How the fashion industry is rebuilding Rome

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “How the fashion industry is rebuilding Rome” was written by Eva Wiseman, for The Observer on Sunday 13th November 2016 07.00 UTC

In July, Kendall Jenner walked across a glass-topped Trevi Fountain in a blue astrakhan coat with full swing skirt. Fendi had hired private jets to fly guests from the couture shows in Paris straight to Rome, where the label had recently invested €2.5m into the fountain’s 18-month rehab. “It will go down,” wrote Nicole Phelps in Vogue, “as one of the most majestic show venues ever.”

Three months later I’m pushing politely through thousands of American tourists to see the renovated fountain for myself. People lean in with waterproof selfie sticks, queuing for a chance to grin beside the gleaming horses. Visitors throw in almost €3,000 a day. During its renovation, the water was drained from the fountain, but a small basin was set up so tourists wouldn’t miss out on any potential luck.

“The city is part of our creative heritage,” said Silvia Venturini Fendi, third-generation member of the family fashion house. “It’s like an open-air museum where inspiration can come from anywhere.” Fendi is not the only fashion house investing in Italy’s monuments: Bulgari has donated €1.5m to restore the Spanish Steps, and Tod’s, of loafer fame, has put up €25m to repair the Colosseum.

In the pink: the opening ceremony of the Spanish Steps after the restoration work financed by Bulgari.
In the pink … the opening ceremony of the Spanish Steps after the restoration work financed by Bulgari. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

It seems apt that this city, its story so tightly wound with ideas of luxury and taste, can be propped up by fashion brands in a way that, say, London can’t. The idea of Topshop sponsoring a clean-up of Nelson’s Column is almost unthinkable.

It’s a short walk from the Fountain to the Steps, the air warm and thick with the smell of candied peanuts and drains. On the way, I meet a woman briskly directing her young daughter through the dawdling tourists. Marta has lived in Rome all her life, and watched the renovations with some suspicion. “Oh, they’re beautiful,” she says, “but they’re not for us.”

Preserving Italy’s landmarks is crucial for the businesses whose heritages are invested in it. “The Spanish Steps are at the heart of our history,” explained Lucia Silvestri, creative director of Bulgari. ‘‘They’re between Via Sistina, where Sotirio Bulgari opened in 1884, and our flagship in Via dei Condotti.” But what their investment says to locals, believes Marta and her friends, is that the government can’t be relied upon to protect their monuments, let alone improve their transport system or police the streets. “And even when it looks like something is changing to improve Rome” – meaning the place her child goes to school, rather than “Rome”, the place of honeymoons and prosecco – she adds, “the red tape means it takes forever.”

Monumental achievement: renovation of the Colosseum in Rome.
Monumental achievement: renovation of the Colosseum in Rome. Photograph: Sigurcamp/Getty Images

The Spanish Steps were unveiled at the end of September, just before Bulgari’s accessories presentation in Milan. The project involved more than 80 restorers, who repaired the 32,300 sq ft of travertine stone. In the bright autumn light, they gleam grey-white between the tired legs of slumped, lunching tourists, despite Mayor Virginia Raggi having ordered police to stop people “loitering”.

Following their restoration, Paolo Bulgari (chairman of the jewellery house) told La Repubblica that their restorers had removed coffee, wine, chewing gum, “but now I am worried. If we don’t set strict rules, the steps will go back to being used as a camping site for barbarians.” A Plexiglas barrier, he said to waves of controversy, “doesn’t seem like an impossible task”. Perhaps, I wonder, as I climb the steps and look out on the selfie-stick sellers and tourists kissing, it’s the inevitable consequence of luxury brands taking over a city. The introduction of VIP areas.

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