An interview with Contessa Sibilla della Gherardesca

Della Gherardesca family is one of the oldest noble families in Florence

Helen Glave
June 14, 2007

It’s Pitti time again. For a brief period, Florence will rouse itself from its customary summer torpor to lay on a dazzling welcome for thousands of buyers and visitors who’ve come from all over the world to the legendary Florentine fashion event. Tension is mounting at the offices of Pitti Immagine, where a cool, business-like façade belies the frenetic activity within. At the helm of operations is the Contessa Sibilla della Gherardesca, who took some time off her punishing schedule to talk to us.

The della Gherardesca family is one of the oldest noble families in Florence. Countess Sibilla works in the fields of communication and fashion and currently directs the public relations office of Pitti Immagine. She has authored two books, one on business etiquette, Non si dice piacere, and the other, personal itineraries through the Tuscany she knows and loves so well, La mia Toscana.


Can you tell us something about the history of Pitti?


The real father of Italian fashion was the grand gentleman Giovanni Battista Giorgini. Back in 1951 he already had an export business, selling beautiful handcrafted articles to American department stores. He had a lot of American friends but, most of all, he had intuition.


He saw that although American women liked French fashions, now that they were going to work, they needed something less fussy, something more suitable for the workplace. There were no designers in those days, so he called together a few Italian tailors like Fabiani and Pucci and a few others to get some collections ready and he invited some American buyers to Florence for a fashion show. They put the show on in the drawing room of Giorgini’s house, the Villa Torrigiani, and the models were dressed by ladies of Florentine society, including my mother. It was all very homemade. There were about six buyers all squashed together on one sofa. Well, they got very excited when they saw the collections, and the story goes that the sofa leg broke and they all ended up lopsided! That’s how it started. Everybody was crazy about the new fashions. The next time, 300 buyers came and they had to move, first to the Grand Hotel and then to the Sala Bianca in Pitti Palace.


How has Pitti changed over the last 50 years?


We are continually changing. Our great strength is that we actually manage to forecast fashion ahead of everyone else. We are always travelling, studying, reading, attending every event, which enables us to monitor the pulse of fashion. So much so, that we were often ahead of the cutting edge. For example, several years ago, we used uniforms as our theme for a show at the Stazione Leopolda. The next week in Milan, there they were: uniforms! Gianfranco Ferré had them in his collection.


There is a fear that Pitti is on the move, that it will be held somewhere else.


I’ve been hearing that since I started in 1983, but it won’t happen. The show is growing. There are queues of visitors every year. There are lots of things going on. We’re the top men’s fashion fair in the world. Everybody says it!


Pitti would leave Florence only if we couldn’t hold it in the Fortezza da Basso or if the city no longer supported us. Florence is the perfect setting for Pitti. People want to come here. It’s a wonderful city, one of the most visited in the world, and we have a fantastic venue, a sixteenth-century building right in the centre of town, two minutes’ walk from the station. Where else can you have all that?


What exciting things are in store for this Pitti?


Well there’s going to be an extraordinary event by Diesel at Pitti Uomo, in what used to be the old Dogana, the Customs House, a huge, beautiful new space. They’ll be showing their entire world: men’s, women’s, accessories, everything.


One of Florence’s finest designers, Ermanno Scervino will have a grand event at his new premises, in the hills outside of Florence. Along with his men’s collection, on the runway will be the women’s 2008 Spring/Summer pre-collection.


And Ali Hewson, Bono’s wife, will be coming with the new fashion label, Edun.


Who do you think has made the biggest fashion statement over the last, say, 50 years?


Giorgio Armani. He got women to wear men’s styles in a feminine way. He came out with the structured jacket, a clean-cut look. His clothes are for women who go out into the world, for working women, modern women. In fact, it was through Pitti that Giorgio Armani ‘connected’ with his now-famous light and designing collaborator, Bob Wilson.


You wrote a book called Non si dice piacere. So tell us, instead of piacere, what should you say when you meet someone?


Simply ‘How do you do?’, as in English. ‘Buon giorno, come sta?’


And instead of buon appetito?


There’s no need to say anything. Just smile.


You come from a great noble Florentine family. Can you tell us something about that?


First of all, when I tell people that my family goes back to around the year 800, they can’t believe it. I have to clarify that we don’t go back 800 years, but like 1,200 years!! We were given our title and our coat of arms by the German emperor. I was brought up with a very strong sense of our history, but it all felt quite normal to me. I don’t consider myself special in any way.


What achievement are you most proud of?


Well, I’ve done lots of charity events which have been very successful. But for me the best one of all was a dinner in the Palazzo Corsini with Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, for her charity ‘Children in Crisis’. Twelve hundred people came from all over Italy for a sit-down dinner. The atmosphere and success of the fundraising was magnificent.

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