When Rome's 18th century artists put the final touches on the city's famous Trevi Fountain, they capped the Baroque monument with a dedication from the Renaissance-era Popes who commissioned it. The fountain, immortalized in the film La Dolce Vita, is about to undergo a $2.9 million renovation, but this time, the sponsor isn't a Pope, an Emperor or even the Italian government. It's the luxury-fashion firm Fendi. "This is a gesture to give back to the city that did so much for us," says Fendi CEO Pietro Beccari.
As Italy stumbles through political and financial crises, it is struggling to preserve its historical treasures. Since 2010, funding for archaeological maintenance has been slashed by 20%. Increasingly, help is pouring in from the nation's high-fashion firms, including Fendi, Tod's, Gucci and Prada. (See sidebar.) All these firms built their fortunes with the aid of Italy's reputation for beauty, elegance and craftsmanship. The upkeep of that reputation--which means the upkeep of the nation's priceless works of art and architecture--just seems like good brand management. "These companies see themselves as linked to the country's heritage," says Darius Arya of the American Institute for Roman Culture.
Tod's is drawing that link rather literally, by stamping its logo on tickets to the sinking, disintegrating Colosseum, though rumors that Tod's would plaster the monument with advertising did not prove true. Fendi won't be adding its double-F logo to Trevi's Corinthian pilasters; its donation will be marked for four years only by a small plaque near the fountain. Still, Beccari maintains that investing in one of the eternal city's landmarks burnishes his company's brand. "Customers don't only want to buy a product," he says. "They want to hear beautiful stories. Rome is a city that makes millions of people dream."
Those dreamers included the founders of Fendi, which began as a small fur workshop in central Rome in 1925. The company's bedrock line of Selleria handbags (which were given a fur makeover in Fendi's latest runway collection) took inspiration from the city's saddlemakers. Designer Silvia Venturini Fendi, a granddaughter of the founders, says the city's layers of Classical and Baroque architecture, exemplified by Trevi, provided the seed for the design of the Baguette handbag, one of Fendi's best-selling items. "The city is a constant source of inspiration," she says. "In Italy and especially in Rome, we can really touch the centuries." With a little luck and a lot of fashion-world largesse, those centuries won't soon crumble beneath our fingers.