It was spoken with a tone of quiet confidence that I only understood later: even allowing for the fact that meeting anybody in the fashion world is guaranteed to be more fulsomely affectionate than in any other, Fabrizio Ferri's method of greeting a complete stranger is positively volcanic. The huge slanting grey eyes light up, a smile cracks the beard, the arms widen for an embrace, a fond exclamation escapes his lips ("Aaaaah!"), as he bends down from his burly 6ft 6in, completely blocking out the light, to press a ruby kiss energetically on to each of your cheeks. Just for a moment, you think you might suffocate in the pile of his reversed sheepskin waistcoat; death in the arms of a Pasolini shepherd.
I'm not the first to have fallen for this opening schmooze. Meeting Fabrizio Ferri is to the world of fashion interviews what Standing on Martin Amis's Doorstep is to the world of literary ones: they all go on about it. However, on this, the eve of his spring catwalk show, Ferri had plenty to be expansive about. His fashion line, Industria, which he describes as chic basics - "I spotted a gap between designer clothes and basics and decided to fill it" - has gone from one to 300 outlets in two-and-a-half years: 150 in the States, 150 in the rest of the world. It's the kind of growth rate that has more in common with Gap than with a designer label, and despite the fact that an Industria sweater retails at closer to $500 (£300) than $50, the numbers keep on going up.
Industria, so-called because Ferri kept stressing that the company had to be run like a small "indoostria''(which is how everybody pronounces it), isn't just a fashion label, it's a little utopia of fashion and style built on the fringes of Milan and Manhattan. Its economy is based on the two big photographic studio complexes Ferri has set up for hire over the past 12 years; its ethics are hard work and good design and its population - customers who buy the atmosphere as much as the clothes - consists of the rarer kind of fashion victim: tasteful, intelligent and wealthy. Film, art and media people love it; and it is no accident that Isabella Rossellini, one of Ferri's old girlfriends, is both a regular customer and one of his favourite models.
In New York, Industria takes up two huge plain-faced buildings on the edge of Greenwich Village, just a block from the Hudson. The clothes shop, showroom and offices have the front, while Ferri's photographic agents, Art & Commerce, whose clients include the top fashion photographers Steven Meisel and Ellen Von Unwerth and the estate of Robert Mapplethorpe, rent the rear. The second building, a converted Rolls-Royce garage, houses the superstudio (the first opened in Milan in 1983): five kitted-out photographic studios with their own restaurant, CD library, assistants, couriers, even a limo ramp so that stars can drive right inside and escape the paparazzi.
There are no clues to the ownership. No flashy neon saying "Fabrizio Ferri Studio" or even (though surely it crossed his mind) FF. "There used," he says, "to be this very bad habit of putting the name of the photographer, the name of the star, the name of the client on the door. The studios were showing off. I said, forget it. Not here. I can't be seen to be the owner, because then I would be seen as competition and it wouldn't work."
Since opening in 1991, the studios have been continually booked - and not only by photographers: Ralph Lauren had his Christmas party there; Madonna's hired it for a bash; one fashion editor even got married there - but almost every top photographer has worked there at some time, not because of any special relationship with Ferri, but because, like the clothes, they make life a little bit easier.
That day before the show, as Ferri was running through his final fittings, fashion students and Industria groupies (for they exist) were already queueing up outside the studios to offer themselves as ushers for free. And the next night, when the little army of volunteers was running round before the show in their white Industria T-shirts, Ferri had stopped one and asked why they did it. "Because Industria is a cause," the teenager had replied. "I said to him, 'What are you talking about? No it's not. Everybody works here for their living.' But he just smiled knowingly at me and said, 'Oh, yeah.'
Well maybe. Except that on the same night one of the models, an emerald- eyed Rasta boy, had told him: "You know what I feel, Fabrizio? You have created a new nation here." And despite sounding like typical fashion mumbo-jumbo (Ferri, to his credit, laughed uproariously at the idea), you could sort of see what he meant.
Industria clothes aren't anti-fashion: nothing as aggressive as that. They're just extremely simple sweaters, skirts, trousers, jackets and dresses in basic colours - mostly navy, grey, fawn, white, black - and natural fabrics, based on the kind of comfortable clothes models and fashion people like to wear on their days off: cashmere T-shirts, linen straight pants, plain cotton flat stitched sweaters, simple shift dresses and leather jackets that last for ever. When you learn that the best-selling item is nicknamed the "boyfriend" sweater, you get the general idea.
Other designers have tried this kind of designer leisure wear before. Issey Miyake's Plantation line was meant to be worn by the fashionable at play; the American company Go Silk had a good run in the late Eighties with separates beloved by Hollywood, and it's no coincidence that the rise of Industria coincides with a time when film stars and the rich would rather dress down than up. But what Industria clothes seem to do is encourage men and women to be relaxed and sensual, rather than rigged up and wigged out. While most international designers spend every season redefining their "look" and cate- gorising their woman - the Armani woman, the Versace woman, the Chanel woman, etc - Ferri has done the opposite. "The further these designers go to identify their woman, the narrower the territory they mark out. We do the reverse. We go straight across all the categories. Industria is what you wear when you go to buy an Armani jacket. It's what you wear at home. These clothes should be so comfortable, so simple, that you feel completely at ease when you go about your life."
It was the beginning of the Nineties when Ferri gathered a small group of friends and employees together and told them he wanted to invent a range of clothes, based on what they all liked to wear, but couldn't find easily. They made a list, stopped at 300, then, with a pattern-cutter and fabric co- ordinator in place, began to make up the first few garments. Their underlying simplicity was a logical extension of what he'd been feeling about fashion for almost a decade.
"I didn't really think about it until the early Eighties. But I kept seeing these beautiful models coming into the studio and they would go into the dressing room and come out different people. So I started photographing the girls as they came in. Then I would go into the dressing-room, show them the Polaroid and say, 'See this. This is the woman we're photographing today. Don't you dare change her.' And we taught our make-up people that if a girl has a strong mouth, there is no need to paint it bright red; if a girl has beautiful eyes, no need to cover them up with make-up. And when you have a whole team working together like this, then you really start something. When you have a real girl in front of you, the clothes change, too. Then you say, 'What? You want this girl to look as if she's wearing her mother's clothes? No. She looks ridiculous.'
"You know what we do with the models for our shows? We sit them down and we have the very best people to wash their faces and their air, and that's all we do. People say: 'How do you make these women so sensual?' Forget it. I cannot make a woman sensual; she either is or she isn't. But I don't take that away from her. High heels, suspenders... that's making a doll... It's fine. But it's not me."
Ferri was born into a family of Communist party intellectuals in Rome. His father was a professor at the University of Messina, a member of Parliament and head of the Gramsci Institute. His mother was a writer and head of party propaganda. He and his sister were expected to study hard and go to university. At 17, he had never taken a photograph. "But I had a friend who was mad on printing photographs and he would ask us to give him our films. So I got a camera and I asked a friend of my uncle, a professional photographer, how to use it. He told me, 'Every hour you move the F-stop one notch. And good luck.' "
He photographed the people around him. "One of my first photographs was a portrait of a child, sitting on his father's shoulders, his chin leaning on his hand on top of his head, the wife almost hugging him, a strong portrait of three heads. But they happened to be on the first row of about half a million people in the Teatro di San Giovanni in Rome on Labour Day, listening to a political speech. So this incredible crowd was rising up behind them.
"I gave the film to my friend and he developed it. A few days later, a journalist friend of my father came round for dinner. The photo had fallen on the floor. He picked it up and asked who had taken it. My father said Fabrizio. They got me out of bed and the man said he was writing a series of articles about politics entering the Italian family, and didn't have any illustrations. The next day I went to the paper and they bought my photograph."
He did go to university, to do Russian, but almost immediately dropped out. He did a deal with a travel agent and spent six months travelling across the Soviet Union. He came back and began selling reportage pictures to magazines in a piecemeal way. He realised that to earn a living, he had to have commissions. And one of the few areas in which commissions were regularly given was fashion.
"I went to the newstand and bought a copy of Italian Vogue and looked up the address. I had no appointment, but I was lucky enough to be seen by a man - now a close friend - who agreed to look through my pictures. He must have wondered what on earth made me think I could do fashion. He closed my book, turned to me and said: 'The Vogue woman doesn't curse, doesn't smoke, doesn't fuck.' 'Ah,' I said. 'So, I'm out of here?'And he said yes. But then he started laughing and eventually he sent me to the advertising department. There was one picture they particularly liked and they said, 'Can you do that for us?' and I said yes, and that was how I started."
Ferri, by his own admission, has never been among the top fashion photographers. He did advertising for the first few years, then got his editorial break on the Italian fashion glossy Linea. Around that time, during the early Seventies, he lived on the top floor of an old Milanese hotel: 18 beautiful abandoned rooms, which he rented for a pittance and turned into a prototype superstudio, putting up models, renting out rooms to photographers. It was then that he met Isabella Rossellini for the first time, photographing her as a "personality" wearing Bulgari jewellery for an advertisement. Soon afterwards she turned up with a suitcase and moved in for two years.
By 1982 he needed his own studio. "I was working a lot, shooting 14 hours a day. So I thought, how should I have my first studio? Should I make a white studio? If I do that, then I'm pretty sure the next day I'll need a black studio. And what about daylight? And cyclorama? And equipment - strobes, HMIs, I can't afford them. So I sat down and thought: I am a normal, standard photographer. And if I have this problem, then so must every other photographer who want to invest in his own studio. I thought, I can't make five studios for myself. But I can make a superstudio. So I went to see some real estate people in Milan and we found a building and that's what we did and it worked."
Before opening in Milan, he gathered his small staff around him and delivered what amounted to a little manifesto. "Don't think about fashion, don't think about photographer, don't think about image." "I couldn't afford to have staff fascinated with the models, the glamour of it. People who work here are workers. You either get it or you don't. They have rights. But we don't want this place fancy, we don't want to see design. We want something that's durable, we want people to come in and look at the structure, not the decoration. Our job is to take care of everything, and that includes the quality of human relationships.
"I have been lucky in finding the right people to take control of pieces of the business at the right time. They share in the setting up of a business, how it should be handled. Then they're on their own. They either do it right or screw it up. It takes very intelligent people not to have a chief. And women are far better than men in managing and running... "
He is 44 now. He has been separated from his wife for several years, and spends Christmas, Easter, and a month in the summer with his small daughter Marta on the island of Pantelleria, off Sicily, in a group of small houses built into the rock - on the opposite side of the island from Giorgio Armani.
Ferri is a strange mixture. There is something of the fashion photographer; the fashion designer; the confident good-looking Italian male, of course; but there is also a cultivated inquiring mind which seems able to simplify ideas and carry them out.
In his spare time, he composes music (there's a CD) and paints, and he's already published several books, one a novel in Italian called The Discreet Adventures of Vito Zuccheritti, an Ordinary Man. Now he's writing another called The Tear of A Mature Fig.
"Strange, huh? In one sense, here, you are in the middle of a very fashionable bunch of people, and the assumption is that fashion people are idiotic and superficial. But I think we all have things inside and we have to find ways to bring them out.
"During the Seventies I learnt to dislike fashion because it was used at the time to change people. I think the biggest mistake at the beginning of the Nineties is to go back to it. The way people are dressing up, the make-up, the lighting, it's back to the Seventies. It's crazy. It's a crisis. We live in a world where we have to move somebody's bad taste aside to get through."
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