Ilaria Venturini Fendi turns trash into treasured handbags

Ilaria Venturini Fendi with bags from her Carmina Campus fashion project that produces bags from repurposed materials in Dallas.
(LM Otero / Associated Press)

As the daughter of one of the five Fendi sisters of the famed Italian brand, Ilaria Venturini Fendi found herself designing in the family firm but not feeling fulfilled. After leaving haute fashion for a life on an organic, sustainable farm near Rome, she felt the pull back to fashion design after a couple of years — but with an unconventional twist. She still has the farm, and in fashion she now specializes in upcycling — the repurposing of old or discarded objects into new, higher-valued items.

Her Carmina Campus (“chants of the field” in Latin) line of handbags and accessories, started in 2006, has used airplane cushions, marine rope, Venetian blinds, PVC flooring, bottle caps, garden umbrellas, truck tarpaulins, safari tents, shower curtains and more to create beautiful, exquisitely crafted bags that go for 195 to 890 euros (or about $254 to $1,151 at current exchange rates). The bags are sold at her Re(f)use boutique in Rome, which also carries green and upcycled work from designers and artisans, as well as in select boutiques around the world and on websites, and

Besides the bags made by Italian artisans, a small collection within the line is made in Kenya and Uganda by rural women — a project of which Fendi says she is particularly proud (and about which she recently spoke at the Rio+20 Conference on sustainability). It’s a joint collaboration with the United Nations’ International Trade Center and its Ethical Fashion Program, which develops work projects for women in marginalized African countries. She also has plans to procure the same collaborative business model in Haiti.


Image talked with her about the eco movement in fashion.

How would you describe the term “upcycling” in relation to fashion?

I like to think of it as an opportunity for something new in creativity. It is one of the possible new approaches to fashion, more in line with the changes now urgently needed in our economy. My way consists of employing already existing materials that for some reason are out of the production and consumption cycles: end-of-lines, defective goods or items which failed quality control standards, scraps of a size that no longer fits their intended use, vintage or out-of-production fabrics and so on — all kinds of materials no longer appropriate for their original utilization, or simply forgotten but still good to be used in a bag.

Would you say your company’s mission is to change the way people purchase fashion or view fashion — or both?

I think it will become ever more common for people to require more information about materials, design and production. Designers will be responsible from the idea at the base of an object’s creation all the way through its end. These are concepts that I take into consideration making Carmina Campus.

Is it possible to talk about “eco” fashion without the sacrifice of chic and style?

It’s a pity we still have to talk about “eco” fashion. If the whole industry took up different standards, such a distinction would not be needed. Today’s chic and style may be different tomorrow. If we take into consideration only precious materials, then a bag made out of reused stuff is not a luxury item and does not fit in traditional style standards. But if you also consider the research, high-quality manufacturing, the design and concept of that object and its uniqueness — my bags are one-of-a-kind — then you can have a new, still high and very personal style. It’s just a matter of looking differently at things. We should accept the idea that more ethics does not necessarily mean less aesthetics.


How have retailers and customers taken to the Carmina Campus concept?

We started as a niche company and are still small because big productions would be nonsense in such a project. But from the start we have been in the best international stores and boutiques, and we have [earned the loyalty of] our customers.

Of course, there are markets that are less ready to accept this change of attitude. But others have been very [receptive] from the beginning. In Japan, for example, we started working some years ago, and since then we have really gone very far.

Some people see luxury fashion as inherently wasteful — spending large sums of money on items that go out of season very quickly and are soon cast aside and replaced, in a seemingly unending cycle. How do you hope to alter this equation?

What is really different about Carmina Campus is that my bags are not necessarily seasonal. Before, I used to look for inspiration and then for the materials that could interpret my ideas. Now it’s the materials that inspire me to create collections. I work on styles and shapes that ... can [go] over several seasons. This is the approach that reflects the change I went through when I decided to leave for some time fashion, buy a piece of land and return to the slower rhythms of nature.

Even if my bags, at least those made in Italy, are not low-priced, I like to think that who buys them understands the concept and appreciates the research, design and manufacturing involved for an item that is not intended to last just one season. If you feel a piece is only yours, it should not become old in six months.

How would you describe “ethical” or “eco” shopping? Do you see this movement in fashion growing in scope or eventually trending out?

Of course, the actual modification of consumer behavior can be a committing task, especially now that we are experiencing a tough crisis. Habit can be the most [resistant] factor to change, and this can be true also about upcycling. But economic experts and those who study these phenomena think that fashion consumers are gradually modifying their buying attitudes. Consequently I believe fashion will increase its offerings, and there will be more space for new trends.