IT'S NO COINCIDENCE that Consuelo Castiglioni, the designer behind Italian label Marni, decided to bring the Marni flower market, a celebration of its 20th anniversary that originally took place in Milan last September, to Hong Kong during Art Basel, the fair that draws the world's top galleries to these shores each year.
If there's a brand associated with the art world, it's certainly free-spirited and quirky Marni. But it's not the usual art/fashion crossovers and hohum product collaborations we're talking about here (though Marni is also responsible for its fair share of those, from projects with established artists such as Richard Prince to partnerships with unknown makers of outsider art). Marni, in fact, is the brand that dresses the art world, its mishmash of prints and materials and chunky accessories the de facto unofficial uniform of gallerinas, art dealers and collectors, who jet set from Art Basel in Miami to the Venice Biennale and London's Frieze.
Given Marni's offbeat aesthetic, it feels natural to Castiglioni that the customers she attracts aren't slaves to fashion and don't mind looking a little bit kooky. It's a look that feels intelligently put together: a clever combination of timeless items, hand-me-downs and artisanal jewellery from Etsy, when in fact every single piece bears the Marni label.
“Maybe it's the way we combine colours and prints, the incredible research we do on materials,” says the shy Castiglioni as we take in the Hong Kong skyline from the Pier 4 harbourfront location of the flower market on a balmy evening just before the event begins.
Conceived more than a year ago for the brand's 20th anniversary, the flower market, renamed the Marni Roof Market for its Hong Kong iteration, was the talk of the spring/summer 2015 shows in Milan, delighting jaded fashion editors and buyers, who snapped up the fresh flowers, scented spices, totes printed in vibrant hues, gourmet chocolate bars and picnic blankets created by the label for the event. “We wanted to celebrate our 20th anniversary in a way that was closer to our spirit and our joie de vivre,” says Castiglioni as she and her daughter Carolina, director of special projects at the house, put the finishing touches on the setting.
“This reflects who we are better than the usual retrospective exhibition, which wouldn't be in our DNA. We like flowers, colours and nice smells, so we decided to do something we liked and that's more us. We have a strong relationship with Joyce and that's why we came here to share it with Hong Kong,” says Castiglioni. “The sounds from the Milan event are also here,” Carolina adds. “They will be played during the event tonight – so we brought a piece of that memory here.”
Mother and daughter are soon joined by Castiglioni's husband, Gianni, the brand's CEO, who shows some concern about the weather but can't be more pleased about the great job of his young daughter in pulling this off in Hong Kong too.
In spite of its global reach and a recent investment from Diesel founder Renzo Rosso's holding company, Only The Brave, Marni is still a family business, run by Castiglioni and her husband. It was the latter that in 1994 suggested they start their own label on the back of the company he owned, Ciwifurs, a manufacturer of sumptuous fur coats for European luxury brands.
“It was the beginning of Marni,” Castiglioni says, looking back at what started as a predominantly fur label. “In 1994 it was the time of those super luxurious furs that were a bit too much, and I wanted to do something that wasn't ostentatious but elegant, less bling. The furs were shaved or cut in a different way, in natural colours, using a little thread of leather instead of a big belt. They were original and became very popular.”
Since then the brand's aesthetic has evolved, moving away from those furs to build a series of signatures that have come to define the Marni identity. Its “ugly shoes” – platforms with an almost orthopaedic look – and its chunky costume jewellery made of recycled pieces or unglamorous materials such as resin, are just some of Marni's contributions to the fashion landscape (and this long before Birkenstock slides became the shoe du jour). Each collection is never a departure or an about-face from the previous season but always a slow and steady step forward, a gradual evolution.
“It's not an imposition on women. I don't design collections thinking, ‘Now we'll do the '70s or stuff like that,'” explains the designer. “It's an evolution and a combination of things that make the result different and unique. It's always full of juxtapositions and combinations that are slightly strange, prints and colours that in theory don't go together with, let's say, a shoe, so the effect is different. It's mixing different elements that create our world.”
In a way, it does feel that Marni is at the centre of its own special world, a separate niche in Italy's fashion capital, where the bombshell look and a more-ismore aesthetic are the bread and butter of most labels. Marni, on the other hand, operates on its own terms, shunning advertising and the obsession with the red carpet of the industry at large.
“I prefer to dress someone who goes about her daily life, who goes to work, to an exhibition. You look at these stars and often they're not at ease, which is a shame. I'd rather see someone at a dinner who's wearing something because she likes it, not because she was asked to do it. It's not part of what we are,” Castiglioni explains. “You have to be comfortable, you don't want to look like a mannequin but be at ease with what you wear.”
With her low-key vibe, penchant for easy silhouettes and focus on daywear, it wouldn't feel right for Castiglioni to court starlets who want to make a statement and shine in the spotlight just for one night at a glamorous premiere.
“You can be sexy in your own personality, even covered up. It's not something I do on purpose when I design, it's who I am, my personal aesthetic. I always ask myself, ‘Would I wear it?' It's very personal. I want people to be at ease, not disguised,” says Castiglioni about her predilection for clothes that never scream sexy and fabulous.
“You never throw it away after a season. Each collection has a consistency. It's things that you can wear with stuff from previous seasons. You buy them because you like them and you'll stay in love with them. That's how I buy too. I don't like wasting stuff. Whatever I buy stays with me. It's an acquired taste.”
Marni's loyal following among real connoisseurs demonstrates that its quirky sensibility, its Milanbourgeoisie-meets-eccentric-London vibe and its voluminous – some would say unflattering – cuts can thrive even in the Italian fashion industry, which has turned the idea that sex sells into a kind of mantra. The label may be the odd kid in Milan, but looking at the mini stampede of Marni acolytes who flood the Hong Kong rooftop market as soon as the gates open it's clear that a new generation of intelligent and discerning girls has already embraced Castiglioni's nononsense and well-thought-out vision for a brand that makes its own rules.