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LO STILE AGNELLI

21 April, 2022.

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Gianni and Marella Agnelli sailing in the south of France 

They called him the last Italian monarch, and she was a Neapolitan princess. He loved fast living, his Agneta (a mahogany sailboat) and skiing in St Moritz. He was the grandson of the founder of Fiat, the epitome of the Italian car industry that he took over in 1966.  He lived a debauched life, obsessed with aesthetics and everything beautiful. He was always escaping boredom, in fact, he despised it so much that he would wake up in Turin, have lunch in Paris, and then fall asleep on his Agneta near the Mediterranean shores. And she yearned and yearned for him for five years, she once said, until 1953 when she became Signora. They called her the swan of Italy because of her long slender neck and her posture she always displayed proudly. She was a refined art collector, a botany lover and just like her husband, a lover of all that is beautiful. And they could afford beautiful. They are still written about; their photos still perused by those sentimental about these heralds of Italian style. In this instance, I see them as my own idols of style–Gianni and Marella Agnelli–the unofficial Italian royal family who were enthralled by style.

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Marella and Gianni in their garden in Corsica in the seventies, via Pinterest

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On one of their sailboats with the Kennedys, via Pinterest

If we want to portray the life of Gianni Agnelli, we should leave it to his friend Jean Pegozzi who once recounted an anecdote: Because of Gianni, I kept changing my phone number, he called me at all hours of the day. I remember once, when I was staying in my house in the south of France, he called me at the crack of dawn to ask me how the sea was. I said I had no idea, to which he said – Quickly, go and look. I told him it was calm, hung up on him and went back to bed. But before I managed to fall asleep, Gianni had already landed his helicopter near my house to tell me we were going sailing. Gianni Agnelli wasted no time. His acquaintances said that he always lived on the verge of death, sometimes behaving somewhat suicidally. Such a lifestyle caused him a serious car accident. He survived but for the rest of his life he had to wear a prosthetic on his right leg and specially made boots. But not even that prevented Agnelli from continuing to act the way he wanted.

 

He was known as L'Avoccato (The Lawyer), that is what everyone called him despite the fact that he never practiced law. He was friends with Henry Kissinger and the Kennedys. He had an active political life, loved sports (he was the owner of the Turin football club Juventus), and, indeed, was also a Turin captain who managed to cultivate a very particular style over the years. So particular that, due to a combination of his professional poise and debauchery, as well as his natural curiosity, he became an idol to many. The journalist Bruno Graziani summed it up best when he wrote that Gianni was molto amato, tanto imitato ma mai eguagliato, which is to say, much loved, much imitated, but never matched.

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Young Gianni Agnelli, via Pinterest 

L'Avocatto alwaysalwayswore shirts. He wore them on formal occasions, but also at his Fiat factory, and at the stadium where he cheered for his Juventus team. Even in his later years, when blazers were replaced by more comfortable sweaters, Gianni continued to display his shirt collar. Almost devoutly, he enjoyed the suits made for him by some of the most famous tailors around the world, from Milan to Naples, London and New York. His favourite was an ensemble of light grey flannel suits, all double-breasted, of course. However, the reason why the journalist Bruno wrote that everyone imitated L'Avocatto is certainly because of one of Gianni's more distinctive quirks that was borne from functionality rather than aesthetics. He noticed that the wristwatch crown rubs and eventually wears out the edges of the shirt so he reasoned that it was better to wear the wristwatch over the cuff. We believe him because Gianni had so many things to do in a day, that a quick look at the watch was necessary to get everything done in time. Gianni Agnelli made his style an emblem of cultivated, natural, almost spontaneous elegance.

 

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Gianni and his signature style: in a shirt and a watch over his cuff, via Pinterest

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Gianni on the track in St Moritz in 1976, via Pinterest

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Gianni on the cover of L'Uomo Vogue magazine, November 1975

Marella Caracciola di Castegneta was born into a Neapolitan noble family and was accustomed to an affluent lifestyle from early childhood. She graduated in Switzerland, but she also studied at the Académie des beaux-arts and then at the Académie Julian in Paris. At a very young age, she set off for New York where she worked as a model, and then – after eventually getting tired of posing – she got a job as an assistant to the famous photographer Erwin Blumenfeld. After returning to Italy, Vogue opened its doors for her and there she occasionally worked there as a photographer and fashion editor. She explored her artistic streak throughout her life, culminating in 1973 when she became a designer specializing in fabrics used in home interior design, which quickly made her internationally successful. 

Marella's beauty was a combination of antique and modern femininity: something between Audrey Hepburn and a queen from long ago, between America (her mother is of American origin) and Neapolitan nobility, between Mediterranean ingenuity and Savoyard sensibility, she merged the concept of enterprising femininity with the role of being a mother and wife. An avid gardener, Marella also designed the gardens at her homes in Turin and Marrakesh, Morocco. She was also a member of MoMA’s International Council in New York and Tate International Council in London. She designed all the green areas around her houses and published several books on her botanical achievements.

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Marella Agnelli in front of the lens of Ugo Mulas in Villa Boni, 1969, via Pinterest

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Marella in a Balenciaga dress, photo by Philippe Halsman, 1963, via Pinterest

She was slim, tall, and graceful, a bit reserved and always on the lookout for new ideas. Her refinement was an outcome of everything she did, everything she designed, and everything she wore. She is known as an elegant lady with genteel manners who wore fashion giants such as Balenciaga, Givenchy or Courreges. Her body type and her unique posture added to the garments she wore a sense of finesse, simplicity and a certain androgyny. Despite the formal clothes we see her wearing in the photos, she is relaxed and atypically feminine, eschewing a bodice and a plunging neckline, but also eschewing boredom. Her charm has been immortalized by many photographers, for example in the portrait taken by Arturo Gherh for Vogue in 1945, or the one by Richard Avedon in 1953, or by Erwen Blumenfeld in 1951. She was and remains the muse of many.

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Marella in her Fiat, photo by Henry Clarke, Vogue 1963, via Pinterest
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Marella and Gianni at the opening of the 1960 Summer Olympics, photo by Vittoriano Rastelli, via Pinterest

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Villa Perosa belonging to the Agnelli family in Turin and the garden designed by Marella

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Marella and Gianni, in 1986, photo by Laurent Sol, via Pinterest

Gianni Agnelli and Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto married in November 1953 at Osthoffen Castle in Strasbourg. It was one of the most important social events during the onset of the economic boom in post-war Italy. The two remained together until the end of their lives. Greatly successful, with two children and many grandchildren, they embodied the enlightened part of power: aristocracy and capitalism, the cult of beauty, culture and innovation, Made in Italy style and eccentricity that did not go beyond the measure of good taste. Enthralled with style and art, they created their own art collection, today known as Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli in Turin with over 400 works of art by great artists such as Renoir, Manet, Picasso, Freud, Gericault, Schifano and many other.

 

In the end, he had lived through 81 years of luxury, and she a ten more. It was a truly luxurious life, full of choice, experimentation and fulfilment of their elite dreams. Some will say that, with so many material possessions, a family pedigree and a motto “all is possible”, the Agnelli family found such a lifestyle easy to obtain. However, style is not necessarily about money, rather it is a matter of personal refinement. Gianni and Marella have left us, and today we witness their adventures in documentaries, interviews, books and a treasure trove of photos they had left behind. We can learn a lot from people who are enamoured with style, especially from these two who were the embodiment of Italian style and taste, which is eternal.

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