Ferré launched his label in Milan in 1978. A trained architect, he quickly developed a signature marked by precise tailoring and strong, graphic shapes and colors. The frivolous charm of the best Paris fashions has little to do with Ferré’s strict, studied style. The frill-spouting blouses that he favors are as serious as they are sumptuous.
Even if he had been a more obvious choice for Dior, it was probably inevitable that French xenophobia would be inflamed when Ferré was named to replace Marc Bohan, the Frenchman who had long designed France’s best-selling couture line. So last summer, when the bearish, bearded Ferré landed with a thud at the famous “Trianon gray” mansion at 30 avenue Montaigne, he quickly earned the nickname “that Italian at Dior.”
What’s unfortunate is that all this bad blood—not to mention the thunder stolen by the appointment in October of Claude Montana as the couturier at Lanvin—has overshadowed Ferré’s recent achievements.
No stranger to the life of luxe, Ferré was born in 1944, the son of an engine parts manufacturer who celebrated his arrival with a party at his country house near Milan. Sitting in his spare, just-redecorated office at Dior last fall, Ferré recalled his childhood “style of life, style of education. On both sides of the family there was someone elegant. My mother’s family was very rich, with jewels and a wonderful house. We can say it was noble. It was that kind of life.”
Ferré studied architecture, but “at that time in Italy,” he says, “that meant more working as an interior decorator. That was not me. So I made jewelry.” It caught the eye of Anna Piaggi, the legendary fashion editor, who commissioned Ferré to make transparent plastic bathing suits with silver buckles for a photo spread in 1969.
Ferré’s personal style was sober. “I was a free bourgeois,” he says. “I have always worn my flannel pants, my blue jacket. I never wore safari jackets or blue jeans.”
For six years in the seventies, Ferré worked as a bureaucrat for the Italian government in Bombay, studying manufacturing opportunities there. He was 24 years old when he started. “They were looking for someone with taste, with a certain kind of culture to make this analysis,” he says. He once persuaded a company that made quilts for the Pakistani army to turn them into jackets for fashionable Italians. Returning to Milan, he met a clothing manufacturer who asked him to set up a high-priced division. There were few Italian designers then. “Krizia,” Ferré says. “That’s all.”
Ferré saw fashion as “an expanding situation.” And indeed, in 1978, the manufacturer backed a Ferré label. “I had a point of view,” the designer says. “It was for a woman who looked at tradition but was making her own choice.” Ferré says he always starts designing with an idea of “new shapes, new volumes in movement.” That forward-looking approach assured him of a prominent place in fashion.
Since 1982, Ferré has won the Revlon-sponsored Italian fashion Oscar, L’Occhio d’Oro (“The Golden Eye”), a half dozen times. And like the other great Italians of his design era, Giorgio Armani and Gianni Versace, he has greatly enjoyed the fruits of his labors. He owns a Milanese palazzo and a country house on Lake Stresa hung with paintings by Picasso, Miró, and Braque. He vacations on a sailboat off Greece.
“I’ve never forgotten that you can attain the maximum with simplicity,” he says. “I remember my first collection. I offered a woman with flat shoes, navy-blue or black suede pants, a big trench coat, and linen-organza blouses.”
Though he continues to design Ferré-label men’s and women’s collections as well as several lower-priced lines, he abandoned his short-lived couture line when, as he puts it, he “made this marriage with Dior.” Last March, Beatrice Bongibault, a Chanel veteran who joined Dior in July 1988, approached Ferré about taking over. “Creating the image of the future was an adventure,” he says. “I quickly said yes.”
Though press reports indicated otherwise, Ferré says Marc Bohan had wanted to retire “for a long time. Anyway, it was 30 years that he worked for Dior.” Some customers were outraged. “Loyalty to Mr. Bohan is wonderful,” Ferre says. “We have lots of new customers.”
The changing of the guard was abrupt. There was no passing of the pincushion. “That would have been difficult,” admits a Dior executive.
So far, Ferré’s progress has been tentative, and reviews have been mixed. Though the spring Ferré collection (which was shown in October and is arriving in stores now) has a new lightness and humor, it was criticized by some who felt he had saved his best work for Dior. And his spring ready-to-wear collection for Dior was criticized in turn for being too Ferré. Certainly it has an abundance of big blouses, but it also has the season’s best-cut sliver-slim pants and trapeze tops, some stunning evening outfits, and a gorgeous palette in which silvers and floral blues predominate.
Following the multinational example set by Karl Lagerfeld, the Monaco-based German who designs for Fendi in Rome and for Chanel and himself in Paris, Ferré divides his time between Milan and Paris. Though he, too, now works at a Paris couture house with a rich legacy, Ferré scoffs at some of Lagerfeld’s nouvelle Chanelisms. “Who will wear a tweed jacket in summer?” he wonders.
Ferré says he spent only one day in Dior’s archive before making his couture debut last July. “We use a shape, but in a different way. It would be stupid to make a skirt as [Dior or Bohan] made it. So I do culottes worn with a leather blouson. My job is managing the signature of Dior.”
Ferré knows he has to walk a fine line between looking forward and looking back. His 1990 spring ready-to-wear line echoes Dior’s 1947 New Look, with its huge skirts. That historic collection taught him “to not be afraid of the future,” he says, “to not be afraid of new volumes. Here we have a past that is not to be forgotten. It’s stupid to forget.”
And what about the chauvinists he’ll probably never please? “It’s a pity,” says Ferré. “But in the end, they’ll be in the river and I’ll be on the shore.”