A lighthouse with a view. Interview with designer Gherardo Felloni

by Michele Fossi

ABOUT SEVEN YEARS AGO, THE SHOE DESIGNER AND NOW ROGER VIVIER’S ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, GHERARDO FELLONI, STARTED LOOKING FOR A GOOD PLACE HE COULD RETIRE TO IN ORDER TO CULTIVATE THE LAND, CONTEMPLATE THE SEA AND CREATE FASHION. IN HIS IMAGINATION, HE YEARNED FOR SOMETHING RESEMBLING A CASTLE. IN 2014, HE UNEXPECTEDLY STUMBLED UPON THE VACCARECCE LIGHTHOUSE ON GIGLIO ISLAND. “THAT STONE HOUSE IN RUINS CERTAINLY WASN’T A CASTLE. BUT WITH THE ELONGATED LIGHTHOUSE TOWER, IT COULD PASS FOR ONE. THIS WAS ALSO CORROBORATED BY THE LARGE STONES OF THE FACADE AND ITS LOCATION ON TOP OF A HILL. I FINALLY MADE UP MY MIND AND DECIDED TO BUY IT”. IN THE YEARS TO COME, DURING HIS SHORT STAYS, HE WOULD FURNISH IT “AS YOU WOULD FURNISH A PLACE WHERE YOU’D EVENTUALLY PLAN TO STAY FOR A LONG TIME”, STRUGGLING TO BRING DESIGN OBJECTS THAT HAD BEEN BOUGHT AT AUCTIONS: HUGE LIBERTY MIR- RORS; GREEN VELVET OSVALDO BORSA ARMCHAIRS AND OTHER LUIGI CACCIA DOMINIONI ONES MADE OF MAHOGANY AND BLACK LEATHER; ASHWOOD MACKINTOSH TABLE AND CHAIRS; MURANO CRYSTAL CHANDELIERS BY VENINI. FOR THE BEDROOM, HE HAD BOUGHT A GIÒ PONTI DESIGNER BED MADE OF WOOD, INCLUDING SHELVES AND BEDSIDE TABLES, TOGETHER WITH OTHER BRASS BEDS BY POMODORO.

M.F. — It’s a very clear day here on Giglio island, Gherardo. From the top of the lighthouse, you can see all the islands of the archipelago: Elba, Montecristo, Giannutri. Which one is that one down there?

G.F.—ThatoneisPianosa.Theisland’shistoryhasbeenforged by its use as a prison. Pianosa has been largely uninhabited since the prison was closed in 1998 because the guards, their families and the few civilians who lived there also left the island together with the prisoners. Cala Giovanna, the only crescent- shaped sandbank on the island, is surrounded by an imposing wall that offers a view of the sea with its spectacular colours. It was built in lead during the years when gangsters and terrorists were housed in Pianosa’s high-security prison.

M.F. — Then there is the enchanting and inaccessible Montecristo, immortalised by Alexandre Dumas in “The Count of Montecristo”.

G.F. — According to legend, the name Montecristo originates from Saint Massimiliano who, after being enslaved and taken prisoner, managed to escape and take refuge in a cave, which is known today as Grotta del Santo or Grotta di San Massimiliano. He renamed the island “Mons Christi” during his abiding solitude. The legend also describes Mamiliano’s killing of a terrible winged dragon, guardian of the island, from whose death a spring of pure water is said to have sprung. The cult of St. Massimiliano is deeply-felt throughout the Tuscan Archipelago; in Marina di Campo, on the island of Elba, there is a church dedicated to the saint whose feast is celebrated on 15th September every year.

M.F. — Lastly, Elba. Napoleon, until then the Emperor of Europe, was forced to abdicate from the French throne in 1814 and was sent into exile after the bloody Battle of Leipzig and the Treaty of Fontainebleau.

G.F. — Contrary to what most people think, Napoleon was not “imprisoned” on Elba. He chose the island as his place of exile and, during his reign, he brought about more changes than any other leader. For the first time, after years of battles and after having to move from one place to another, Napoleon Bonaparte was forced to come to a stop and govern a single small territory. Its inhabitants would remember him forever: for the first time in centuries, the Island of Elba was united under one flag (the only time, in fact, that it was united: today it is still divided into 8 communes).

M.F. — We are faced with a land of famous exiles and isolation, both voluntary and forced. Last year, you also spent a few months of forced exile here on Giglio.

G.F. — Oh, yes. I left Paris at the beginning of March 2020, thinking I was going to spend a weekend and I ended up staying here for months during the national lockdown, without knowing when I would be able to get back. Surprisingly, it was a very enriching experience. The island offers a privileged observational point upon those social dynamics that are then found on a much greater scale. For example, the fear “towards who comes from the outside world”, xenophobia, typical of small islands which, with the migrant crisis today, is also scrutinised on a continental scale.

M.F. — How does your day at the lighthouse begin?

G.F. — Early in the morning, I go down to the garden to take care of my lemon trees and other plants. It must be because I grew up in the countryside around Arezzo, but I need direct contact with the earth in order to feel fully happy: I enjoy tilling the soil, nourishing it and planting. Surprisingly enough, I even managed to cultivate this passion in Paris: more or less ten years ago, I bought a house that included a little piece of land.

M.F. — During our last meeting at the lighthouse, shortly after the pandemic started, you had defined the pandemic as being “the very first critical moment the West has seen since the War” and you were certain about the fact that it would have ended up transforming us, and relatively quickly as well, into better citizens of the world.

G.F. — I still think that. My generation, similarly to our parents’ one, have never lived through traumatic collective events, as opposed to our grandparents’ generation during the Great Wars. The pandemic came as a shock to everyone. Some people made the most out of this dire situation to make a positive change in their lives.

M.F. — You can read everywhere about the ‘Great Resignation’ phenomenon: millions of people in the world have found the courage to quit jobs they didn’t love, throwing themselves into uncertainty. How has your relationship with your job changed?

G.F. — Fewer and fewer people are willing to do something they don’t enjoy. Which, in the grand scheme of things, I think is something positive. The lucky ones like myself, who are passionate about their work, took the opportunity to rid themselves of the most toxic aspects or what made less sense. The unluckier ones, who don’t love what they do, are less willing to dedicate a lot of time to their work. I’m sure these macro-tendencies will soon shape the way our industry works, similarly to other economic sectors. The pandemic left us with a strange feeling about our perception of time, revealing just how relative it is.

M.F. — What do you mean?

G.F. — For some people, time-stretched, but for others like myself, it shrank. Before the pandemic, I was used to fast-paced days, based on hourly tasks. By the end of the day, I had the feeling of having lived through a long day because it had

been filled up with work commitments. During the lockdown, when I had so much time on my hands, paradoxically, my days felt much shorter. Strange, right?

M.F. — Murakami has written: “Time expands, then contracts, all in tune with the stirrings of the heart”.

ALTHOUGH WE READ EVERYWHERE THAT THE WORLD

IS GOING EVER FASTER, I FEEL LIKE THE MAJORITY OF CHANGES THAT ARE OCCURRING IN OUR SOCIETY ARE ACTUALLY HAPPENING AT A VERY SLOW PACE.
WE LIVE IN A SOCIETY THAT TENDS TO PRESERVE BEFORE BEING OUSTED BY THE COURSE OF HISTORY

G.F.— many of our most ingrained habits go through dying states that can be exhausting. The pandemic has been like a great fire that has burnt down a lot of dry branches, leaving space for new growth.

M.F. — It’s a common opinion that the pandemic would have accelerated the process of giving value to the truth, to authenticity, something that has roots in the spread of social media, at the expense of fake news.

G.F. — Whoever has spread fake news will disappear. Communication will change: uninteresting things don’t interest anymore and are on their way out when it comes to companies adopting new communication strategies that today actually focus more on preferential values like heritage and authenticity. Almost two years since the beginning of this crisis, Roger Vivier showed their resilient spirit: in 2021, they managed to surpass their 2019 income, almost making up for all their losses from 2020.

M.F. — What wind of change do you think we’ll find blowing on runways in a post-pandemic era?

G.F. — In marketing, when it comes to the final consumer behaviour, like in editorial offices, a new air of lightness and escapism can be found, wanting to enjoy fashion as if it was a joyous form of entertainment. The deadly boredom of little beige shoes has ended: fashion will become a dream again. It’s a feeling that can be reflected in the focus and centrality that has recently been given to high fashion as never before: not only it’s widely spoken about but, compared to the past, even people who are not involved in the sector are focusing on the eccentricity and exclusivity of the products that have inspired them. As so often happens once a war is over, there is more joie de vivre, hope: although never, in the same way, history always repeats itself.

M.F. — What effects will remote working have on the fashion industry?

G.F. — It will push a lot of industry professionals to leave the big metropolis behind in favour of smaller towns. Far away from bustling cities, not only does the quality of life improve, but we find that human interactions are less construed and rather pleasantly transversal.

While in big cities we tend to mingle with people similar to us, who live in our same social “bubble”, in smaller towns you can find yourself having long and profitable discussions even with people who come from a different social background, different culture and who have varied life experiences. And you come out of that invariably enriched.

M.F. — In “The Life of Things, the Love of Things”, a book by Remo Bodei, the Italian philosopher follows the distinction between objects and things, where ‘things’ are those we are sentimentally attached to, while ‘objects’ are simply a contraposition to subjects.

G.F. — Some objects—which Bodei calls ‘cose’— have a special emotional value, almost as if they were drenched in a special substance made of dreams and memories, that makes them magical. There are objects that remind you of what you used to be and therefore what you dreamed of becoming. Instead, others are there to symbolise the special relationship with certain places and certain people. Others remind you of that aesthetic you feel as yours and, by having them next to you, you remember who you are. The same goes for clothes; what we wear reminds us of ourselves, our emotional state.

M.F. — Clothes are the first things about ourselves that we show to the world.

G.F. — The objects that we surround ourselves with are a way of telling others a story about who we are. In an almost unconscious manner, when we walk into somebody’s home, we start having a clearer idea about who this person is. In my eyes, if someone’s fashion sense or house furniture is sloppy, it shows how they’re closed towards others, they lack generosity.

M.F. — Please lead us through the discovery of some special objects you brought with you to the lighthouse.

G.F. — One of my favourite objects is a table commissioned by Duccio Maria Gambi, a designer from Florence I’d collaborated with in the past. It’s a table made of ‘pietra serena’, a material typical of Tuscan architecture, but adapted in a very contemporary way with yellow lacquered metallic supports. In the lighthouse, I also have various Chinese rugs from the 1920s. They’re beautiful rare objects with floral motifs, both mono- and multi-coloured, in a style between art deco and Chinese tradition, which were only produced between the 1910s and 1930s. I have brought here some of my furniture collection bought at auctions that used to be kept in my apartment in Naples.

M.F. — And these beautiful chandeliers on the ceiling?

G.F. — They’re chandeliers by Venini from the 60s and 70s and made with Murano crystal. I wanted them quite big because, as you can see, the lighthouse’s vaulted ceilings are particularly high. There are several of them around the house, a couple also above the Duccio Maria Tondi table.

M.F. — What did you bring in the meagre suitcase that you’d brought to the lighthouse before the first pandemic—which was small because you hadn’t realised you were going to be stuck there for months?

G.F. — The pair of black trousers I adore and white shirts: the pieces of clothing that define my “uniform” for most of the year and that I really can’t live without. And three pieces from my collection of antique jewellery—my other big passion, together with design, shoes, opera and cinema—I’m particularly fond of: an onyx cameo with Hercules’ profile, framed by two gold snakes, and two brooches en tremblant made of diamonds. A providential sixth sense made me put them in my suitcase at the last minute. During those days in isolation at the lighthouse, they kept me company.

M.F. — Was it always your dream to become a fashion designer?

G.F. — On the contrary, I dreamed of becoming something completely different, like an opera singer or an actor. I studied both singing and acting for a long time. Then I went through a phase of wanting to become an architect. But, in the end, the imprinting that I’d received from a young age prevailed. I was born into a family of shoemakers from Arezzo. My uncle, who was 15 years older than my father, founded a shoe factory in 1958, which my dad took over when my uncle retired. Over the years, they had gained a certain fame and they started creating shoe samples for the biggest names in fashion, from Hermès to Prada and Gucci. As a child, whether I liked it or not, I grew up amongst shoes. Together with the pattern makers in the factory, I learnt how to cut leather and play with moulds and shapes. A subconscious memory that then came back to me all at once when I was eighteen.

M.F. — What happened afterwards?

G.F. — I liked drawing and painting. To make some money, I started an internship in a style department where my main task was to show off the designs. I didn’t really like studying. That internship was my very first experience in the fashion world and it was a very important start-off. It made me understand that I belonged to that world. I was a gay guy who had lived in a limbo in a small town until then and I still wasn’t sure what world I belonged to. During the internship, I suddenly found myself surrounded by similar people in terms of sensitivity, humour and way of seeing the world. I had found my home and I have never left it since.

M.F. — And the opera?

G.F. — It suddenly came back into my life a couple of years ago, when I least expected it. One day, I went to eat a pizza and I suddenly bumped into a friend, who says: “If you want, I’ll introduce you to Moroder”. I must admit that at that moment I hadn’t quite realised just how big he was and that most songs I liked were actually his.

WHEN I EVENTUALLY MET HIM AND HE FOUND OUT I’D STUDIED TO BECOME A TENOR, HE UNEXPECTEDLY SAID: “I HAVE A NEW SONG THAT I PROPOSED TO DONNA SUMMER AND ALSO BOCELLI BUT IN VAIN, NOBODY WANTS IT. DO YOU WANT TO TRY TO SING IT? AND THEN, SHORTLY AFTERWARDS, I FOUND MYSELF IN A MUSIC STUDIO WITH MORODER.

Nothing really came out of it—not long after that, the new album where he collaborated with Daft Punk came out and Moroder was probably sucked into the vortex of its extraordinary success. Nonetheless, that experience was unforgettable for meandwehadalotoffun.

M.F. — Recently, you wrote and interpreted a song called “Flooded”, which was used as the soundtrack for Roger Vivier’s campaign with Isabella Rossellini. Amongst your many talents, together with singing, you’re also a songwriter?

G.F. — Yes, I really like writing songs. “Flooded” is a song written purposely for the campaign, written by myself and the musician, Dario Tatoli. We’re working together on another five tracks, which will come out under the name “Wuthering Cats”.

M.F. — Why this title?

G.F. — The title refers to a “flooded” reality, from which you need to find the strength to come out. The song is about a young boy who grows up in solitude while being in adoration of the icon, Isabella Rossellini; it’s a final analysis about the power that icons can have, fascinating characters that you don’t personally know and who, in spite of that, you admire, who are capable of making you not only dream but also grow, transporting your daily life into another world. The song is an invitation to ‘live yourself’ despite reality. Be yourself tonight, be yourself in your flooded land. If only for one night, you can decide for yourself in your “flooded” reality, from which you long to emerge. The song’s protagonist enters a dream world where he can magically meet his icon. As you might have imagined, there’s an autobiographical element here. In my case, reality and dreams merged during the shooting of the song’s video when, after so many years, I could finally squeeze my icon’s hand.

By Michele Fossi

Published in DUST Issue 20, Fundamentally Human – Life beyond the algorithm

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