My Italy: Fashion designer Alberta Ferretti

Fashion designer Alberta Ferretti treasures the landscapes of her homeland. It's the place where she feels most creative. Interview by Rachel Spence

Although I love my country, I feel like an international designer rather than an Italian one. My greatest sources of inspiration are contemporary women from different cultures - I take something from each one. I love French women for their frizzante attitude. English women have a touch of eccentricity, Americans are admirably determined, and Italian women are very passionate. If you put together all these qualities, you have a new model of woman, someone who has retained her femininity but who leads an active, productive life.

Nevertheless, my Italian origins are important to me. I was born in Cattolica, a small town on the Adriatic coast of Emilia Romagna, close to Rimini. It was a wonderful place to grow up in, offering both liberty and security. The Emilia Romagna landscape is lush and green with gentle rolling hills that go down to the sea. We travelled everywhere on our bicycles. I particularly enjoyed following the river - it felt like going on a treasure hunt.

Rimini was the hometown of Fellini and my memories of it have blurred with the dreamy landscapes of the films he made there, such as Vitelloni, where time seemed to have stopped. These days it's frenetic and full of tourists. I go there rarely. The region has been crucial to my sense of identity as a designer. The locals are sunny and positive - qualities I have inherited. But more important was the influence of my mother, who had an atelier in Cattolica.

I have an abiding memory of watching her create a dress by simply draping a woman with a length of material. It left me with a passion for working with textiles directly on to the body. Even today, I only design after I have already got a sense of volume and form by draping the fabric on a mannequin.

Today, I return home to Cattolica when I want to design a new collection. I have two houses there: one is right on the beach, the other is immersed in a green park. It's a quiet place - it offers the ideal ambience for transforming all the ideas I've had while travelling into concrete designs.

I have become more aware of my roots through my involvement in the restoration of Montegridolfo, a medieval borgo [walled village] that lies on the border of Emilia Romagna and Le Marche. The village had been neglected for decades and was in a terrible state of disrepair. Together with my brothers, and with expert help, we have brought it back to life again.

Now, the castle is a four-star hotel with eight rooms, each one decorated differently. The drawbridge has been transformed into a little street. You can stay in the residence in the gardens, where there is a pool, and scattered through the village are some apartments that can be rented.

I take great pleasure in watching people sitting in the bars and cafés in the piazza in the evening. In the fashion world, you are always looking forward, but this project has taught me to look back, into the past, and learn about the history of my own country.

Italians are fortunate. Our extraordinary landscape offers a little bit of everything - mountains, sea, nature, islands. This was brought home to me when I returned from Cairo, a city which rises out of the desert. As my plane crossed Sicily, I looked down and saw this beautiful coastline with the trees almost in the sea and I thought: "Wow, Italy is truly beautiful!"

It's impossible for me to pick a favourite place. I love it all. For example, if I'm working in Milan and I want to switch off and relax, I might go to my house in Cortina, which is just an hour away in the Dolomite mountains. It's famous for being the most chic, glamorous skiing resort in Italy, but it's possible to hide away there, too. I love waking up in the morning and opening the shutters on to a view of the Tofana, a majestic mountain with a glowing, red-pink stone. Then I might go for a walk in the woods or try some cross-country skiing.

Another place I am drawn to is Venice, my favourite city in the world. I like to visit in winter when it's silent and empty. That's perfect for me because I'm so small that I can't see anything in a crowd. Every now and then a ray of sunshine will burst through the misty light and you're reminded of the heavenly skies painted by the great Venetian masters such as Titian.

Perhaps because the past is so luminous, I seek out more modern aspects of the city, such as the museum which houses the avant-garde artworks collected by Peggy Guggenheim. Without her support, artists such as Jackson Pollock would have struggled to make a name for himself. The museum is set in a sculpture garden and feels like a private home.

I'm an eternal romantic, so no trip to Venice is complete without an aperitif at Florians, the 18th-century coffee house in St Mark's Square. Another wonderful spot is Harry's Bar, where you have to have a Bellini [champagne and peach juice] and either their polpettini [meat balls] or delicious little toasted sandwiches.

I also like hunting out little Venetian shops where artisans and antiquarians ply their trade. For jewellery, I go to Codognato, who transforms antique pieces with contemporary styles. Last time I visited, I was transfixed by bracelets, necklaces and rings decorated with skull designs. He had created poetry out of something that could have been repellent. It's little wonder that Venice is my favourite city because I love water. Swimming is my hobby - I have two pools at home - and I'm never happier than when I'm on my yacht, a 1950s Russian icebreaker. It is quite large, so I try to moor out at sea rather than in little ports. (I also appreciate the privacy - there's nothing worse than waking up in the morning to find yourself looking into someone else's cabin window.)

Sardinia has the most beautiful sea in Italy. Its extraordinary azure colour is a powerful contrast with the barren, scrubby landscape. I try to go in June or July, never August when it is too crowded. We moor the boat in small bays; each one has a different atmosphere. I love the Amalfi coast, too. It is incredibly beautiful. The town of Ravello, where I have many friends, is marvellous. There's a certain silence that falls when you stand on the edge of the cliff and look down at the sea.

My favourite island is Capri. My idea of a perfect evening is to invite friends on to my yacht for dinner. It is spectacular to dine surrounded by candles with the sea stretching away on one side and the island rising up on the other. Then at midnight, we'll go ashore to listen to Neapolitan songs at Anema e Core in Capri town. This may well be the original karaoke bar - it's impossible not to be persuaded by Guido, the master of ceremonies, into joining in.

Capri is covered in wild flowers, fruit trees and vines, making it magnificent walking country. One day, after a big lunch, a friend and I took the chair-lift up to Monte Solaro, the highest point on the island because we had heard that there was a fabulous walk from there leading all the way down to the Piazzetta, Capri town's central square. But we took a wrong turn and found ourselves on this incredibly steep path on the edge of the cliff-face, with just the seagulls for company. Luckily, there was a chain to hang on to, so we were able to make our way down safely. It is one of my most frightening memories - but also one of the most exhilarating.

I also have emotional memories of a catwalk show I staged on the Capitoline Hill in Rome to celebrate a prize awarded to me by the city's mayor, Walter Veltroni. Once the site of the Roman temple of Jupiter, the piazza was designed by Michelangelo. I designed the collection - which was called Demi Couture - with the setting in mind. My idea was to interpret the Italian culture of beauty in a contemporary way. The models wore long, light tulle dresses and evening coats decorated with luxurious embroidery. It was splendid.

Since it's the fashion capital of Italy, it's inevitable that I spend time in Milan. People think of it as a city that revolves around business, yet it's full of delightful corners. Two that I particularly like are via Lanzone and via Caminadella, which are both in the Sant'Ambrogio district.

Milan offers a rich cultural life. La Scala has reopened after a long restoration and the contemporary art scene is flourishing. Some friends of mine, Julia and Carlo Puri, have just opened a stunning new exhibition space in Bicocca, a renovated industrial quarter of the city. Called Hangar Bicocca, it's home to a permanent installation, Seven Celestial Palaces, by Anselm Kiefer and hosts temporary exhibitions - one was held recently for the Serbian artist Marina Abramovich.

I find the company of artists stimulating. I hosted a dinner for Michelangelo Pistoletto, who founded the Arte Povera movement in the 1960s, when he put on a show at the Stein Gallery. I like the Arte Povera artists because their work is strong and free. They believe in making art out of everyday materials, which is interesting when you consider that they have emerged in a country famous for its precious Renaissance and Baroque tradition. The contrast with the heritage is what gives the work its power. It makes you realise you must never stop exploring.

Alberta Ferretti's new collection, Alberta Ferretti Girls, will be available next year

My top sandals

Capri is famous for its hand-tooled leather sandals. I always buy mine from Da Costanzo, at via Roma 49 (00 39 081 837 80 77). There, they will make them for you in your choice of colour - natural in my case - and send them to your home.

My top restaurant

When I dine out in Milan, I almost always got to Joia at via P Castaldi 18 (00 39 0229522124; joia.it). Although, it's an Italian restaurant, the cooking is featherlight and has a vegetarian base. The dishes have wonderfully eccentric names. My favourite is "The apparent egg and its taste", a fake egg made of pistachios and almonds served with a real egg and spinach. The restaurant also has a wonderful wine cellar.

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