophy label. But it will also feature homeware: linen, glasses and cutlery, all designed by the Ferretti hand - the sort of "gorgeous lovely little things" Patsy and Edina would have got all Ab Fab about.

Don't be surprised if the woman behind the counter is the designer herself. "I like to see the customer and what she is buying," she says. And if Ferretti's notion of her ideal customer is right, it won't be long before the shop's first-floor cafe is bustling with elegant, intelligent women, out shopping for a delicate chiffon dress to wear to work with a jumper pulled over the top. "My clothes are not trendy at all costs. They are an extension of a woman's personality, not for the woman who identifies with a Seventies or a Forties look."

The designer herself is understated in her style of dress. When I meet her in the bright, circular conference room of her Palazzo Donizzetti HQ in Milan, she doesn't look like a woman who is excited by power and wealth; instead she's dressed simply, in black trousers and a well-worn black jumper that might not even be cashmere. This looks like the sort of woman who mucks in and gets her hands dirty with the rest of her 500 employees. And that, perhaps, is the secret of her success.

Ferretti is another in a long line of female designers who understand how we want to dress. Right now women, from Jil Sander and Miuccia Prada to Donna Karan and Vivienne Westwood, are leading fashion. "Fashion began with women," she says. "It was Madelaine Vionnet and Coco Chanel who started it all. Then the men took over; now it is women's turn again. There is a difference. Women think about the practicalities of clothes, while men think of an ideal woman." Before any pieces in her collection go on the catwalk and into production, Ferretti tries them not only on idealised models, but on her staff too. She herself is no pin-slim, high- rise fashion plate; perhaps because of this, her style is about comfort, lightness and femininity. "A skirt is more comfortable than tight pants. I do not like rigid shapes. Clothes should caress, and not restrict."

If Ferretti had to pare down her wardrobe to its bare essentials, she would choose a pair of black trousers, a black jumper, a slip dress and an evening dress. "I have so many evening dresses. I live by the sea and sometimes I just like to walk around in one, or go to eat in a little restaurant in a chiffon dress. It makes me feel prettier and makes an evening feel special." Alberta Ferretti's instant therapy: you're never alone with a chiffon slip in the cupboard.

When you are living the sort of charmed existence that Ferretti has created for herself, the idea of wafting around on a warm summer's evening on the veranda of some fairy-lit casa is not so much a fantasy as everyday reality. But Ferretti's perfect life did not happen overnight. Her love of clothes began with her mother, who had her own atelier. At 18, Alberta opened her own boutique and designed her first collection five years later. In the Seventies she founded her manufacturing business with her brother Massimo; but it wasn't until 1981 that she showed on the catwalks of Milan. Now, almost a quarter of a century after Ferretti began, her collections show twice a year.

Throughout her career, Ferretti's particular taste has permeated her whole life, not just her clothes. Interiors, gardens, castles, palazzos, and of course the shops, are all given the Ferretti treatment. The table over which we are talking in Palazzo Donizzetti has a glass top, showing the thorny, wrought-iron supports which match swirly, high-backed, velvet- cushioned chairs. The floors are mosaic and everywhere there is the cool shine of polished, pinky coloured marble. The palazzo's bathroom, which appears to be purely for decor-ation, has a free-standing marble bath, baroque gilt mirrors and gold shells around the cornices. In the newly opened Philosophy shop on Milan's Via della Spiga, a spiral staircase features more intricate ironwork. The Sloane Street shop will be another showcase for her finely tuned taste. And if you can't afford pounds 1,000 for a dress, however pretty and whimsical it might make you feel, at least you can join in another of Alberta Ferretti's loves, and sit in the small- but-perfectly-formed cafe and drink a thick, dark espresso. Bellissimo.

Alberta Ferretti, 205-206 Sloane Street, SW1 (0171 235 2349), opens Wednesday.

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